The Excitable Muslims
You can just imagine how exciting it is to read that a Paris-based satirical magazine has published insulting cartoons of Muhammad two weeks before Your Working Boy alights in that city for vacation. Happily, the French government says it’s not going to put up with any crap from pissed-off Muslims. It has refused permission to Muslims wishing to demonstrate against the YouTube video. What, if anything, will they do about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons? More:
Charlie Hebdo’s chief editor, who goes by the name of Charb and has been under police protection for a year, defended the cartoons.
“Muhammad isn’t sacred to me,” he said in an interview at the weekly’s offices on the northeast edge of Paris. “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law; I don’t live under Quranic law.”
Charb said he had no regrets and felt no responsibility for any violence.
“I’m not the one going into the streets with stones and Kalashnikovs,” he said. “We’ve had 1,000 issues and only three problems, all after front pages about radical Islam.”
My heart sympathizes with this free-speech militant for refusing to let the insanity of foreigners dictate what French citizens are allowed to say in their own country. Still, this is imprudent. Nevertheless, the right of a French citizen to speak imprudently about religion in France must be defended, not apologized for!
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US and a man who was an Islamist radical in his youth, says that if Americans think this flap is really about that YouTube video, they’re fooling themselves:
Once mourning over the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and others subsides, we will hear familiar arguments in the West. Some will rightly say that Islamist sensibilities cannot and should not lead to self-censorship here. Others will point out that freedom of expression should not be equated with a freedom to offend. They will say: Just as a non-Jew, out of respect for other religious beliefs, does not exercise his freedom to desecrate a Torah scroll, similar respect should be extended to Muslims and what they deem sacred.
But this debate, as thoughtful as it may be, is a distraction from what is really going on. It ignores the political intent of Islamists for whom every perceived affront to Islam is an opportunity to exploit a wedge issue for their own empowerment.
As for affronts, the Western mainstream is, by and large, quite respectful toward Muslims, millions of whom have adopted Europe and North America as their home and enjoy all the freedoms the West has to offer, including the freedom to worship. Insignificant or unnoticed videos and publications would have no impact on anyone, anywhere, if the Islamists did not choose to publicize them for radical effect.
And insults, real or hyped, are not the problem. At the heart of Muslim street violence is the frustration of the world’s Muslims over their steady decline for three centuries, a decline that has coincided with the rise and spread of the West’s military, economic and intellectual prowess.
During the 800 years of Muslim ascendancy beginning in the eighth century—in Southern Europe, North Africa and much of Western Asia—Muslims did not riot to protest non-Muslim insults against Islam or its prophet. There is no historic record of random attacks against non-Muslim targets in retaliation for a non-Muslim insulting Prophet Muhammad, though there are many books derogatory toward Islam’s prophet that were written in the era of Islam’s great empires. Muslims under Turkey’s Ottomans, for example, did not attack non-Muslim envoys (the medieval equivalent of today’s embassies) or churches upon hearing of real or rumored European sacrilege against their religion.
Clearly, then, violent responses to perceived injury are not integral to Islam. A religion is what its followers make it, and Muslims opting for violence have chosen to paint their faith as one that is prone to anger. Frustration with their inability to succeed in the competition between nations also has led some Muslims to seek symbolic victories.
Yet the momentary triumph of burning another country’s flag or setting on fire a Western business or embassy building is a poor but widespread substitute for global success that eludes the modern world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. Violent protest represents the lower rung of the ladder of rage; terrorism is its higher form.
Islamists almost by definition have a vested interest in continuously fanning the flames of Muslim victimhood. For Islamists, wrath against the West is the basis for their claim to the support of Muslim masses, taking attention away from societal political and economic failures. For example, the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Conference account for one-fifth of the world’s population but their combined gross domestic product is less than 7% of global output—a harsh reality for which Islamists offer no solution.
I defer to Amb. Haqqani’s expertise and experience here. It’s worth remembering, though, that for many Muslims, there is an existential issue here. They quite rightly perceive the West, which is to say, modernity, as a deadly enemy of Islam, at least Islam as has been handed on to them. I commend to you Paul Berman’s lengthy NYT Magazine essay on Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist ideologue martyred by Nasser. This part especially:
Europe’s scientific and technical achievements allowed the Europeans to dominate the world. And the Europeans inflicted their ”hideous schizophrenia” on peoples and cultures in every corner of the globe. That was the origin of modern misery — the anxiety in contemporary society, the sense of drift, the purposelessness, the craving for false pleasures. The crisis of modern life was felt by every thinking person in the Christian West. But then again, Europe’s leadership of mankind inflicted that crisis on every thinking person in the Muslim world as well. Here Qutb was on to something original. The Christians of the West underwent the crisis of modern life as a consequence, he thought, of their own theological tradition — a result of nearly 2,000 years of ecclesiastical error. But in Qutb’s account, the Muslims had to undergo that same experience because it had been imposed on them by Christians from abroad, which could only make the experience doubly painful — an alienation that was also a humiliation.
That was Qutb’s analysis. In writing about modern life, he put his finger on something that every thinking person can recognize, if only vaguely — the feeling that human nature and modern life are somehow at odds. But Qutb evoked this feeling in a specifically Muslim fashion. It is easy to imagine that, in expounding on these themes back in the 1950’s and 60’s, Qutb had already identified the kind of personal agony that Mohamed Atta and the suicide warriors of Sept. 11 must have experienced in our own time. It was the agony of inhabiting a modern world of liberal ideas and achievements while feeling that true life exists somewhere else. It was the agony of walking down a modern sidewalk while dreaming of a different universe altogether, located in the Koranic past — the agony of being pulled this way and that. The present, the past. The secular, the sacred. The freely chosen, the religiously mandated — a life of confusion unto madness brought on, Qutb ventured, by Christian error.
If you believe that you have the One True Faith, and you see that the people who believe a lie, the infidels, are becoming rich and powerful, this can only be explained through cosmic injustice. Moreover, to adopt Western ways — Christian or post-Christian — would be to abandon Islam. It would be not only to walk away from the Truth, but also to turn from oneself.
I don’t think for a second that we should apologize for our liberties, whatever bad use we sometimes make of them. Nevertheless, we should at least try to understand why we are such a threat to devout Muslims. Sayyid Qutb may have been a cold-blooded fanatic, but he was not entirely wrong about what modernity means to Islam. Nor, by the way, was Samuel Huntington wrong to say that this really is a clash of cultures.