This week, with American Marines being shot in Kuwait, Australian good-timers being blown up in Indonesia, and several suicide attacks thwarted in Israel, the Qatar-based al-Jazeera news network has a round-table discussion of an important question: Islam is the religion of peace and dignity, so why do people in the west keep insulting the Prophet?
If the spectacle of Americans asking, "Why do they hate us?" after September 11 was worth scoffing at, surely the same rule should apply here. After a certain number of suicide bombings, do we really need to keep showing deference toward the bombers' ideology?
Actually, al-Jazeera should throw in some nuances for accuracy. If anything, blasphemy in the west is more difficult than it should be. Right now, the writers Michel Houellebecq and Oriana Fallaci are on trial for making derogatory comments about Islam, and those trials are taking place not in Riyadh or Peshawar but in the capital of western progress, Paris. In particular, Houellebecq—whose book Platform ends with the bombing of a Southeast Asian tourist trap, an event eerily similar to Jemaah Islamiah's alleged attack this weekend—appears to have been prosecuted for being discomfortingly accurate.
Amid America's post-9/11 soul-searching, we were assured in numerous official statements and Tom Friedman columns that a similar self-examination was going on in the Islamic world. This dovetailed with President Bush's repeated assurances that the extremists did not represent the religion of peace. Longtime follower of political Islam Gilles Kepel made the intriguing case that al Qaeda's violence actually signaled the failure of Islamic radicals to gain popular support. Arguments were made of the "Hitler or Timothy McVeigh was a Christian" variety (an injustice to both McVeigh, a proud atheist, and Hitler, whose fusion of modern bully worship and Nordic paganism bore only vestigial traces of Christianity), and we were reminded that the Catholic Church also behaved brutally before it was forcibly divested of temporal authority. A similar reassessment, we could conclude, was just around the corner in the House of Peace.
There were some unanswered questions with this thesis, even for those of us with a vanishingly small degree of familiarity with Islam. Is it even possible to separate mosque and state? Since Islam's much-discussed tolerance always proceeded from a situation of unquestioned authority, how could we expect pluralistic thinking when the faith must exist on a level playing field with Christianity, Hinduism, and atheism? How are Jesus' and Mohammed's views of stoning alike? How are they different? These questions will have to remain open, because the great debate on the nature of Islam never occurred, and doesn't seem to be in the offing.
What has taken its place is an increasingly shrill recitation of slights and insults that have supposedly injured the sensibilities of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, al-Jazeera, various university professors, and others. The Rev. Jerry Falwell's new career as an international insult comic creates an easy target for Islam's self-appointed defenders; but the bromides of anti-discrimination are no substitute for actual discussion of some pretty important ideological questions. Not every Cold War leftist was a closet Stalinite, and I'd certainly like to believe that not every Imam is a secret jihadist. Unfortunately, the people who should be persuading me are too busy changing the subject.