Good intentions are not enough in the uproar over cartoons of Muhammad: The mainstream Islamic mindset has proved inscrutable
The through-the-looking glass controversy over Danish editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad is, of course, about much more than cartoons or Muhammad: It’s a cultural Sept. 11-style strike against the values and institutions of the West.
Just as the 2001 attacks represented more than 19 criminals hijacking four airliners, this latest clash between democratic values and religious fundamentalism is an orchestrated ambush on an unsuspecting target unaware of the scope of the attack until it had already unfolded.
To many, the notion that a cartoon could provoke global riots, dozens of deaths, a $1 million assassination contract and vacillation among Western leaders seems like an abstract fantasy, a trip down the rabbit hole into a theater of the absurd.
But that perspective remains precisely what these protesters have attacked: the rejection of the idea that it’s justified — or even rational — to kill people over their speech, particularly a statement as trifling as a cartoon.
The purple elephant in the middle of this crossfire is the contemporary notion — or, more accurately, the Western one — that the values of most Islamic societies have modernized along with the rest of the world.
The unraveling of the Iron Curtain revealed former enemies who, despite cultural differences, retained essentially the same values: a passion for freedom, mutual respect and at least a capacity to coexist with dissimilar viewpoints.
But the unexpected commonality between those nations could not have been brought into sharper focus than by the rise of global Islamic fundamentalism.
The West has naively greeted this scorpion with its Cold War handshake, believing that the virtues of peace and democracy appear self-evident; as if good intentions, by definition, will be good enough. But even the mainstream Islamic mindset has proven inscrutable to the West in a way that communism was mythologized to be but never truly was.
To many Islamic nations, freedom is not a tonic, but a toxin; it’s regarded not just as something that permits a challenge to faith, but is a challenge to faith by itself.
To Westerners, the value of concepts like truth, life and liberty remains constant, writ in stone, whether our best efforts successfully earn that value or not. But many Westerners like myself watch events unfold in the Islamic world with the inching realization that the value it places on those concepts remains utterly fluid, seemingly shaped by convenience and circumstance.
Even reason itself appears subject to sacrifice; some of the most cognitively dissonant images to come out of the controversy are protest signs with messages like, “Behead those who say Islam is violent.”
And without any trace of irony, the Muslim world has risen up against these relatively insignificant cartoons after decades of portraying Jews as one evolutionary step removed from a blood virus, with images worse than even those conceived by the Nazis.
Even the protests themselves did not ignite until four dormant months after the cartoons first appeared, when the government of Saudi Arabia unexpectedly announced a boycott of all products from Denmark over the conduct of a single Danish newspaper.
Muslim protesters suddenly overlooked the hundreds of Hajj pilgrims trampled to death in January, along with the more than 1,000 Muslims who drowned in the Red Sea returning from Mecca earlier this month, when their ship sank after leaving a Saudi port.
A westerner had depicted a graven image of Mohammad, and an apology — however undeserved — would be a shallow substitute for blood. It doesn’t matter that, thus far, the blood has been all Muslim; and it doesn’t matter that the same cartoons had also been published, back in October, by a newspaper in Egypt.
The Saudi government, of course, like many people, understands these contradictions perfectly; they’re just not that important to it.
Western leaders, meanwhile, intimidated by the prospect of provoking fanatics, have urged an end to the violence only by offering weak-kneed solidarity with the underlying sentiment behind the protests.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan even went so far as to say that freedom of speech does not include the right to offend religious beliefs — a statement equally distressing either in its inability to fathom the basic nature of freedom or in its craven appeasement of brutality.
But the press has also begun to reshape its principles under the persistence of a thousand cuts. When novelist Salman Rushdie authored The Satanic Verses back in 1988, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran put a $1 million bounty on his head. Time magazine, reporting the story on its cover, announced, “The Ayatollah Orders a Hit,” accurately observing that Islamic fundamentalism had reduced itself to the level of a Mafia crime lord.
And yet, when a Pakistani cleric placed a $1 million contract on the life of the Danish cartoonist, Time ran a cover story on U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting accident from a week and a half ago.
We have become so inured to the transgressions of religious fundamentalism that its conduct no longer shocks our consciences. We have begun to sacrifice the delicate craftwork of our ideals to the blunt unreality that appeasing a single incident of cultural aggression will somehow pacify the underlying hostility that incited it.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in New York City. I personally witnessed the Twin Towers burn, breathed the smoke from the fires that blanketed Manhattan for the next three weeks and wandered among the smiling ghosts staring out from photocopy paper taped to every fence in the city by family members hopelessly searching for their loved ones.
But even then, it was clear to me that this had been an attack not on these people, or the buildings, or against New York or even America. This had been an attack against the values of modern civilization.
Nations of the West, regardless of their specific religions, all worship at the temple of democracy. An attempt to silence freedom of speech at the edge of a machete is not a misunderstanding; it is a decision to coerce Western civilization into surrendering its values to the mob of religious intolerance.
For those who cannot widen their perspective on this, consider this: Judging by how the protests have already escalated beyond anyone’s imagining, where will they go from here? Do you anticipate that, having been empowered by Muslim governments and emboldened by the tremors in Western resolve, protesters’ hostility toward democratic freedoms will get better, or worse?
Those who want to unmake such freedoms now stand at the temple doors, with torches in their fists; it’s high time for the congregates to start defending the faith.
The writer is a former Los Angeles Times editor now teaching media and law at the University of New York in Prague.