Fanning the flames


Wars have been started this way.

A group gets riled up over a perceived slight (often religious in
nature). Violence breaks out. Alliances are called into play. Reason
departs. People die.

To us in America, used to seeing our president portrayed with huge
ears, our flag burned, our religious leaders apologize on TV for their
transgressions, freedom itself is more important than what some people
choose to do with it.

But not in some countries.

The inflamed passions, violence and false allegations stoked by some
sophomoric cartoons satirizing the revered Muhammad, such as one with
his headdress drawn as a bomb with a lit fuse, first published four
months ago in a Danish newspaper, should worry every rational human. It
is not farfetched that the religious fervor of outraged Islamic
fundamentalists could ignite even more hatred that would take
generations to wipe out.

There is nothing that any one government can immediately do to stop
this from flaming into widening protests and disinformation. Even if
President Bush could deliver a great tempering speech for the ages that
would be heard (and listened to) by billions of people, it would not be
enough in the short term to re-regulate hearts engorged by
self-justifying rage. The United Nations itself is a cauldron of
conflicting beliefs and passions. Denmark’s protest that its government
had nothing to do with the perceived insult to Muslims fell on millions
of deaf ears.

While much of the Islamic world is consumed in righteous bitterness
over the satiric Western portrayals of its prophet _ Islam teaches that
illustrations of its prophet are blasphemy _ in the West justifiable
anger continues over terrorism. Bush just announced that, in 2002, al
Qaeda, not satisfied with the carnage of 9/11, planned to blow up a
West Coast skyscraper.

Bush speaks almost daily of the expanding fronts of the war against
enemies of freedom, and calls on us to join in the fight. We feel our
justifiable rage grow. Western publications reprint one Dane’s cartoon,
widely available on the Internet, and outrage mounts against the
“infidels,” including the entire United States. There is no
conversation here, only diatribes.

Because of the cartoons and their reproduction by journalists who
feel their duty is to inform readers what is happening, Europe has
become a breeding ground for religious death threats and turmoil over
free speech. Millions of Muslims are growing ever angrier, insisting
that because of a few cartoons they are witnessing a tidal wave of
sacrilegious behavior.

It is to be hoped that historians someday will not be engulfed in
pondering how ridiculous cartoons in a newspaper in Copenhagen led to
chants in Damascus of “Death to Denmark” and fomented a killing spree.
But it’s far from certain. The West is now thought by millions to be
insensitive to tenets of Islam. Some radicals have called for any
journalists involved to be beheaded. Some insist the cartoons are
government-ordered.

The Bush administration, sensitive to the criticism rained on it for
warrantless wiretapping, civil-rights abuses and prisoners held for
four years without trial in Guantanamo, responded that while the
cartoons are offensive, one of democracy’s underpinnings is a free
press.

The administration also has widened its reaction to accuse Iran and
Syria of helping to perpetuate the violence. But the legitimacy of the
demand to end the senseless violence has been lost amid the furor.
Blind rage spurts out of once-peaceful neighborhoods.

Like a forest fire, this inferno has to die out from lack of
combustible material and wind. And that will happen unless another
event further infuriates Muslim sensitivities.

But the fear has been planted that another cultural clash, possibly
more significant and imminent, will ignite passions that can’t be
controlled. Our world isn’t just getting smaller, it’s getting more
frightening.

Understanding is not spreading; intolerance is. Our challenge is to
guard against being consumed by prejudice clothed as nationalism.

An American conservative group called the Family Research Council,
which claims to “defend” faith, family and freedom, implies that
“jihadists” are only pretending to be offended by the cartoons. The
council appears to call for more widespread publication of the
cartoons: “Let’s be honest: the reason liberal editors stick it to
Christians while avoiding criticisms of Islam is that they know we
won’t cut off their heads or burn their news rooms _ and they fear
jihadists will.”

Cartoon violence has awakened us to the realization that while we
have always known the world is dangerous, we’ve been in a fog over how
extensive and explosive that danger is. And there are those in America
as well as the Middle East who contribute to the ill will that
threatens to engulf us all.

There is a well-known saying from the Bible: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

(Ann McFeatters is Washington Bureau chief of the Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette and The Toledo Blade. E-mail
amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)

Comments are closed.