June 18, 2013
Dealing with fanatics
What the diplomatic attacks in Libya and Egypt tell us
There can be few things more frustrating for a holy warrior than the refusal of most Westerners to take his blood-curdling threats seriously.
No matter how hard he tries to persuade them that they had better convert now to Islam or choose between death and life as a suitably submissive second-class citizen, they respond by patting him on his head as though he were some kind of a nut and telling him they really truly respect Islam because they know it is a “religion of peace”, not the decidedly warlike creed over a thousand years of history would seem to suggest. Even the destruction of New York’s Twin Towers, with a death toll of about 3,000, failed to strike fear into the hearts of the wretched infidels.
Will the current wave of mob attacks on US diplomatic outposts in Muslim lands, in which an ambassador was murdered yesterday make many Westerners change their minds? Probably not. For understandable reasons, the last thing level-headed Western leaders want is an all-out confrontation between their countries and the more than a billion-strong “Muslim world”. To avoid such a calamity, they tell themselves and others that deep down most Muslims are people who want the same things as Westerners: lots of consumer goodies, steady jobs, freedom of speech, the right to vote, and so on.
That is surely the case, but unfortunately there are also many (if opinion polls are to be trusted, hundreds of millions) for whom religious faith or, at least, loyalty to the Muslim community, trumps everything else. There is nothing unusual about this: throughout the world, most people are nationalists who put their own country first, even when its leaders are pursuing policies that, in retrospect, may be universally condemned as wicked, as happened not that long ago in Germany, Italy and Japan.
When in the White House, George W. Bush proved to be as eager as any progressive to assure Islamists that, much as he disliked individuals such as Saddam Hussein, he had nothing against their religious beliefs, which in his view were perfectly compatible with democracy. For his part, Barack Obama has gone out of his way to flatter Muslims, attributing to them a leading role in just about everything deemed positive, including the development of the US.
Both presidents hoped that a conciliatory strategy, designed to isolate the fanatics by giving the majority a respected place in the Western story, would sooner or later transform the predominantly Muslim countries that stretch between the Atlantic and the China Seas into tolerant places in which Christians, Jews, atheists and people of other minorities could go about their business, without having to worry about the majority’s willingness to take umbrage should they unwittingly violate some religious convention.
For the many Westerners who want to think that by now people must have learned that it is far better to rejoice in multicultural diversity than it would be to relapse into the intransigent ways of the recent past, Islam is just another religious confession, one of many whose members should be satisfied if others treat them as equals.
For Islamists, asking them to put up with such an arrangement is insulting. As far as they are concerned, democracy is a blasphemous infidel invention, while being tolerant of other faiths would mean betraying their own. Like Roman Catholics and most other Christians before their stern certainties dissolved in the acid-bath of scepticism, they regard extreme intolerance as a virtue, not a vice.
When news of what was happening in Egypt and Libya came to the attention of US authorities, their initial reaction was tell the murderous rioters that they shared their feelings because they too thought it was appalling that someone, apparently egged on by the Protestant pastor Terry Jones, had made a derogatory film about the life of the Muhammed called The innocence of Muslims. Later, Obama took a harsher approach, saying he found the attacks on his diplomats “outrageous” before calling on the governments of the two countries to hunt down the killers in order to punish them, but by then his Republican rival Mitt Romney had described the “first response” as “disgraceful.”
Perhaps it was, but should Romney win in November, it would be his turn to face the same dilemmas as have Bush and Obama.
As generations of rulers have found out, being nice can be just as dangerous as making a show of toughness because it encourages their enemies to be even more belligerent. In any event, dealing with fanatics who are eager to take offence at any perceived slight, whether a book by a distinguished British novelist, a batch of fairly innocuous Danish cartoons, or the stunts pulled off by an obscure US preacher who had earlier won worldwide renown by saying he was about to put a copy of the Koran to the torch, is anything but easy.
On occasion, Western leaders seem willing to impose censorship in their own countries to prevent anything that smacks of “Islamophobia” from being said, printed, filmed or delivered into cyberspace. That would not only entail the end of freedom of speech, but it would also be seen by Islamists as a sign that total victory is within their reach, so, quite naturally, they would then redouble their efforts to bludgeon the entire West into submission.