Red Crescent

Once again we are treated to an incendiary example of Muslim outrage. I refer, of course, to the “Danish Cartoon Riots” that have dominated world news for a few days now. The leaders of nations such as Iran and Syria are no doubt happily fanning the flames; nothing serves an autocratic leader so well as an angry mob and an external enemy. The reaction of the “blogosphere” has been predictable; everyone quite fairly points out that Muslims apparently can dish it out, but can’t take it. References to Jews as snakes, pigs and apes in the Muslim press go unremarked, Western culture is denounced as the work of Satan, and nobody seems to mind. And far, far worse, of course, the deliberate slaughter of civilians is not merely tolerated but applauded. The world would like very much to see some resistance to this extremism coming from within the Muslim community itself, but it is awfully hard to find. I’ve seen one example, though – a website called, which consists of a page of text and a guestbook. The statement begins:

In the middle of all the mayhem surrounding the Danish cartoons controversy, a group of Arab and Muslim youth have set up this website to express their honest opinion, as a small attempt to show the world that the images shown of Arab and Muslim anger around the world are not representative of the opinions of all Arabs. We whole-heartedly apologize to the people of Denmark, Norway and all the European Union over the actions of a few, and we completely condemn all forms of vandalism and incitement to violence that the Arab and Muslim world have witnessed. We hope that this sad episode will not tarnish the great friendship that our peoples have fostered over decades.

It is an admirable gesture, and I admire their bravery, for without doubt they have acquaintances, if not friends, who will see their offering as treasonous to Islam, and as we know, such people are often not averse to murder.

Europe is in a difficult spot these days. After rather sniffily chastizing the United States for its forward-leaning approach to the threat posed by ascendant Islamic fascism, the Europeans are finding that the problem will not stay neatly tucked inside Mideastern borders, and that in fact they are in many ways at much greater risk than we are, because of their greater proximity to the geographical core of Islam, and because of the enormous numbers of poorly assimilated Muslims living within their own frontiers. The United States, whose culture is a chaotic hybrid only recently transplanted to the local soil, is much better at meeting its immigrants halfway than the ancient European nations, and tends to see the cultural influences that new arrivals bring as enriching, rather than contaminating, an already complex society. The Europeans generally sneered at George Bush when he said that in this struggle nations are either with us or against us; but what was interpreted as arrogant bluster turns out in fact to be quite a fair assessment. We in America share all of the basic Western liberal values with the European community – basic freedoms of speech, religion, art, lifestyle and attire – all of which are utterly incompatible, beyond any hope of compromise, with the aims of our implacable Muslim foes, who have been in sullen and defiant retreat since the Siege of Vienna. The seriousness of the problem, and the fact that European nations cannot earn immunity simply by scolding the Americans and making pious appeals to the feckless and corrupt United Nations, has been brought home to one country after another recently – to the French by last fall’s unpleasantness in the banlieues, to the Spanish by the bombings in Madrid, to the Dutch by the brazen murder of Theo van Gogh, and now to the Danes and the Norwegians by the sieges of their diplomatic outposts. Soon, I think, they will have to choose which side they are on.

I am not particularly optimistic about where this is all headed. This is not to say that there are no moderate Muslims, men and women of peace and sweet reason such as the ones whose website I linked to above. But their voices are lost in the din and havoc. Unless they can engage and calm their rabid coreligionists, which frankly I doubt, they are likely either to be trampled by their own, or simply to end up as collateral casualties on the field of Armageddon.


  1. the one eyed man says

    I would point out that the reaction in America to Piss Christ had a similar level of ferocity. While it is true that there were no rampaging Christians burning down museums, it is difficult to fathom why a second rate piece of “art” by an obscure artist would cause such a fuss. Some people just enjoy being outraged.

    Moreover, I don’t think it is an us-versus-them thing with Islam. I’ve been to a number of Muslim countries – Egypt, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and the most populous Muslim country, Indonesia – and could not have been treated better. (OK, I was hassled at the airport in Dharan, but it was no big deal. My father-in-law, who lived in Saudi when he was in the oil business, thought it was great, except for the no-drinking bit). I wouldn’t conflate an entire religion with their noisiest or most fanatic elements.


    Posted February 7, 2006 at 7:04 pm | Permalink
  2. eugene says

    I am not the first one to think in this way. One news I read from Russian papers suggested the whole event as a distraction from Hamas and Iran.

    Posted February 7, 2006 at 9:44 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    While it is true that there were no rampaging Christians burning down museums…

    Not a trivial distinction, I’d say. On the one hand we had boycotts and picket lines, on the other rioting and murder.

    As one with a longstanding interest in Sufism, I would be the last to equate an entire religion with its noisiest or most fanatic elements. But if moderate Muslims silently acquiesce in the atrocites committed in the name of their religion, they cannot expect a great deal of sympathy from a world recoiling in horror, nor a generous measure of mercy as a wounded civilization weighs its options.

    Eugene, I have also heard the suggestion that the Saudi overlords whipped up this frenzy to draw attention away from the latest Hajj tramplings, in which 363 pilgrims died.

    Posted February 7, 2006 at 10:58 pm | Permalink
  4. the one eyed man says

    Well, the funding for the National Endowment for the Arts was cut after a big brouhaha on the Senate floor because of Piss Christ. Both reactions were over the top, although admittedly ours was more restrained than those wacky Arabs.

    As for moderate Muslims: my guess is that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are more concerned with making a living and feeding a family than what happens in a faraway land. I wouldn’t expect mass demonstrations by moderate Muslims, just as they shouldn’t expect mass demonstrations by moderate Christians every time Pat Robertson consigns someone to Hell.

    Posted February 7, 2006 at 11:14 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Yes, Peter, but when Pat Robertson condemns a sinner there are few detectable ill effects. If he were to switch to blowing up trains and videotaping the beheadings of reporters I can assure you there would be a visible response at every level.

    And again, brouhahas on Senate floors are vastly preferable to rioting and mayhem. They generally have a fairly low body count, as long as Preston Brooks isn’t around.

    Posted February 7, 2006 at 11:42 pm | Permalink
  6. I asked one of my family elders recently about why you don’t hear the voices of any moderate muslims, and her answer was quite fascinating. Her view was that there are hardly any of them around… she maintains they either fanatic, anti-islamic or very privately religious; and by private she means it in the sense of keeping it inside you (which is where religion should be!). She maintains there are very few vocal moderate muslims.

    In one of the more illuminating magazine articles I’ve read about religions, the author (who I can’t recall) did a compelling job explaining how every religion has major upheavals about 1500 years after inception.

    Judaism – 1200 bc, issues in the 2nd/3rd century?
    Buddhism – 500 bc, 10-11th century issues
    Hinduism – 3000 bc, wars in 1500bc
    Christianity – 0 bc, 15th century mess (inquisitions etc)
    Islam – 600 ad, coming up to …. today!

    Not sure how 100% valid it is, but it’s certainly intriguing….

    Posted February 8, 2006 at 2:50 am | Permalink
  7. Bob Koepp says

    The more I try to understand the current tensions swirling around Islam (with the “Blasphemous Cartoons Incident” being just the latest manifestation), the more I am inclined to the view that religion is once again serving merely as a pretext for outrageous behavior, the root cause of which is “honor culture.” Indeed, I think that honor culture could not survive where Islam truly permeated individual characters and public institutions.

    Posted February 8, 2006 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Hi Salim,

    That’s an interesting notion! I’m glad I won’t be around for the crisis in object-oriented programming in 3483.

    Posted February 8, 2006 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Bob, you make a good point about “honor culture”, which has deep evolutionary roots. That’s worth a closer look.

    Posted February 8, 2006 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  10. Bob.. interesting viewpoint… I agree, and here’s my short take on why islam has declined….
    – the world today runs on business/money/economics (more overtly than ever before)
    – the key value you must have to succeed (long-term) in business is integrity… this shows up either on a personal level or societal level (i.e. are there laws and are they enforced?)
    – in Islam, they value honor and loyalty above integrity, which has evolved from a tribal culture. This doesn’t work in business, hence….

    Separately, I have a strong view about religions and emotional control, but that’s a whole blog post.

    Posted February 8, 2006 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  11. Bob Koepp says

    Salim –
    I agree that it is the persistence of tribal cultures in some major areas where Islam came to dominate that accounts for the high value placed on honor and loyalty. But I think we need to be careful to maintain the distinction between Islam and those tribal cultures. I don’t think Islam itself is the problem. I think the problem is the prominent role of honor in tribal cultures, and the failure of people to distinguish between their tribal culture and Islam — in fact, claiming that they are one and the same! The Prophet must be spinning madly in his grave — no Sufist pun intended.

    How this relates to the value of integrity is an interesting question. I am reminded that Muhammed himself was widely known and admired as someone who demonstrated great integrity in his business dealings well before he became the Prophet of Islam.

    Posted February 8, 2006 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  12. Jon says

    The one thing that amazes me about terrorism and violent protest is that it has historically been proven that it is 100% ineffective. Not only do advocates for such violence usually fail at what they are trying to achieve but they seem to strengthen the very things they are against. People need to learn from Gandhi and Martin Luther King, that non-violent protest works. Several good points have been made in this “waka waka waka” conversation; first is that religion should be kept inside also that these fanatics do seem to be fine with dishing it out, without being able to handle the criticism when it comes their way. In the ever shrinking world that we live in those who do not accept Pluralism and acceptance of diversity into their lives are going to have a huge and most importantly unsuccessful struggle ahead.

    Great post Malcolm!

    Posted February 8, 2006 at 8:44 pm | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Jon, and thanks all for reading and commenting.

    The observation that in Islam honor is valued above integrity is an interesting one. But in order to consider it carefully, it is important to be clear about just what is meant by the word “integrity”. What sense of the word did you have in mind, Salim?

    If Islamic groups are held back from participating in mainstream “business” culture because of their tribally based priorities, then the next question is why this is true for Islamic societies today, when the Islamic caliphate was, in its heyday, at the very hub of the world’s trade? (As an aside – the familiar phrase “let’s talk turkey”, meaning “let’s get down to business”, refers back to the Ottoman Empire, when Turkish was the language of business throughout the Mediterranean and Central Asia.)

    There are a great many Muslims in the world. Presumably there are many who do not arrange their lives strictly according to tribal imperatives. Is it true that those Muslims are less prone to the support of violence? Also, there are other tribal cultures in the world – for example my own Scottish heritage is essentially tribal, with families grouped by clans. If this is all to be explained interms of tribalism, why then aren’t all tribal societies equally challenged by the shift to “integrity”? What makes some cultures remain “tribal”, while others don’t?

    Posted February 8, 2006 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

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