Two decades ago, the American Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan referred in an interview to Judaism as a "gutter religion." Ferocious condemnations from Western leaders and media commentators followed instantaneously, with most not only asking him to apologize and retract his slur but demanding also that other African-American leaders publicly disassociate themselves from Mr. Farrakhan.
The cartoons in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten which, among other things, portrayed the prophet Mohammed as a terrorist who also offered virgins to suicide bombers, were infinitely more explosive than Mr. Farrakhan's words. But no major Western figure has condemned their publication even though these have angrily united the Muslim world in a way no other issue has in recent times.
Such double standards aside, the absence of such condemnation by any Western leader is the principal reason that protests have continued to escalate and in a few instances turn violent. The protests started after months of unsuccessful efforts to get the Danish government to address the issue,
Those best placed to prevent the demonstrations from turning violent were Muslim leaders themselves. But the leaders of most Muslim states are unpopular, U.S.-backed dictators who believe they can gain domestic leverage by letting their people's passions play out on "safe" issues such as this.
Muslim reformers could also have been a restraining influence against the resort to violence. But most have been effectively silenced by the wars, occupations, annexations and other crimes being committed against Muslim states by the West since the 9/11 terror strikes.
The violence used by some groups enraged by the cartoons is understandable, but both wrong and counterproductive. Nevertheless, it is being portrayed out of all proportion to its relatively small scale.
The net result of the violence in some of the anti-cartoon demonstrations is that many more mainstream Westerners will be convinced that Muslims are an intolerant and violent lot who pose a threat to their free world, deepening the anti-Muslim phobia that the cartoons promoted to begin with. It is the cartoons' continuing republication in numerous other European publications that has sparked outrage among Muslims and convinced most of them that the cartoons are part of the demonizations that previously paved the way for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and which are now being proposed in some quarters against Iran and Syria.
The cartoons have also highlighted the role that media play in inflaming passions through double standards. The condemnation of Mr. Farrakhan's comment apart, there is frequent media outrage expressed about cartoons printed in the Arab world that depict Jews as murderers or Nazis. In Western Europe, there are in fact clear limits to "acceptable free speech" -- the most relevant here being that people can be, and are, imprisoned for denying the Holocaust of Jews at Nazi German hands.
Generally, incitement by Muslims leading to relatively minor damage is harped upon and condemned, and yet Western commentators can with impunity propose destructive wars against much weaker Muslim states, as happened with Iraq and is now being advocated for Iran.
The cartoon crisis is only the latest manifestation of the explosive escalation of Muslim-Western tensions in recent months. The deteriorating American position in Iraq is now being matched by the slide to greater insecurity in Afghanistan, which experienced its first large-scale sectarian violence on Ashura on Thursday.
The war on terror is producing new terrorists by the thousands. Support for Western policies in other key Muslim states has plummeted to yet lower levels. Hamas has overwhelming Palestinian backing, Iranians are united behind their leaders' determination to pursue atomic energy especially when archenemy Israel has nuclear weapons, and Presidents Mubarak and Musharaf are facing intense political challenges in Egypt and Pakistan.
The West seems completely incapable of getting hold of issues which would provide it traction in the Muslim world, nor is there any evidence that it wishes to do so, better public relations excepted.
To avoid further disaster, the West must fashion a global vision that will win the support of the vast majority of world's Muslims, who are moderate and have historically embraced the West. The Muslim world needs profound change as well, but until it is less threatened by the West, its reformers will continue to be on the defensive.
Salim Lone, a former senior communications official at the United Nations, writes often on relations between Muslims and the West. Email to: email@example.com.
© 2006 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Authors Note: In my article on the controversy surrounding the offensive cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed, I mentioned that Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan described Judaism as a "gutter religion" two decades ago.
Mr. Farrakhan had firmly denied having uttered those words, saying that he had referred to Judaism as a "dirty religion." On the surface the difference seems minor - except that he had on previous occasions used the term "dirty religion" to describe the behavior of Christians and Muslims who use their faith as an excuse to pursue unjust political ends.
I should have at a minimum indicated that Minister Farrakhan denied having characterised Judaism that way.