Wednesday, February 15, 2006

You have a grievance?

For an article written in 1993, Huntington’s words in “The Clash of Civilizations?” are remarkably prescient. His thesis: “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural,” might have seemed radical during an era informed by the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the “End of History,” but we see now how on the mark this observation is.

The current round of attacks on embassies has as its proximate cause outrage over the publication of images of Mohammed. The images of the conflict are startling, children in London holding signs demanding that cartoonists be beheaded, chanters in France calling for Allah to bring a “9-11” to Europe, statues of Ronald McDonald aflame in Pakistan, Danish Embassies burning in Syria and Lebanon, and claims that nuclear weapons will give Moslem countries “respect.” Clearly, there is rage among Moslems, regardless of their nationality, directed toward the West in general and Denmark in particular. But the interesting question is whether the cartoons caused the rioting that would not have occurred but for the images or whether the cartoons are a catalyst that precipitated a conflict which was otherwise inevitable?

The argument that cartoons are somehow uniquely offensive in a way that makes otherwise docile believers in Islam to become violent is belied by the fact that books and statues have depicted the image of Mohammed’s face for more than a 1000 years. Illustrations of Dante’s Inferno have featured Mohammed in hell since the poem’s initial publication. Other works of art throughout history have show his face, and even now, cigarette vendors in Iran have pictures of Mohammed’s face to prove their piety. There is a frieze featuring Mohammed on the north face of the Supreme Court. So, since it does not appear that the images themselves are particularly horrific, some have speculated that the outrage of Muslims is because publishing the pictures shows that infidels have insufficient reverence and respect for the prophet and by extension, all Moslems. While holding the West to a higher standard regarding images of Mohammed than they hold their own, Huntington makes that point that “People apply one standard to their kin-countries and a different standard to others.”

This explanation comes closer to Huntington’s observation that the sharpest differentiation between civilizations is by religion. When one civilization feels that its religion is not respected by another, the situation could result in “the most prolonged and the most violent conflicts.” Whether the images in question are particularly egregious manifestation of a lack of respect is immaterial to the perception among many Moslems that they images represent a general lack of respect for Moslems by the West, a lack of respect that many Moslems feel they must counter by force.

Many Westerners are bewildered by the anger and hatred they see in the faces of the Moslems protesting the cartoons, because most in the West, think of Islam not at all and would prefer to be left alone to live their lives in peace, completely unconcerned about the Moslems and their perceived grievances. For Mayer, this kind of neglect and ignorance by the stronger power for the interests and needs of the weaker power is a recipe for conflict. And because there is such a huge imbalance between the power of the Moslem states and the West, the Moslems have resorted to nuisance attacks on the West that “irritate, bother, interfere or harass but…fall short of the ability to impose significant consequences or penalties.” Since the early 70’s the Moslem world has made nuisance attacks on the West through terrorism, kidnappings, oil price shocks, embassy seizures and bombings, and small scale attacks in individual targets, like the first World Trade Center bombing and the attack on the USS Cole. The West had responded in a similarly limited fashion with small scale bombings, arrests and targeted killings.

One of the “nuisance” attacks was somewhat more successful than the others, namely the attacks of 9-11. Initially, this “victory” over the United States and the West was met with jubilation throughout Moslem countries and the perpetrator of the attack, Osama bin Laden was lauded. However, this pride was soon dashed into humiliations as Moslems watched the United States and Britain respond disproportionately to the loss of 3000 people by toppling two Moslem governments, occupying the cradle of Moslem civilization in Iraq, and establishing bases throughout the region. And this humiliation breeds anger and fosters the perception that the West is at war with Islam.

Individual Moslems have certainly not been shy about claiming that Islam is at war with the West. At least since the first Gulf War, many prominent Moslem voices have made this claim, as detailed by Huntington. Current leaders, like the President of Iran are making similar claims, and the perception on the street, not only in Moslem countries, but also among Moslems who live in the West is that Islam is at war with the West. Given that perception, even relatively innocuous provocations like cartoons can seem as huge affronts to the already aggrieved. Mayer argues that this type of affront can be attributed to cultural obliviousness which when combined with the huge power disparity can drive the offended party to seek ever larger expressions of their outrage. Hence, the Iran pursues nuclear weapons.

The cultural obliviousness of the West can result is serious miscalculations. Mayer says that by failing to understand the needs of the smaller power, the larger power is prone to gestures which will seem patronizing and controlling. This reliance on gesture and posture is where the real threat to press freedom reside. Because many in the West fail to understand the grievances of the Moslems and to realize that many in the Moslem world are actively at war with the West, leads the more feckless Western countries to call for self-regulation of the press or tolerance to Moslem sensibilities that would amount to censorship. Yet failing to grasp the underlying grievance of Moslems; the fact that they have been routinely defeated by Infidels, and that their economies and modern cultures are dependent on Western technology and money. These things are deeply humiliating and represent an affront to Moslems very essence.

Offering to be more solicitous of the feeling of Moslems, trying to assuage the offense Moslems feel by pixilating the face of Mohammed when the cartoons are shown on CNN or firing an editor of some newspaper plays into the patronization against which Moslems are rioting. The offense is not cartoons, but is the West itself, and the West’s failure to submit to Islam. Currently, the lines between Islam and the West are not sharp but they are real. Once the balance of power begins to tilt more toward Islam, with the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, the lines will become much sharper. Nuisance power of Islam will transform to more formal power, and become a lot harder to confront.