Common Sense about the ‘Cartoon Intifada’

The images of Muslim protesters burning embassies and expressing righteous fury over the publication of some caricatures of Muhammed has been heard, by many writers and bloggers, as the starting gun for the clash of civilizations. 

To some, it is proof positive that the culture of the Muslim people cannot co-exist with Western society.  Europe, which has depended on immigrant labor from Muslim countries, faces doom at the hands of alien fanatics on whom its industries and lifestyle now depend. 

According to this view, the fundamental Western belief in free expression will be the first casualty, but it won’t stop there. Europe is committing cultural and demographic suicide, it is said. The selfish natives’ refusal to procreate at replacement levels ensures their Muslim guests’ descendents will soon take control of the continent. Maybe this outburst was a good thing, if it wakes Europe up to the reality of its situation, in time for them to take up arms in defense of the freedoms they take for granted.  

To others, the Danes’ alleged mockery of the Islamic deity shows it is time for global media sensitivity training.

To the right-wingers who say this, the cartoons are of a piece with the mockery devout Christians and Jews must endure from the sacriligous U.S. media. To the left, the protests demonstrate that the cultural imperialism of “the West” must die. Both sides say the Danish newspaper that published the cartoons “should have known better” than to deliberately provoke Muslims this way. Its editors should have taken better care to avoid offense, especially because all media can now be distributed globally. Offensive media will cause offense throughout the world.

The assumption behind all these opinions is that the Muslim world is deeply offended. Of course they are; don’t you see all the protests?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Amir Taheri disagrees, seeing more of a political bonfire of the vanities than a real one:

But how representative of Islam are all those demonstrators? The “rage machine” was set in motion when the Muslim Brotherhood–a political, not a religious, organization–called on sympathizers in the Middle East and Europe to take the field. A fatwa was issued by Yussuf al-Qaradawi, a Brotherhood sheikh with his own program on al-Jazeera. Not to be left behind, the Brotherhood’s rivals, Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party) and the Movement of the Exiles (Ghuraba), joined the fray. Believing that there might be something in it for themselves, the Syrian Baathist leaders abandoned their party’s 60-year-old secular pretensions and organized attacks on the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus and Beirut.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s position, put by one of its younger militants, Tariq Ramadan–who is, strangely enough, also an adviser to the British home secretary–can be summed up as follows: It is against Islamic principles to represent by imagery not only Muhammad but all the prophets of Islam; and the Muslim world is not used to laughing at religion. Both claims, however, are false.

Taheri provides extensive evidence to back up this assertion. You’ve heard repeatedly that the Koran bans images of Muhammed. Then how do you explain the the numerous artistic portraits of Mohammed, commissioned by Muslim rulers, hanging on the walls of museums throughout the Islamic world?

The historical origin of this alleged ban, says Taheri, is the Ten Commandments, an extreme interpretation of which inspired some Muslim clerics to issue a parallel fatwah in their time. It is by no means an absolute, Taheri says. As for the allegation that Muslims can’t laugh at their religion and will behead anyone who does:

That is true if we restrict the Muslim world to the Brotherhood and its siblings in the Salafist movement, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al Qaeda. But these are all political organizations masquerading as religious ones. They are not the sole representatives of Islam, just as the Nazi Party was not the sole representative of German culture. Their attempt at portraying Islam as a sullen culture that lacks a sense of humor is part of the same discourse that claims “suicide martyrdom” as the highest goal for all true believers.


Islamic ethics is based on “limits and proportions,” which means that the answer to an offensive cartoon is a cartoon, not the burning of embassies or the kidnapping of people designated as the enemy. Islam rejects guilt by association. Just as Muslims should not blame all Westerners for the poor taste of a cartoonist who wanted to be offensive, those horrified by the spectacle of rent-a-mob sackings of embassies in the name of Islam should not blame all Muslims for what is an outburst of fascist energy.

What we’re seeing play out now is politics, not religion, Taheri says. If we accept the protest organizers’ spin that their protests are the universal Islamic response to the cartoons, the only conclusion we can come to is a fatalistic one: The “clash of civilizations” is inevitable.

I don’t think so.  I’m a hawk when it comes to recognizing that we are already at war with certain radical Islamic groups with disproportionate power to threaten us through ruthless terrorism and the availability of WMDs.  We have to win that war, not because our way of life is at stake, but because these jihadists are willing to kill millions of people in a futile, deranged campaign to restore the caliphate.

But that’s as far as it goes. I believe a world of peaceful, prosperous coexistence among all faiths — and between the religious and the secular — is a goal the vast majority of Muslims already embraced long ago. That will become clear again, once the war against the jihadists is won.


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