WASHINGTON — Supporters of the Iraq war are slamming the Bush administration for criticizing the publication of cartoons that triggered a wave of riots in the Arab and Muslim world.
The critics, including pro-war pundits Daniel Pipes and Christopher Hitchens, are saying that the administration should have taken stronger steps to condemn the violent reactions. They also contend that the administration should have emphasized its support for the right of the Danish newspaper to publish the inflammatory caricatures of Islam’s main prophet, Muhammad — and the right of other publications that reprinted them — rather than stress understanding for Muslims who felt offended.
In response to the exploding violence, on February 3 State Department spokesman Sean McCormack read a carefully worded statement, saying: “Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as antisemitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief.” He added: “While we share the offense that Muslims have taken at these images, we at the same time vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view. We may not agree with those points of view; we may condemn those points of view; but we respect and emphasize… that those individuals have the right to express those points of view.”
McCormack’s comments unleashed a wave of criticism from pundits and bloggers, most of them conservative. Pipes, a Middle East scholar based in Philadelphia, described the American reaction as “awful.” Leftist-turned-hawk Christopher Hitchens, writing for Slate, used words such as “abysmal” and “appalling,” and characterized McCormack as “illiterate,” pointing out that he failed to “distinguish between criticism of a belief system and slander against a people.”
Bloggers and other critics rebuked the administration for passing judgment on the tastefulness of the Danish cartoons — which they said were no more offensive than antisemitic cartoons published routinely in the Arab press. They also reprimanded the administration for not expressing greater solidarity with the publications that printed or reprinted the cartoons and with the countries in which the cartoons were published, which have been the target of furious attacks by Muslims worldwide. Under the circumstances, some critics argued, the failure to do so was tantamount to suggesting that the freedom of speech does not apply to those who would mock Islam or other religions.
Sources closely familiar with the Bush administration’s policy on international religious issues say that two chief factors drove the administration’s reaction: its desire to improve America’s standing in the Muslim world and its general view about religion.
First and foremost, they said, were considerations about public diplomacy and the efforts to win Muslim support for American policies. Unlike recent outrages over the humiliation of Arabs and Muslims, such as the treatment of detainees in Iraq by American forces or the reports about the alleged desecration of a Koran at an American base in Guantanamo Bay, this controversy was not caused by the United States. As a result, observers said, the Bush administration did not feel the need to assume a defensive posture and could express sympathy with the Muslim masses by gently distinguishing itself from the Europeans.
“The U.S. already has enough of a public diplomacy problem in the Arab and Muslim world, so it doesn’t need any additional problems by even remotely suggesting that the publication of these cartoons was somehow justified,” said Timothy Shah, a senior fellow in religion and world affairs at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The administration, therefore, made a “distinction between whether the Danish newspaper had the right to do this and whether it was the right thing to do,” Shah said. “Here was a chance to demonstrate religious sensitivity.”
But Hitchens, in his Slate article, argued that rather than protect the dignity of Islam dignity, the State Department ended up feeding the image of Muslims as violent fanatics by essentially saying there was no choice but for the West to avoid offending them.
“Another reason for condemning the idiots at Foggy Bottom is their assumption, dangerous in many ways, that the first lynch mob on the scene is actually the genuine voice of the people,” Hitchens wrote. “There’s an insult to Islam, if you like.”
Shah and other experts said that attributing the administration’s reaction solely to a desire to score quick publicity points would be too cynical.
“The religious faith of the president and of others in his administration also plays a role,” Shah said. “It causes them to have an instinctive sympathy for the religious faith of others. The president has commented on this many times, in relation to religious Christians, Jews and Muslims.”
Bush has in the past made a distinction between Islam as a faith and terrorists who kill in the name of Islam. He then tweaked this division and spoke about militant Islamists versus moderate Muslims. Still, since September 11, 2001, he has consistently spoken about Islam as a “noble faith,” a dignified religion of peace and justice, which merits respect.
“If you scratch the surface and try to get some sense into what the president’s mind is, I think that he really believes that,” Shah said. “He really believes that faith as such is a force for good and only turns into a force for bad when it’s distorted by people who have politicized it for nefarious ends.”
In addition, Shah said, the administration would probably be correct in assuming that the spirit of its reaction reflects the sentiments of most Americans, as opposed to Europe’s secular majority.
“The American public as a whole is very religious — not only in the sense that it has religious beliefs, but in the sense that it has great respect for religion in general,” he said.
According to Shah, public opinion polls consistently show that American religiosity best explains why American newspapers avoided reprinting the controversial cartoons. “Whereas in Europe religion is often viewed as hostile to liberal progress,” Shah said, “here in America quite the opposite is true: Religion and liberal progress are seen as supporting each other.”