Monday, February 06, 2006

The Prophet’s honor

The cartoon was disgracefully insensitive. It depicted a barbed wire Star of David in which innocent Palestinian men, women and children were trapped. By the time it appeared in the "Seattle Times" in July 2003, hundreds of Israeli civilians had been mercilessly slaughtered by Palestinian terrorists in what they call the “second intifada.”

But compared to what is typically found in the Arab press, cartoonist Tony Auth’s effrontery was fairly bland.

Arab political “humor” knows no bounds.

A cartoon in Qatar’s Al-Watan depicted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon drinking from a goblet of Palestinian children’s blood. Another, in the Egyptian Al-Ahram al-Arabi showed him jackbooted, bloody-handed and crushing peace.

Arab cartoonists routinely demonize Jews as global conspirators, corrupters of society and blood-suckers. Just this Saturday, Britain’s Muslim Weekly published a caricature of a hooked-nose Jew – Ehud Olmert.

And it’s not just cartoons. During Ramadan 2002, an Egyptian satellite television channel broadcasted the multi-episode "Horseman Without a Horse" series based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion canard.

How did Israel and world Jewry respond? The Israeli embassy in Cairo filed a protest. A US student group held an orderly demonstration outside an Egyptian consulate, and Jewish leaders sent a strongly-worded letter to the Mubarak government.

Contrast this with the frenzied Muslim reaction to 12 cartoons, including one depicting the Prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban which appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten five months ago and was recently widely disseminated. It was intended, paradoxically, to satirize Muslim intolerance.

The cartoon “blasphemy” has generated bomb threats, armed takeovers and widespread desecration of the Danish flag. A Western cultural center was vandalized; Catholic aid workers were threatened. European observers at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Sinai wisely stayed away from their posts.

Several Muslim states have recalled their ambassadors. There is talk of a Muslim trade boycott of Danish (and European) products. Mass protests are being held throughout the world. In London, marchers carried placards reading: “Massacre those who insult Islam” and “Freedom go to hell.” Protesters denounced the BBC for airing the cartoons during news broadcasts.

Things continue to deteriorate. In Damascus on Saturday rioters set fire to the building that houses the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish embassies. In Beirut yesterday the Danish embassy was set ablaze.

Official Western reaction has generally been to meet intolerance with remarkable sensitivity and understanding. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, while apologizing for the offense caused, sought to explain that his government doesn’t actually control what newspapers publish.

The Vatican condemned the cartoons as offensive; so did the US State Department (though the White House denounced subsequent anti-Western violence as “outrageous”).
British Foreign Minister Jack Straw counseled self-censorship: “There is freedom of speech... but... not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory.”

There are those who would argue that the controversy does not reflect a clash of civilizations. Yet it is precisely this persistent refusal to acknowledge the obvious that weakens the cause of tolerance and liberty. Must “understanding” invariably result in the abdication of Western values?

If anyone wants to appreciate why the West views with such suspicion the weapons programs of Muslim states such as Iran, they need look no further than the intolerance Muslim regimes exhibit to these cartoons, and what this portends.

No one wants to add fuel to the fire. Mobs are more easily placated than reasoned with. But once this controversy passes it will be valuable to determine just who exploited the flap to foment anti-Western outrage, and to inquire what “moderate” Muslim voices said.

One such voice, Jihad al-Momani, editor-in-chief of the Jordanian weekly Shihan, was arrested for republishing the cartoons (to show Arabs what they were protesting). In an accompanying editorial – which his staff subsequently repudiated – Momani wrote: “Who offends Islam more? A foreigner who draws the prophet... or a Muslim with an explosive belt who commits suicide in Amman or anywhere else?”

Globalism demands that points of contact between Islam and the West be multi-cultural havens, not flashpoints. For that to happen, tolerance must be a two-way street.

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