Individual Muslims were the obvious victims of the Cartoon War. By yesterday 45 deaths had been reported, in Nigeria, Libya, Afghanistan and several other countries, most of the dead being Muslim. At a typical riot in Peshawar, Pakistan, a mob fought police and burned down a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. One of two people who were killed (apparently by a stray bullet) was an eight-year-old boy, identified only as Mohammed.
To my way of thinking, the death of that child was infinitely more dismaying than some barely competent drawings related to the historical Mohammed. But we err grievously when we confuse our reactions with those of radical Muslims.
The Danish imam who jump-started the demonstrations by touring the Middle East with the offensive cartoons (plus some even more offensive but unpublished drawings he brought along to embellish his case) said on CBS last week that he considered his project a great success, despite the deaths.
Islam, fighting back against infidels who made fun of the Prophet, had demonstrated its power. It had unsettled the West, particularly Europe. Peter Schneider, an eminent German novelist, wrote in Der Tagesspiegel of Berlin that the violent demonstrations had challenged Europe to defend its values. "The conflict puts in question some of the major achievements of the Enlightenment, the foundation of secular Western societies. The West can only negotiate these questions at the risk of repudiating its soul."
In 1996, when Samuel Huntington wrote The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, he was derided as an alarmist by Muslim intellectuals and by many scholars in the West who take a benign view of Islam. Today it's harder to deny Huntington's claim that Islam and the West are heading toward collision. The media of the Arab dictatorships now seem to be determined to prove his thesis; to read their work online is to experience mounting dread. Arab propagandists are committed to a long-range campaign of hatred. For them, the cartoon war looks like an early victory.
That's also how British Muslims see it, if we believe Patrick Sookhdeo, an ex-Muslim and an Anglican priest who directs the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity. Sookhdeo, after canvassing opinion among Muslim clerics in Britain, came to a distressing conclusion: "They think they have won the debate. They believe that the British Government has capitulated to them.... The cartoons, you see, have not been published in this country, and the Government has been very critical of those countries in which they were published. To many of the Islamic clerics, that's a clear victory."
It confirms a familiar pattern: If spokesmen for Muslims threaten violence, the British government caves in. North American newspapers and TV networks, most of which declined to display the cartoons (for good and bad reasons), magnified Islam's success.
Whatever its political results, the Cartoon War will enter history as a unique triumph of organized hypocrisy. It was manipulated from the start, a conflagration ignited not by some silly drawings but by evil men in the Arab elite who saw (months after the cartoons were published) that some Danish cartoonist had given them a wonderful opportunity to advertise themselves as leaders and saviours of the people they spend their careers exploiting.
It was not a careless or thoughtless campaign that produced these extremely unspontaneous uprisings. The leaders were not nihilists spreading anarchy out of anger and despair. In many crucial cases they weren't even passionate Muslims; certainly the secular Baathist government of Syria doesn't fall into that category.
Marcel Gauchet, the French philosopher who wrote Democracy Against Itself and many other books, said the West had been too quick to bow down to Islamic demands. He questioned the authenticity of the anger expressed in the riots. Leaders of the Arab countries are upset, he said, but do they really reflect the opinion of the populace? "Who do the protesters active in Europe really represent? We have every right to cast doubt on this alleged insult."
The issue was not a religious offence published by infidels. Nor was it free speech. The issue was power. As Lenin said, the main question in politics is Who whom? Who does what to whom? In this case Islam threw the West on the defensive, demonstrated the timidity of our leaders and the shakiness of our convictions, and acquired a rich new issue it can exploit among the masses for a long time to come. Democracy, fumbling in its well-intentioned but hesitant way, was the big loser.