Intimidating the West, from Rushdie to Benedict
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
[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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
Reader comments (331) on this item
Comment on this item
Support Daniel Pipes' work with a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes