February 5, 2006
By David Warren
I shall be writing tomorrow specifically on the blasphemy business: the very different way in which some cartoons about the Prophet Mohammad, which first appeared in an obscure Danish newspaper, have been received, East and West. As the result of a bold but isolated publishing decision by the editors of Jyllands-Posten, no Danish national, and perhaps no European, is now safe in a Muslim country; and Danish and other products have ceased to be sold.
As I write, the temperature is still rising. I notice Muslim demonstrations are still mostly in the planning stage, across Europe. In light of the recent French rioting, and the timid French response, I fear this may get out of hand. In the Arab world, protests are still confined to “the usual suspects” -- the several thousand who will always come out to provide a fresh “Muslim anger” segment for the international media. The violence in Gaza is also within the usual range, though the explicit targeting of the European Union offices portends something new. But we have yet to see how all this builds. My gut feeling -- albeit at a distance -- is that the “fire this time” is greater than previous apoplectic responses to e.g. the Satanic Verses, the Abu Ghraib prison photos, or the Newsweek reports from Guantanamo.
Not that the provocation is greater. What we have instead is a wave that is building from lesser waves. Each new provocation, each new breakthrough event, such as the 9/11 hit, or the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections, adds to the height of what is actually becoming a single wave.
What should be apparent to every Western observer by now, is the ability of this wave, served by modern technology, including world television and Internet, to wash over national and regional boundaries in the Muslim world. Those boundaries were drawn by European Imperialists in the last two centuries, and have served as bulkheads or firewalls against just this sort of catastrophe. They were partly meant for that purpose, by a Europe that was once more vividly aware of the power an aroused Islam could exert -- on a once-Christian continent entirely surrounded by Islamic empires or sea, that several times came close to being completely overrun.
It has become a cliché, or if it has not it should have, that Europe forgets, but Islam remembers. The popularity, and resonance, in the Arab world, of declarations from various “Islamists”, about recovering Andalusia and fighting the Crusaders, is not something we can dismiss as quaint. And those who have lost their religious convictions, are poorly placed to judge the power of religion over the power of nation or place. The European invention of nationalism was, to a large extent, a project to create bulwarks or firewalls within Europe itself, against the spread of what we had seen in the Thirty Years’ War. One might almost say it succeeded too well in taming religious fervour -- so that now Europe is defenceless against any fervour from outside.
So much more to say on this, but let me cut to the chase. While I think President Bush’s doctrine of spreading democracy in the Middle East was worthy and intelligent, and while I think we must not give up on it, the doctrine remains inchoate. We have not yet answered the, “And then what?”
Our enemy -- fanatical Islam -- has shown itself adaptable to Western military tactics. For instance, the development of a new species of booby-traps, or “IED”s in Iraq, as a low-cost way of randomly killing Iraqis and Americans alike, and thus sabotaging Iraq’s recovery, is a clever development from the too-costly methods of car bombs and “suicide-martyrs”. As the Pentagon keeps explaining, it is a mistake to think the other side is incapable of adjusting its tactics, as we adjust ours.
That enemy is now adapting to the tactic of democracy. Even in Iraq, he takes up the challenge, to win elections instead of merely sabotaging them. And he sees a huge possibility in this: to link together disparate national Islamist movements into a pan-Islamic popular front -- that may itself eventually overwhelm the bulwarks and firewalls of European Imperialism. Like multiple hijacked airliners, a modern Western device can be put at the service of an ancient Islamic cause.
The wave of which I spoke above may prove indistinguishable from this wave. What I fear may hit us in due course might be awkwardly called, “the new democratic pan-Islamism".
Copyright 2006 Ottawa Citizen