Events in the Muslim world this past week have presented a direct challenge to the conventional understanding of Muslim-American relations. In this view—made famous by President Obama, but shared by many, many others in the universities and in the press—the “problem” is the West. Because the West has abused, colonized, and exploited the Muslim “other” for so long, Muslims are understandably angry, and apt to be touchy when their feelings are stepped on one more time. Thus the need to “understand the Muslim world” (for which the President claimed a special competence, having “lived in a Muslim country”), because from understanding (by us, not them) will emerge, at long last, tranquility.
I suspect that more and more Americans see this theory for the hokum that it is, having endured yet another episode in which mobs commit murder and mayhem– killing an ambassador and three of his colleagues—allegedly because their feelings have been hurt, this time by a YouTube video mocking the Prophet. It should be obvious by now that something else is going on.
Without speculating on what a billion-plus Muslims around the world are thinking, it’s unlikely that “hurt feelings” could explain the highly orchestrated mob violence that began in Cairo and which has now spread nearly everywhere in the Muslim world—and even to Muslim enclaves in Europe. Those engaged in the violence are too obviously “the usual suspects” who always appear at such demonstrations, and it is obvious also who their leaders are: the Salafist movement in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their imitators or franchises in other countries. Anyone genuinely grieved at their portrayal in the media might engage in demonstrations of some sort, but these demonstrations would be somber and peaceful, and they would not consist entirely of young men under the age of 25. It is striking that we have seen no such dignified demonstrations about this infamous video, and I suspect there is a simple reason: most Muslims, at least in the West, know that in the global media village, you can always find insults if you look for them, and so the wise course is to refrain from entering “insults to Muslims” in your Google search when you sit down at your computer.
And, in fact, the mobs who encountered the video in Cairo saw it only because the local Salafist groups showed it to them on their own satellite channel, and then Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood agitators took it from there, whipping up the crowds into a fury of indignation and then, when they had reached just the right temperature, sent them to sack the American embassy, on the day before the 9/11 anniversary—when much the more serious attacks took place in Libya. The video, in other words, was a pretext, an opportunity—and not a genuine source of offense.
The video itself was made by a father-son team of Egyptian-Americans who are Coptic Christians, and who were apparently motivated by anger at the Muslim persecution of Copts in Egypt, a true offense to interfaith harmony that has gone not just unremarked by Western advocates of multicultural tolerance, but apparently unnoticed as well. Those who have seen the video describe it as amateurish and crude, but its target is not Muslims per se but Mohammed. Save for its quality and its target, it is not unlike the Monty Python spoof, The Life of Brian, or a hundred other Hollywood and TV productions that mock Christians in general, or the Catholic Church, or (a favorite target these days) “evangelicals.”
So what is the aim of all this screaming and howling? Fomenting outrage at “insults to Islam” is a tactic that supports a strategy. The strategy is to induce, in infidels, a habit of deference to Islam, the more public the deference the better. It does not matter what the “insult” is: Salman Rushdie’s novel; Pope Benedict’s reference to a papal criticism of Islam from the Middle Ages; rumors about Korans being burned in Afghanistan; Mohammed cartoons published in a Danish newspaper. (The original cartoons, by the way, were not “offensive” enough, so the imams organizing the protests drew three more that were spectacularly offensive: so much for “tender sensibilities”.)
The incidents that so rile up the Muslim world are not truly occasions for outrage so much as they are opportunities for political theater, orchestrated by radicals who believe that they are hastening the time when “Allah’s religion will be the only religion” (to quote from an American Muslim Brotherhood planning document), and the ancient and glorious Caliphate will be restored to its rightful influence. The tactic is therefore always the same: first, to extract an apology; second, to demonstrate that the radicals can humble even the greatest of the infidel powers.
The Obama administration, it is clear, has no clue about any of this. (And it bears repeating that Obama is not the only one who is clueless.)
Here is what we all need to understand. Our goal cannot be to avoid giving offense, which in a free country (and in a mostly free world) is impossible, even if it were desirable. To the orthodox, everything is offensive: popular culture; short skirts; Israel; women walking alone. The problem is not to avoid giving offense. The problem is to avoid giving an apology, because getting the apology is what the riots are all about in the first place. Give the Brotherhood or the Salafists what they want, and you only make them stronger in the eyes of the mob, and in the eyes of the very many Muslims who are not comfortable with the radical agenda. And in any case, the radicals will always ask for more. After the President reiterated the State Department’s apology for “misguided Americans who hurt the religious feelings of Muslims,” the Brotherhood demanded that the filmmakers be jailed and that the video be removed from the Internet. True to form, President Obama asked YouTube and Google officials to take the video down (which they have so far refused to do), and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office, prompted by the Justice Department, has taken the producer into custody for “questioning” about possible “parole violations.”
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