07 February 2006

The Anti-Islamic Cartoon Incident

A cartoon has set off a global firestorm of protest. Or, has it?

There are hundreds of millions, if not more than a billion Muslims in the world. The vast majority of Muslims aren't stupid. They know that the world is a big place and that it is full of offensive and even expressly anti-Islamic expressions. Most major Middle Eastern cities are full of satellite dishes pulling in content that the people watching it could be flogged for if caught. While Islamic practice isn't so strict everywhere, much of Arabia and North Africa is living the schizophrenic life of Prohibition era America.

One need look no further than the President's State of the Union address to find statements that, given their context and serious character, ought to be a far greater concern to Muslims everywhere.

Abroad, our nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal -- we seek the end of tyranny in our world. . . . . one of the main sources of reaction and opposition is radical Islam . . . . By allowing radical Islam to work its will -- by leaving an assaulted world to fend for itself -- we would signal to all that we no longer believe in our own ideals, or even in our own courage. But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil.

So, why should a little one square editorial cartoon in a Danish paper (maybe there are a dozen of them, it really doesn't matter), half way around the world from Lebanon, where protests turned violent and Christians were attacked, be so volatile? Its sentiment is little different from that expressed in the State of the Union address, and editorial cartoonists are far less able to impose their prejudices on the world than Presidents? And why should that little cartoon provoke a reaction so long after it is published?

What happened in Lebanon and in other places, was not the grass roots outrage exhibited by Muslims in Europe with hand drawn signs at peaceful protests, shortly after the cartoon was published. The cartoon was just an excuse to rally people against the West. If it were not this excuse, it would have been another.

There is nothing particularly Islamic about this tactic. Brian Riedl, at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who ought to know better, does the same thing when, claiming that money can be cut from the $2,700,000,000,000 federal budget, complains about $73,950 spent by Air Force and Navy personnel, over eighteen months, in violation of the law, on government credit cards, on exotic dance clubs and prostitutes.

If it had not been this cartoon, there would have been a rally about the fact that a professor at some community college in Luxembourg requires his students to read books by Salman Rushdie, or that a woman in Florida was required to remove her veil for a driver's license photograph. Or, that some small town museum in Italy put on display some anti-Islamic church decree in its exhibit of objects from the Crusades. Or, that the Church of England failed to discipline a rector for stating in a homily in small Southern England village that suicide bombers are dupes because Muslims will not receive salvation because they are not Christians. Finding an excuse to hold a rally or protest is child's play. The Danish editorial cartoon writer didn't do anything deeply wrong here. He is merely a scapegoat.

The context is that organizers, probably based in Saudi Arabia, are actively planning and organizing rallies of outrage against the West designed to convey starkly the point that the West doesn't adhere to Islamic principles, which, of course, is entirely true, and by association, to get across the point that being Western is a bad idea. But, this activity, in places like Lebanon, is about as spontaneous as a high school pep rally, or a revival meeting. It is scheduled, planned, orchestrated and designed to get people fired up for the cause. Sometimes, the rally will get out of hand and people will get hurt, as they did in this case. More often, it will go unnoticed by the foreign press. It happened not, primarily, because some editorial cartoonist in Denmark is a jerk, but because some political-religious organizer in Lebanon, very likely funded by someone outside that country all together, is good at getting crowds fired up and bad at crowd control.

The guy who organized the rally, moreover, got his cue from some pissed off minor diplomat trying to score points with the conservative religious political base at home who issued a press release demanding that Denmark take action and criticizing it for failing to do so, when he knew full well that the Danish government had no legal authority to do so given its protections of free speech. The Saudi Arabian press used the incident to distract attention away from its failures to prevent a deadly stampede at home. The story was on the front page of all the Saudi Arabian papers for four straight days at the height of its religious tourist season. American diplomats play the same kinds of stunts from time to time when stationed with some country whom the current administration doesn't like or care about very much.

There is deep anti-Western sentiment in much of the Islamic world. Westernization means a total upheaval of local culture and life styles and elites. If society changes, the new elites will not be the same as the old ones. Islamists seem to be the only people who give a shit about stopping that, and so anyone who is scared of change (and really, who isn't, is a Detroit autoworker concerned about Japanese imports, because he correctly determines that they will cost him his job, any different) is rushing into their arms. The solution is not to clamp down on newspaper editorials, or to assume that Muslims are so dramatically different, deep down, from Americans or Canadians, or other Westerners (even Danes). It is to see the event in the context of a larger orchestrated struggle and to address that struggle, rather than the individual incidents which are used as excuses for the latest rally, which is a losing battle.

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