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Fear Factor

Giving in to radical Islam won't help moderate Muslims.

11:00 PM, Feb 8, 2006 • By EDWARD MORRISSEY
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THE MUSLIM WORLD has erupted in anger and indignation over the publication of a series of editorial cartoons in Denmark that criticize Islam and its prophet Mohammed. Protestors have burnt three consulates, two in Syria and one in Lebanon and many Muslims have gone into the streets demanding violent revenge for the insult to their faith . . . by editorial cartoonists.

Of course, religious believers in the West--namely Christians--have had their faith mocked by the relentlessly secular Western press for decades. In the arts, Western Christians have suffered through insults such as Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ", a picture of a crucifix in a beaker of the artist's urine. Playwright Terrence McNally was hailed as a hero for depicting Jesus Christ as a promiscuous homosexual in his Corpus Christi.

The differing reactions of Muslims and Christians to perceived slights is worth examining.

CNN, by way of example, has refused to reproduce any of the Danish cartoons while the demonstrations rage, declaring that they have self-censored their broadcasts and website "out of respect for Islam." Yet when it came to covering the dispute over public funding and exhibition of Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary, for instance, which featured a Madonna image covered in elephant dung and surrounded by pictures of female genitalia, the organization did not feel a need to make any gesture of respect: CNN displayed the artwork along with the story so its readers could make up their own minds.

THEN THERE IS the curious website We Are Sorry, which appeared this week attempting to apologize on behalf of moderate Muslims for the violent response to the cartoons. The apology on the site not only sounds sincere, but gets to the heart of freedom of speech:

Anyone offended by the content of a publication has a vast choice of democratic and respectful methods of seeking redress. The most obvious are not buying the publication, writing letters to the editor or expressing their opinions in other venues. It is also possible to use one's free choice in a democracy to conduct a boycott of the publication, and even a boycott of firms dealing with it. Yet an indiscriminate boycott of all the country's firms is simply uncalled for and counter-productive. We would be allowing the extremists on both sides to prevail, while punishing the government and the whole population for the actions of an unrepresentative irresponsible few.

We apologize whole-heartedly to the people of Norway and Denmark for any offense this sorry episode may have caused, to any European who has been harassed or intimidated, to the staff of the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish Embassies in Syria whose workplace has been destroyed and for any distress this whole affair may have caused to anyone.

These are powerful words that would go a long way to healing the breach between the Muslims in the street and the Western world--if they truly represented the viewpoint of moderate Islam. Unfortunately, we cannot tell that, because the people behind We Are Sorry have remained anonymous. The site provides no information what individuals or groups initiated this curious message. The domain registration reveals nothing about the owner, except that its registration became official this week.

The effort could be a hoax, although that seems unlikely. The site has no requests for money, and the source code is straightforward; it doesn't act as a Trojan horse for spreading a virus. A more likely explanation is that moderate Muslims wanted to make a statement supporting Western freedom and peaceful debate--but were too afraid to put their names to the effort for fear of reprisals.

In each of these cases, fear might well be the difference maker. Western artists can mock Christians with impunity, and so they do. Western new organizations don't self-censor when it comes to non-Muslim faithful because they are not afraid of violent repercussions. And in the West, differing religious factions feel free to make their cases in broad daylight, comfortable in the knowledge that those of the opposite view will not issue fatwas against them.