Fanning the flames

By ANN McFEATTERS
Block News Alliance

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.)

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