Intimidating the West, from Rushdie to Benedict

The violence by Muslims responding to comments by the pope fits 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 Qur'an.” Subsequent rioting led to over 20 deaths, mostly in India.

• 1997 — The US Supreme Court refused to remove a 1930s frieze that decorates the main court chamber and shows Muhammad as lawgiver; the Council on American-Islamic Relations made an issue of this, leading to riots and injuries in India.

• 2002 — The American evangelical leader Jerry Falwell called Muhammad a “terrorist,” leading to church burnings and at least 10 deaths in India.

• 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,” was picked up by the famous Pakistani cricketer, Imran Khan, and prompted protests around the Muslim world, leading to at least 15 deaths.

• February 2006 — The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons of Muhammad, spurring a Palestinian imam in Copenhagen, Ahmed Abdel Rahman Abu Laban, to excite Muslim opinion against the Danish government. He succeeded so well that hundreds died, mostly in Nigeria.

• September 2006 — Pope Benedict XVI quoted 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 — Khomeini's edict against Salman 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 (Rushdie, Danish cartoons, Pope Benedict) have grown much larger than those based in the United States (Supreme Court, Jerry Falwell, Koran flushing), reflecting the greater efficacy of Islamist aggression against Europeans than against Americans.

Islamists ignore subtleties. 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. Rushdie's novel 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 did Falwell (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 having international reach (Khomeini, CAIR, Imran 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 remains 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?

These incidents also spotlight a total lack of reciprocity by Muslims. The Saudi government bans Bibles, crosses, and Stars of David, while Muslims routinely publish disgusting cartoons of Jews.

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 more sure 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.

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of several books, including Militant Islam Reaches America and In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power (Transaction Publishers), from which this column derives. You may visit his website by clicking here and purchase his books by clicking here.

(This article courtesy of the Middle East Forum.)

Daniel Pipes

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Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of several books, including Militant Islam Reaches America and In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power (Transaction Publishers), from which this column derives.

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