Syrian blogger arrested. No reason given

Syrian blogger Ali Sayed al-Shihabi has been arrested by the countrys security forces without explanation.

The 50 year old teacher has not been seen since he was summoned to a meeting with security agents in Damascus on 10th August. On 12th August his wife tried to find out what was going on and was told that he was being held at the State Security centre at Kafr Soussa, Damascus, but that she could not see him.

No explanation has been given for either the summons or the detention. He has not been charged with any offence but his arrest is believed to be linked to articles hes written for websites such as Hiwar al-Mutamedn (‘Civilised Dialogue’). He also has had two books published in Syria on social affairs.

Ali Sayed al-Shihabi is a former prisoner of conscience, detained between 1982 and 1991 for his membership of the outlawed Party for Communist Action (PCA), which he has since left.

Syria has a history of persecuting bloggers and Shihabis arrest has sparked fears that President Assads government is seeking to clamp down on freedom of speech on the internet.

The radical root of the Muhammed protests

One of the most rewarding parts of running a blog such as this is when, after months of obsessively hammering on and on about some issue, the mainstream press finally catches up. It would be nice if they did a bit of fact checking, but you cant have everything, I suppose.

In December, a group of Danish Muslims travelled to a meeting of Muslim leaders in Mecca with a 43 page document that included not only the Jyllands Posten cartoons but an additional three, deliberately abusive, cartoons which had never been published - or seen before - and which they claimed had been sent to individual Muslims, although they have been so far unable to say who received them.

According to The Independent, they have changed their story slightly and are now claiming that these extra pictures had been faxed to Muslim groups, although this still leaves open the question of why the alleged recipients of these cartoons didnt see fit to pass the fax numbers on to any of the Danish authorities. It also, of course, leaves them having to explain this.

The meeting in Islams holiest city appears to have been a catalyst for turning local anger at the images into a matter of public, and often violent, protest in Muslim nations. It also persuaded countries such as Syria and Iran to give media exposure to the cartoon controversy in their state-controlled press.

Muhammed El Sayed Said, the deputy director of the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, an independent studies centre, said the Mecca meeting was a turning point in internationalising the cartoons issue. Things started to get really bad once the Islamic conference picked it up, he said. Iran and Syria contributed to fomenting reaction. It came to the point where everyone had to score a point to be seen as championing the cause of Islam.

According to Sari Hanafi, an associate professor at the American University in Beirut, the cartoons had provided Arab governments under pressure from the West for democratic reforms with an opportunity to hit back in the public opinion stakes.

[Demonstrations] started as a visceral reaction - of course they were offended - and then you had regimes taking advantage saying, Look this is the democracy theyre talking about, he told The New York Times.

The Danish radicals stayed in the Arab world for a month and are now trying to duck any responsibility for their actions. According to Ahmed Abu Laban, a radical cleric and leading critic of the cartoons in Denmark:

We are not professional enough to know what would be the response of media, nor the interest of politicians there.

Wikipedia now has a the full 43 pager dossier online. With translations. (via Blogerheads)

Ive posted a timeline of events once before but it is worth repeating, so here it is again

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Riots by royal decree

Over the weekend, I linked to Aqouls suggestion that, for the riots and embassy bunings in Damascas to have gone ahead, the Syrian authorities must have, at least turned a blind eye if not actually encouraged the protestors.

Today, The Independent confirms it.

Syrian protesters who burnt and looted the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus at the weekend were encouraged to organise by the Syrian authorities, and received text messages from Islamic study centres urging them to gather, according to participants in the riot.

The sheikhs told us to send five text messages to every true Muslim we knew urging them to participate, said a student from the conservative Abu Nour Islamic Institute in Damascus, who wished to remain anonymous. The authorities gave a green light for us to organise the gathering in public and to participate in it.

The report goes on to suggest that the anger - which was whipped up by a group of Danish Muslim Leaders and Imams back in January - has been exploited by some Muslim countries to settle scores with Western powers.

Syria and Iran face growing pressure from the US and Europe on the issues of Iraq and on Tehrans nuclear programme. And Egypt, one of the first to publicly criticise the cartoons, has been critical of the Danish government for funding critics of human rights abuses.

This is an organised attempt to take advantage of Muslim anger for purposes that do not serve the interests of Muslims and Lebanon, but those of others beyond the border, Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad, a Christian, said yesterday after riots in Beirut.

Elsewhere, Iraqs Transport Ministry has frozen contracts with Denmark and Norway.

Holy Shit

The BBC is reporting that Syrians have set fire to the Norwegian and Danish embassies in Damascus to protest at the publication of the Jyllands Posten Muhammad cartoons.

Protesters stormed the Danish site amid chants of God is great, before moving on to attack the Norwegian mission.

Police fired tear gas to try to disperse crowds at the second site, but protesters broke in and set it ablaze.

The twelve cartoons were originally published back in September and the Islamic world has been getting increasingly outraged after a group of Danish Muslim leaders and imams took a 43 page report to the Middle East to “explain” how offensive the cartoons are in January.

This report included 15 cartoons. In addition to the ones published by Jyllands Posten, the Danish Muslim leaders added three more of their own making depicting Muhammed as a paedophile demon, with the snout of a pig, and being sodomised by a dog. Not surprisingly, they have managed to whip up the storm they were seeking.

According to the Beeb:

Syrians have been staging sit-ins outside the Danish embassy since the row intensified earlier this week, when Damascus recalled its ambassador.

On Saturday, hundreds hurled stones and stormed the Danish site, before moving to the Norwegian embassy.

With our blood and souls we defend you, O Prophet of God, they chanted outside the Danish building, which also houses the Swedish and Chilean missions.

Some removed the Danish flag and replaced it with another reading: There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.

The embassy was closed, but it was not immediately clear if it was empty when the protests started.

Thick, black smoke rose from the building as firefighters struggled to put out the flames.

Ambulances rushed to the scene and dozens of policemen stood guard.

Not surprisingly, Copenhagen has called on all Danes to leave Syria immediately.

Update (23:31): According to Spiegel, the protestors were last seen heading in the direction of the French embassy.