Here we go again. Thousands of Sudanese Muslims took to the street last week to threaten death to a British schoolteacher in Khartoum.
Her crime? She inadvertently committed the felony of allowing her class to name a teddy bear “Muhammad.”
The teacher, Gillian Gibbons, has been pardoned by Sudan’s president (after initially being sentenced to 15 days in prison) and sent home to England. Yet that happy ending doesn’t erase the reaction in the streets of Khartoum. The tired story behind irrational anger in much of the Muslim world remains the same.
Watch out if Westerners somewhere are judged blasphemous to Islam when they draw a cartoon, write a novel, make a movie or discuss history.
In their furious reaction, thin-skinned Muslims may issue death threats. And they expect apologies. Sometimes the offense — like the reporting of a Koran flushed down the toilet at Guantanamo Bay — turns out to be false but still causes riots and murdering thousands of miles away.
Likewise, the reaction to this madness is now stereotyped. Often apologies — not condemnation — follow from contrite Westerners. To prevent a recurrence, Western writers, filmmakers, teachers and religious figures quietly edit their work and restrict their speech — but only when Islam is involved.
So-called moderate Muslims, often residing in Western countries, will usually say they deplore such extremism on the part of radicals. Then they claim such intolerance is simply not typical of Islam. Or that the embarrassing story has been reported in exaggerated fashion by those prejudiced against Muslims.
Few, though, ever explain why it is that Muslims — not Hindus, Christians, Buddhists or atheists — are in the global news threatening to kill someone over a toy or a cartoon or an opera.
Finally, the uproar dies down — only to break out again in a new place over a new grievance.
There are certain unspoken rules of the game behind all these incidents. The first is the lack of reciprocity. Christ can be mocked in the Middle East without any consequences.Muslim leaders can venture to the Vatican at Rome, the ancient center of Christianity, to consult with the pope about the necessity of more interfaith understanding. But should a pope or clergyman want to reciprocate by venturing to Mecca, he better convert to Islam first.
New mosques and conversions to Islam are common in the West. But to send missionaries to, or build a new church in, Saudi Arabia, Sudan or Pakistan is to court death.
Condescension is also required. The demonstrator who waves a sword calling for a beheading is often excused. The poor guy must not be educated, rather than just cruel and dangerous. “We’re so sorry for the little mix-up” is the public Western answer to the shout of “Death to you!”
A globalized world means communications are instantaneous. What one person in Denmark draws is broadcast immediately to millions in Islamabad and Khartoum. And they are apparently glued to, but very angry at, the modern world that pops up on their television screens.
The Muslim Middle East has much of the world’s oil. So its excesses are put up with by the rest of the world rather than loudly condemned. But after 9/11 and the bombings in Madrid and London, Islamists screaming for a beheading cannot quite be laughed off. Instead they may be the vanguard of something far worse.
Sometimes apologists dredge up Timothy McVeigh or violence in Northern Ireland as if to prove that supposed Christian-inspired terrorism is just as much a world danger as jihadism. We know it isn’t, but such moral equivalence sounds liberal and might calm down the mob.
Other times we drag Iraq into the conversation and say the armed removal of Saddam radicalized Muslims — as if the fatwa against Salman Rushdie or 9/11 followed the outbreak of that war.
What would stop this unhealthy teddy bear syndrome?
— Weaning ourselves off imported oil and therefore the need to appease those who have it.
— Politely informing Muslims that Westerners believe the norms of free speech and expression are to be uniformly applied. No one religion or region gets a special pass.
— Supporting human rights abroad and offering some constitutional alternative in the Middle East to theocracy and dictatorship that both encourage Islamic radicalism.
— And remaining militarily strong.
Remember that the fanatic waving his age-old sword in the Khartoum street over a teddy bear shows the same dangerous derangement as the nut in Tehran who may one day want his hand on the Bomb.