Before you can discuss the manifest seriousness of the latest controversy involving the pope, you have to acknowledge its hilarity. Pope Benedict XVI, in an austere philosophical address, invoked Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, the 14th century ruler who offered a harsh assessment of Islam. While the Koran says, "There is no compulsion in religion," Manuel couldn't help but notice that Muslims were setting up more franchises in his neighborhood than Starbucks - and they weren't doing so by selling the best darn Mocha Frappuccinos on his side of the Bosphorus Straits.
"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new," Manuel complained sometime around the siege of Byzantium, "and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Why Pope Benedict quoted Manuel is hotly debated. But one explicit reason was to enunciate the Church's opposition to using faith to justify violence or intolerance.
And this is where the hilarity comes in. A Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman responded: "Anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence."
During Friday prayers in Iran, a senior cleric changed his usual script to denounce the pope, but the crowd of worshippers hadn't seen the memo, so they chanted back the usual refrain: "Death to America! Death to Israel!"
In Turkey, protestors demanded that the Justice Ministry arrest the pope when he visits there this fall and prosecute him for insulting Islam.
And just this week, clerics in Gaza reportedly suggested that the pope convert to Islam to save his own life.
But let us not dare suggest that even a whiff of intolerance can be detected in the Islamic world. If you say otherwise, I will cut off your head.
It may be amusing to note how so many Muslims are eager to confirm a stereotype in the process of denouncing that very stereotype, but it's not so funny when they put their jihad where the mouth is. Churches were attacked in the West Bank and a nun in Somalia was murdered, allegedly in reaction to the pope's comments. Al-Qaida's franchise in Iraq announced "We shall break the cross and spill the wine. ... God will (help) Muslims to conquer Rome. ... (May) God enable us to slit their throats."
But this isn't primarily about al-Qaida or even the war on terror. Note that the parliaments and governments of Islamic nations - our allies in the war on terror - have been at the forefront of the anti-pope backlash.
The many learned disquisitions on the pope's speech notwithstanding, this isn't about theology either. After all, no serious person can take lectures on religious tolerance from the Muslim world very seriously. Spare me tales of Jewish accommodation in the 15th century. Today, throughout the Muslim world, Jew-hatred and Christian-bashing are commonplace, state-sanctioned and fashionable.
No, this is about us. The best book for illuminating what's going on in the Muslim "street" isn't some weighty treatise on Islam; it's a short little tract called "White Guilt" by Shelby Steele. The book isn't even about Islam. Steele focuses on white liberals and the black radicals who've been gaming them ever since the 1960s. Whites, he argues, have internalized their own demonization. Deep down they fear that maybe they are imperialistic, racist bastards, and they are desperate to prove otherwise. In America, black radicals figured this out a while ago and have been dunning liberal whites ever since.
The West is caught in a similarly dysfunctional cycle of extortion and intimidation with Islam, but on a grander and far more violent scale. Whether it's the pope's comments or some Danish cartoons, self-appointed spokesmen for the Islamic street say, "You have offended a billion Muslims," which really means, "There are so many of us, you should watch out." And if you didn't get the message, just look around for the burning embassies and murdered infidels. They're not hard to find.
In response, the West apologizes and apologizes. Radical Muslims, who are not stupid, take note and become emboldened by these displays of weakness and capitulation. And the next time, they demand two pounds of flesh. Meanwhile, the entire global conversation starts from the assumption that the West is doing something wrong by tolerating freedom of speech, among other things.
This week, French President Jacques Chirac explained that everyone in the West must avoid everything that sparks tensions. In other words, we must forever be held hostage by the tactical outrage of a global mob. There's nothing funny about that.