[NY Sun title: "A Look at Islamic Violence"]
The violence by Muslims responding to comments by the pope fit a pattern that has been building and accelerating since 1989. Six times since then, Westerners did or said something that triggered death threats and violence in the Muslim world. Looking at them in the aggregate offers useful insights.
1989 – Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses prompted Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a death edict against him and his publishers, on the grounds that the book "is against Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran." Subsequent rioting led to over 20 deaths, mostly in India.
The Muhammad frieze in the U.S. Supreme Court.
2005 – An incorrect story in Newsweek, reporting that American interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, "in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet," is picked up by the famous Pakistani cricketer, Imran Khan, and prompts protests around the Muslim world, leading to at least 15 deaths.
February 2006 – The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten publishes twelve cartoons of Muhammad, spurring a Palestinian Arab imam in Copenhagen, Ahmed Abdel Rahman Abu Laban, to excite Muslim opinion against the Danish government. He succeeds so well, hundreds die, mostly in Nigeria.
September 2006 – Pope Benedict XVI quotes a Byzantine emperor's views that what is new in Islam is "evil and inhuman," prompting the firebombing of churches and the murder of several Christians.
These six rounds show a near-doubling in frequency: 8 years between the first and second rounds, then 5, then 3, 1, and ½.
The first instance – Ayatollah Khomeini's edict against Mr. Rushdie – came as a complete shock, for no one had hitherto imagined that a Muslim dictator could tell a British citizen living in London what he could not write about. Seventeen years later, calls for the execution of the pope (including one at the Westminster Cathedral in London) had acquired a too-familiar quality. The outrageous had become routine, almost predictable. As Muslim sensibilities grew more excited, Western ones became more phlegmatic.
Incidents started in Europe (Mr. Rushdie, Danish cartoons, Pope Benedict) have grown much larger than those based in the United States (Supreme Court, Rev. Falwell, Koran flushing), reflecting the greater efficacy of Islamist aggression against Europeans than against Americans.
Islamists ignore subtleties. Mr. Rushdie's magical realism, the positive intent of the Supreme Court frieze, the falsehood of the Koran-flushing story (ever tried putting a book down the toilet?), the benign nature of the Danish cartoons, or the subtleties of Benedict's speech – none of these mattered.
What rouses Muslim crowds and what does not is somewhat unpredictable. The Satanic Verses was not nearly as offensive to Muslim sensibilities as a host of other writings, medieval, modern, and contemporary. Other American Evangelists said worse things about Muhammad than Rev. Falwell did; the southern preacher Jerry Vines called the Muslim prophet "a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives," without violence ensuing. Why did Norwegian preacher Runar Søgaard's deeming Muhammad "a confused pedophile" remain a local dispute while the Danish cartoons went global?
One answer is that Islamists with an international reach (Ayatollah Khomeini, CAIR, Mr. Khan, Abu Laban) usually play a key role in transforming a general sense of displeasure into an operational fury. If no Islamist agitates, the issue stays relatively quiet.
The extent of the violence is even more unpredictable – one could not anticipate the cartoons causing the most fatalities and the pope's quote the fewest. And why so much violence in India?
No conspiracy lies behind these six rounds of inflammation and aggression, but examined in retrospect, they coalesce and form a single, prolonged campaign of intimidation, with surely more to come. The basic message – "You Westerners no longer have the privilege to say what you will about Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur'an, Islamic law rules you too" – will return again and again until Westerners either do submit or Muslims realize their effort has failed.
Sep. 27, 2006 update: Several readers have offered other cases beyond the six catalogued here. They include:
- The murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh in November 2004.
- The persecution of Bangladeshi doctor and writer Taslima Nasreen.
But neither of these fits the pattern in that they do not involve statements or actions by Westerners that sparked unrest and violence in majority-Muslim countries. Only the two individuals themselves were targeted. A third case comes closer to the pattern, but it took place in Nigeria, where the situation differs markedly from in the West.
Isioma Daniel wrote an article the ThisDay newspaper in November 2002 about the Miss World beauty contest in which she responded to Muslim criticism of the pageant by asking "What would Mohammed think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from one of them." This led to Muslim-Christian violence that left over 200 dead and thousands homeless. In addition, the newspaper offices were burned down.
Apr. 1, 2011 update: The Rev. Terry Jones' burning of a Koran in Florida on March 20 inspired mobs to attack a United Nations office in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, leading to the deaths of 7 UN workers and 5 Afghans.
Feb. 25, 2012 update: When American military officers realized that prisoners at the Parwan Detention Facility adjoining Bagram Airfield north of Kabul, Afghanistan, were using hundreds of Islamic publications, including Korans, to pass clandestine messages to each other, they pulled the books from the prison library and disposed of them by putting them in the trash to burn them. Here is a New York Times account of what happened next:
According to Afghan workers who witnessed the events, around 10 or 11 p.m. on Monday[, Feb. 20,] a dump truck escorted by a military vehicle drove up to the landfill at Bagram Air Base, where 20 or so Afghans work. Two uniformed NATO personnel, a man and a woman, began unloading bags of books from the back of the truck and throwing them into a pit for incineration. … The Afghan workers described the pair as Americans.
Accounts from some of the workers at the landfill suggested that the two people were oblivious to the significance of what they were doing. They made no attempt to hide the books, instead appearing to be routinely carrying out their duties. "When we saw these soldiers burning books, we moved closer to see what was going on, and one of the boys said, 'It is Holy Koran,' " said one of the laborers, Zabiullah, 22. "And we attacked them with our yellow helmets, and tried to stop them. We rushed towards them, and we threw our helmets at the vehicles."
Abdul Wahid, 25, another of the laborers, said he and two friends had shouted at the two people: "Don't burn our holy book! We will give it to our mullahs!" The two NATO personnel drew back, but two bags of books they had already thrown into the pit had begun to burn. "We tried to put out the fire with bottles of water, and then we pulled back the bags, and the boys also pulled out the half-burned books," said Zabiullah
Later reports indicated that 10-15 Korans had been damaged.
When the Afghan workers spread the word of what happened, demonstrations and then attacks followed. The U.S. military responded with contrition and announcements of sensitivity training. Barack Obama apologized. For their own safety, NATO personnel were recalled from their jobs in Afghan government offices after two American military officers working at the Interior Ministry were killed by colleagues. By today, some 28 Afghans have died and hundreds injured as a result of the Koran-related violence.
By way of context, it is worth recalling that the Iranian security services burned hundreds of what it called "perverted Bibles" in May 2010; and that some Islamic leaders endorse the practice of istinja', or cleaning after defecation, using Jewish and Christian religious scriptures.
Mar. 1, 2012 update: A week later, the killing still continues, with the death toll at 6 Americans and 30 Afghans.