But woe to the outsider who ventures onto that explosive terrain. The assumption is that Westerners bear Arabs malice, that Western judgments are always slanted and cruel.
In the past half-century, Arabs, as well as Muslims in non-Arab lands, have felt the threat of an encircling civilization they can neither master nor reject. Migrants have left the burning grounds of Karachi, Cairo and Casablanca but have taken the fire of their faith with them. “Dish cities” have sprouted in the Muslim diasporas of Western Europe and North America. You can live in Stockholm and be sustained by a diet of al-Jazeera television.
We know the celebrated cases when modernity has agitated the pious. A little more than two decades ago, it was a writer of Muslim and Indian birth, Salman Rushdie, whose irreverent work of fiction, “The Satanic Verses,” offended believers with its portrayal of Islam. That crisis began with book-burnings in Britain, later saw protests in Pakistan and culminated in Iran’s ruling cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issuing a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death in 1989. The protesters were not necessarily critics of fiction; all it took to offend was that Islam, the prophet Muhammad and his wives had become a writer’s material. The confrontation laid bare the unease of Islam in the modern world.
The floodgates had opened. The clashes that followed defined the new terms of encounters between a politicized version of Islam — awakened to both power and vulnerability — and the West’s culture of protecting and nurturing free speech. In 2004, a Moroccan Dutchman in his mid-20s, Mohammed Bouyeri, murdered filmmaker Theo van Goghon a busy Amsterdam street after van Gogh and a Somali-born politician made a short film about the abuse of women in Islamic culture.
Shortly afterward, trouble came to Denmark when a newspaper there published a dozencartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad; in one he wears a bomb-shaped turban, and another shows him as an assassin. The newspaper’s culture editor had thought the exercise would merely draw attention to the restrictions on cultural freedom in Europe — but perhaps that was naive. After all, Muslim activists are on the lookout for such material. And Arab governments are eager to defend Islam. The Egyptian ambassador to Denmark encouraged a radical preacher of Palestinian birth living in Denmark and a young Lebanese agitator to fan the flames of the controversy.
But it was Syria that made the most of this opportunity. The regime asked the highest clerics to preach against the Danish government. The Danish embassies in Damascus and Beirut were sacked; there was a call to boycott Danish products. Denmark had been on the outer margins of Europe’s Muslim diaspora. Now its peace and relative seclusion were punctured.
The storm that erupted this past week at the gates of American diplomatic outposts across the Muslim world is a piece of this history. As usual, it was easily ignited. The offending work, a 14-minute film trailer posted on YouTube in July, is offensive indeed. Billed as a trailer for “The Innocence of Muslims,” a longer movie to come, it is at once vulgar and laughable. Its primitiveness should have consigned it to oblivion.