If history had turned out differently, Iranian troops might now be patrolling the alleyways of Chicago and Las Vegas, busily confiscating pornography, breaking up drug gangs, checking teenagers’ skirt lengths and helping us to recapture the moral core we lost a generation ago. Some Americans, dismayed at the relentless coarsening of our public and private lives, might have welcomed the Iranians as liberators and joined forces with them in hopes of building a new, more moral society. But most of us would probably be in the streets, screaming bloody murder and perhaps sowing mayhem. We’d be joined — or so we’d hope — by masses of fellow democrats marching in solidarity around the globe, from Paris to Sydney.
Viewed that way, it shouldn’t be too hard to understand the rage of the Muslims marching this month in mass rallies across Asia and Africa. On the surface, the marchers are protesting the unflattering cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published last fall in a Danish newspaper. The caricatures were intended to tweak the religious sensibilities of Denmark’s Muslim minority, and they succeeded. Nobody, least of all members of another religious minority, should take such an injury lightly. But the anger clearly has deeper roots than a handful of cartoons.
It’s certainly true, as Marc Perelman reports this week on Page 1, that the confrontation is at least partly a product of political manipulation by Iran, Syria and anti-American insurgent groups — though manipulation can hardly explain the tens of thousands of marchers burning Danish flags in Niger and Bangladesh.
It’s also true that the cartoons’ publication would have gone unnoticed if not for a deliberate campaign by Danish imams. Anti-Muslim cartoons have been published repeatedly throughout the West in recent years without consequence — just as viciously antisemitic and anti-American cartoons have become a staple of the Arab press. The imams chose to protest these particular cartoons because the timing seemed right. They carefully packaged and disseminated them for maximum effect in the Muslim world. They even magnified the hurt by including a few inflammatory images that were never published in Denmark, including one supposedly showing Muhammad as a pig — not the first time that a war had been started on the basis of flawed intelligence.
It’s clear, however, that the rage on display this week reflects deep and longstanding grievances, not just insult over cartoons. This outburst didn’t erupt in a vacuum. Muslims, it’s long been clear, feel their faith and honor to be under attack in a dozen hotspots around the globe, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Chechnya, Kosovo and Gaza. In each place, they see technologically superior Western powers imposing their will on Muslim societies struggling to maintain traditions. The anger and humiliation have been festering for years, and this month they reached the boiling point. That’s not hard to understand.
But understanding does not mean condoning or accepting. Westerners have feelings, too. Free speech is not just some technicality in Western law; it’s a value that’s been defended with blood over and over. And that value appears to be under assault right now.
Suddenly, that old sense of shared European-American culture and values, so quaintly archaic just a year ago, seems more alive than ever.
Many Westerners look at the flashpoints of east-west friction and they see an ancient Islamic civilization in turmoil, agonizing over its relationship to modernity and unable to avoid inflicting its agonies on its neighbors. We look on in bewilderment, and for some, the bewilderment is turning to anger. Injury, exploitation and humiliation there may have been, but none of it justifies suicide bombings or beheadings.
The latest furor doesn’t come in a vacuum from the Western point of view, either. Americans and Europeans have watched with growing alarm in recent months as the Islamic Republic of Iran has moved defiantly toward nuclear capability, while its leaders recklessly vow to destroy Israel and belittle concerns over genocide. We’ve also watched a model democratic election last month in the Palestinian territories lead to a landslide victory for a group that champions terrorism and seeks Israel’s destruction.
Put together, the recent events — the Iranian nuclear dispute, the Palestinian elections and now the cartoon jihad — create a dark sense of foreboding. Some want to respond by reaching out and seeking dialogue. Others — in growing numbers these days, we suspect — simply want to create some distance.
It’s not clear what that would mean.
Israel, long thought to face the world’s most intractable dispute with its Palestinian neighbors, has embraced a policy of unilateral separation. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert laid out that vision explicitly this week, offering a bold vision of a sweeping withdrawal in the West Bank that would create a smaller but more defensible Israel. It need not be a final border, but it would do for now, until there’s someone to talk to.
But Europe and America cannot simply separate themselves from the Muslim world. Both societies have deep economic and other ties across the Muslim world. Nearly 20 million Muslims live in Europe. Somehow, a common language must be found that can restore civility between Islam and the West. How to do that was never more unclear than this week.
You know things are bad when Israel’s problems seem like the easy ones.