Manipulated Outrage and Misplaced Fury
Islamists stoke resentment of the West-and anger over the long decline of Muslim influence-to serve their own violent ends.
attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions this week-beginning in Egypt and
Libya, and moving to Yemen and other Muslim countries-came under cover
of riots against an obscure online video insulting Islam and the Prophet
Muhammad. But the mob violence and assaults should be seen for what
they really are: an effort by Islamists to garner support and mobilize
their base by exacerbating anti-Western sentiments.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to calm Muslims Thursday by
denouncing the video, she was unwittingly playing along with the ruse
the radicals set up. The United States would have been better off
focusing on the only outrage that was of legitimate interest to the
American government: the lack of respect-shown by a complaisant Egyptian
government and other Islamists-for U.S. diplomatic missions.
orchestrated on the pretext of slights and offenses against Islam have
been part of Islamist strategy for decades. Iran's ayatollahs built an
entire revolution around anti-Americanism. While the Iranian revolution
was underway in 1979, Pakistan's Islamists whipped up crowds by
spreading rumors that the Americans had forcibly occupied Islam's most
sacred site, the Ka'aba or the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Pakistani protesters burned the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.
demonstrations in many parts of the Muslim world after the 1989
fatwa-or religious condemnation-of a novel by Salman Rushdie, or after
the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of the Prophet
Muhammad in 2005, also did not represent spontaneous outrage. In each
case, the insult to Islam or its prophet was first publicized by
Islamists themselves so they could use it as justification for planned
mourning over the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and others
subsides, we will hear familiar arguments in the West. Some will rightly
say that Islamist sensibilities cannot and should not lead to
self-censorship here. Others will point out that freedom of expression
should not be equated with a freedom to offend. They will say: Just as a
non-Jew, out of respect for other religious beliefs, does not exercise
his freedom to desecrate a Torah scroll, similar respect should be
extended to Muslims and what they deem sacred.
this debate, as thoughtful as it may be, is a distraction from what is
really going on. It ignores the political intent of Islamists for whom
every perceived affront to Islam is an opportunity to exploit a wedge
issue for their own empowerment.
for affronts, the Western mainstream is, by and large, quite respectful
toward Muslims, millions of whom have adopted Europe and North America
as their home and enjoy all the freedoms the West has to offer,
including the freedom to worship. Insignificant or unnoticed videos and
publications would have no impact on anyone, anywhere, if the Islamists
did not choose to publicize them for radical effect.
insults, real or hyped, are not the problem. At the heart of Muslim
street violence is the frustration of the world's Muslims over their
steady decline for three centuries, a decline that has coincided with
the rise and spread of the West's military, economic and intellectual
the 800 years of Muslim ascendancy beginning in the eighth century-in
Southern Europe, North Africa and much of Western Asia-Muslims did not
riot to protest non-Muslim insults against Islam or its prophet. There
is no historic record of random attacks against non-Muslim targets in
retaliation for a non-Muslim insulting Prophet Muhammad, though there
are many books derogatory toward Islam's prophet that were written in
the era of Islam's great empires. Muslims under Turkey's Ottomans, for
example, did not attack non-Muslim envoys (the medieval equivalent of
today's embassies) or churches upon hearing of real or rumored European
sacrilege against their religion.
then, violent responses to perceived injury are not integral to Islam. A
religion is what its followers make it, and Muslims opting for violence
have chosen to paint their faith as one that is prone to anger.
Frustration with their inability to succeed in the competition between
nations also has led some Muslims to seek symbolic victories.
the momentary triumph of burning another country's flag or setting on
fire a Western business or embassy building is a poor but widespread
substitute for global success that eludes the modern world's 1.5 billion
Muslims. Violent protest represents the lower rung of the ladder of
rage; terrorism is its higher form.
almost by definition have a vested interest in continuously fanning the
flames of Muslim victimhood. For Islamists, wrath against the West is
the basis for their claim to the support of Muslim masses, taking
attention away from societal political and economic failures. For
example, the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Conference
account for one-fifth of the world's population but their combined gross
domestic product is less than 7% of global output-a harsh reality for
which Islamists offer no solution.
after recent developments that were labeled the Arab Spring, few
Muslim-majority countries either fulfill-or look likely to-the criteria
for freedom set by the independent group Freedom House. Mainstream
discourse among Muslims blames everyone but themselves for this
situation. The image of an ascendant West belittling Islam with the view
to eliminate it serves as a convenient explanation for Muslim weakness.
the Muslim world embraces freedom of expression, it will be able to
recognize the value of that freedom even for those who offend Muslim
sensibilities. More important: Only in a free democratic environment
will the world's Muslims be able to debate the causes of their
powerlessness, which stirs in them greater anger than any specific
action on the part of Islam's Western detractors.
then, the U.S. would do well to remember Osama bin Laden's comment not
long after the Sept. 11 attacks: "When people see a strong horse and a
weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse." America should
do nothing that enables Islamists to portray the nation as the weak