In the wake of mass rioting and death in Afghanistan and other Islamic nations ignited by a fallacious Newsweek story, furious finger-pointing has ensued. The White House, the departments of State and Defense, and most conservative radio talk show hosts are blaming Newsweek for carelessness and irresponsibility. Newsweek, while apologizing for the error, protests that the story was vetted by a Defense Department official who objected to other aspects of the piece but remained silent on the Koran flushing part. Others are suggesting that the Bush administration prepared the ground for this rumor by engaging in routine degradation of Muslim detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Absent from this blame exchange is any recognition that many Muslims can be incited to violence by anything or nothing. It's as if they live poised for outrage. In 2002, the Miss World Pageant had to high-tail it out of Nigeria after rioting took more than 200 lives. Angry Muslims rampaged through the streets after a young fashion writer penned an article wondering how Muhammad would have reacted to the pageant, and suggesting that the Prophet (who had 14 wives) might have chosen a wife from among the assembled beauties. The offices of the newspaper were firebombed. A few weeks later, after many deaths, the Islamists remained unsatisfied. The deputy governor of a northern Nigerian province issued a "fatwa" declaring it the duty of religious Muslims to track down the 21-year-old author of the story and kill her.
Recall that Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was stabbed to death while bicycling to work in Amsterdam last year. His offense? Producing a movie that exposed Muslim mistreatment of women.
Salman Rushdie remains a marked man for writing a book Muslims detest. Norwegian/Swedish Pentecostal preacher Runar Sogaard received death threats last month -- not anonymous ones, but direct threats from an organized Islamic group, for using highly insulting language about Muhammad. Sogaard was impolite to be sure. But since when is the proper punishment for impertinence death? Isioma Daniel, the Nigerian journalist whose musings sparked the Nigerian riot, remains under 24-hour-a-day guard.
Easily aroused to fury, Muslim fanatics are correspondingly difficult to court. Nowhere has there been acknowledgment on the part of Muslim leaders that the United States has again and again put its servicemen in harm's way in order to rescue or aid Muslims. We did so in Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo. We poured out our hearts and opened our wallets when Indonesia was struck by a tsunami. It isn't just that they've failed to say thank you. No, the U.S. is unrelentingly accused of making war on Islam. President Bush visits mosques, holds Ramadan services at the White House and declares (too optimistically?) that Islam is a religion of peace. And yet the U.S. is distrusted and reviled in many parts of the Muslim world.
The Washington Post coverage of the Koran story stressed that the Koran is holier to Muslims than the Bible is to Christians. Perhaps so, perhaps not. But it is simply impossible to imagine Christians burning down a newspaper building for an article that blasphemed Jesus, or rioting in response to any religious insult. We Americans can go at each other all day and night about whom to blame for the Koran flushing story -- but if the Muslim world did not walk around with an enormous chip on its collective shoulder, this would not be a matter of life and death.
In the course of our wide-ranging war on terror, Americans have certainly committed some acts that are needlessly inflammatory to Muslim sensibilities. Abu Ghraib is exhibit A. But Abu Ghraib is also the exception, not the norm. Detainees at Guantanamo receive religiously appropriate food, prayer mats and time for daily worship. The U.S. even provides Muslim chaplains. The underlying truth is this: We are at pains not to fight a religious war. The trouble is, our enemies are fighting a religious war, and there is nothing we can do about it. Al Qaeda's strongest suit is the sympathy it can tap among some of the world's 1 billion Muslims for a jihad against the unbelievers. Our strongest suits are freedom and the reality that we are the winning side.