February 08, 2006,
DID you hear the one about the priest, the rabbi, and the imam? You won’t, if Islamist goondom has its way.
Last fall, Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, ran twelve satiric images of the prophet Muhammad. They were a response to the climate of fear created by European Islam: The author of a Danish children’s book had been unable to find artists willing to draw illustrations of Muhammad, lest they provoke Muslim iconoclasts. On a continent where the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a jihadist, and Dutch politicians, including the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, must live in protective confinement, such fears were well-grounded.
The idea that Muhammad may not be represented is only one slice of the spectrum of Muslim opinion; Quakers do not express the Christian consensus on religious art. The image-less Quakers, of course, have never threatened anyone with murder. This is the sanction that Islamists invoked against Jyllands-Posten, which was deluged with death threats, and Denmark itself, whose flag and consulates were burned throughout the Muslim world.
Decent men normally go out of their way to avoid giving offense, especially where religion is concerned. Piss Christ, the Dung Madonna, Lenny Bruce are countercultural phenomena. If public money is used to sponsor desecrations, then taxpayers have a legitimate gripe. Demonstrations aimed at tangible communities, as when American Nazis threatened to march through the Jewish neighborhood of Skokie, Ill., almost 30 years ago, may raise questions of public order. But no free society concerns itself with opinions that one may read or not, as one likes. The pious honor the freedom that allows them to worship, and welcome it as the political expression of the respect due to men made in God’s image.
The “outpouring” of Muslim wrath was the deliberate pouring of radical activists. How many Danish flags are normally available in Gaza, or Jakarta? Islamists magnified the offense by circulating the Danish cartoons with three truly gross, but invented, ones (e.g., Muhammad as a pig). In order to protest blasphemy, the Islamists committed it. Bill Clinton, conference-hopping in Qatar, condemned Jyllands-Posten. “So now what are we going to do?” Clinton said. “Replace the anti-Semitic prejudice with anti-Islamic prejudice?” Clinton’s evocation of anti-Semitism was particularly inapt, since Arab media regularly churn out floods of anti-Jewish filth, including TV series based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In the Muslim world, everything depends on whose sacred cow is being gored.
Muslim fanatics those who aspire to be dictators, and those who already are have ginned up the controversy in order to gain power, or to keep it. They play to the dull acquiescence of too many ordinary Muslims. But by no means all Muslims are implicated in this shameful episode. Grand Ayatollah Sistani, leader of Iraq’s Shiites, “denounce[d] and condemn[ed]” the cartoons, but also blasted “misguided and oppressive” Muslims who have “exploited” the issue “to spread their poison and revive their old hatreds with new methods and mechanisms.” When President Bush declared, in his State of the Union address, that “liberty is the future of every nation in the Middle East, because liberty is the right and hope of all humanity,” it was Sistani and millions of Muslims, in Iraq and elsewhere, who agree with him, that he had in mind. The game for Muslim opinion is a tough one. But it will surely be lost if we forfeit.