Prophetic Provocation

The cartoons aren’t exactly knee-slappers. Quite the contrary: Even allowing for the fact that political cartoons usually defy translation, no matter how funny or incisive they are, the 12 drawings published in September by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten strike me as lame and unsophisticated, crudely equating Islam’s prophet Muhammad — and thus, by clear implication, all of Islam — with terrorism and ignorance. They look like the provocation they were intended to be.

And they worked, especially after other newspapers in Europe and elsewhere began republishing the cartoons in solidarity. The Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus and the Danish consulate in Beirut were burned by angry mobs over the weekend, while street protests have raged around the world, not just in the Middle East and Europe but as far away as placid New Zealand, where people are far outnumbered by sheep.

So one defends the right of Jyllands-Posten to free expression because, yes, that right has to be absolute, encompassing cartoons that spit in the face of an entire religion. One laments the fact that the cartoonists also now enjoy the right to withdraw into hiding under threat of assassination, living the way novelist Salman Rushdie had to live all those years. And one knows that the terrorist overlord Osama bin Laden, the nuke-happy Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others bent on hastening apocalypse are the real winners in this whole unnecessary episode.

You could dispute my verdict “unnecessary,” but everyone involved made choices. The editor of Jyllands-Posten commissioned the cartoons specifically to make the point that the European press, in his view, was exercising a pernicious self-censorship when it came to Islam. The cartoonists chose to participate — some others who were invited declined — and chose how they would depict Muhammad, including one who drew him with a turban that on closer inspection turns out to be a bomb with a lit fuse.

And, of course, the Muslims who are offended that any image of their prophet would be published, let alone these images, could have expressed their displeasure with a barrage of letters to the editor or angry e-mails rather than take to the streets.

I wonder, though, what the reaction would have been, say, 30 years ago. My guess is that it would have been more letter-writing than rock-throwing. People don’t normally burn down embassies over a few cartoons in a newspaper they’ve never even heard of, much less ever read. The widespread hair-trigger outrage, I think, grows out of a sense that the world of Islam has been used and abused for many years by a powerful and evil entity called “the West” — and that this mistreatment is getting worse, not better.

Which is precisely the kind of paranoia that jihadists such as bin Laden and radical fundamentalists such as Ahmadinejad love to cultivate.

The focus this time is on Europe, which has awakened to the fact that it is home to millions of Muslim immigrants who do not necessarily care to assimilate. I think the solution for Europe is to embrace multiculturalism, and I would hope that even those who disagree would at least consider the possibility that crude caricatures of Muhammad might not be the best starting point for constructive dialogue.

But eventually the focus of this conflict will shift back to the United States, the undisputed leader of “the West.” With all his talk of freedom as a universal right, President Bush pretends to understand that U.S. support of corrupt dictatorships in places such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan contributes to the feeling that Muslims are under attack and helps give strength to fundamentalism and jihad. Yet the Bush administration continues to prop up these same autocrats, some of whom happen to sit on huge reserves of oil, while giving little more than lip service to those in the crowds that took to the streets over some undistinguished Danish cartoons.

The United States and its allies easily conquered Iraq, only to see religious parties dominate the recent elections. The radical religious movement Hamas won control of the Palestinian Authority, and the religious Muslim Brotherhood is now the only coherent opposition force in Egypt.

Those Danish cartoonists and their editor set out to teach Muslims a lesson about free speech. They ended up giving the rest of us a startling illustration that while Bush and his allies speak of a post-Sept. 11 global war against terrorism, terrorism is nothing but a tactic. This is really a war of ideas, a battle for hearts and minds, and it’s a war in which “the West” will lose ground until its deeds are more consonant with its high-minded words.

The writer will be online today at 2 p.m. on to discuss the legacy of Coretta Scott King. His e-mail address [email protected].