Violent protests continue to sweep the Muslim world over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. While the furor will eventually fade away, it is important to ponder some larger issues raised by the controversy.
For now, two conclusions can be drawn. First, the most radical segments of the Muslim world have shown their power, bringing a Western nation virtually to its knees.
Secondly, the lack of support for the Danish newspaper by much of the Western media has shown we are willing to accept limits to free speech, if going beyond those limits provokes a clash with the most violent voices of the Muslim world.
The key question is: where do we place that limit? How far must we compromise to respect other peoples' feelings? Last year, for example, two Scottish Muslim organizations tried to prevent a Glasgow restaurant from obtaining the authorization required to sell alcohol to patrons sitting outdoors, claiming it was offensive to Muslim passers-by.
Are we going to reach a point where no alcohol will be served in public places, as that could offend Muslims? By the same token, some Muslims are offended by mini-skirts and other revealing clothes. Are we going to implement a culturally-sensitive dress code for Western women on our own turf? The question is not so preposterous, given the acts of kowtowing that abound in the West.
Indeed, the Academy Award for self-imposed censorship goes to the city council in the town of Derby, England, which sent out a directive last year to all its employees informing them that, after complaints from Muslim workers, all pig-related items were to be removed from their desks, including stuffed animals and coffee mugs representing the impure animal.
Are Muslims living in the West that intolerant? Are we on a collision path with a monolithic bloc that violently opposes any criticism or perceived offense? The protests over the Danish cartoons provide us with a good perspective on these issues.
Many Muslims deeply resented the publication of the cartoons, most of which were unquestionably offensive. Yet they expressed their anger in a democratic way, through letters to newspapers, peaceful demonstrations, and even boycotts, methods that Christian and Jewish organizations have used in the past in similar circumstances.
Only a radical minority of Muslims issued death threats and became violent, most of them belonging to radical organizations with the stated goal of Islamizing Europe. A civilization that believes in itself and its values would have engaged the moderate voices in a healthy debate over free speech and tolerance, while standing strong against the radicals who attempted to exploit the controversy for their own political purposes.
Unfortunately, most of the Western media caved in and left Denmark to fend for itself. The reaction in the United States is also particularly distressing. The State Department has flip-flopped, timidly defending the right to free speech, but defining the publication of the cartoons unacceptable.
Great Britain provides an excellent example of this timidity. Two weeks ago 500 protesters marched through the streets of central London with placards saying such things as "Europe you will pay, your extermination is on its way" and praising the four terrorists responsible for last summer's London bombings.
Scotland Yard did not arrest any of the protesters. But what kind of message does England send when a British retiree is charged with "racially aggravated criminal damage" for scrawling "free speech for England" on a wall, yet thugs dressed as suicide bombers are left free to incite the extermination of their host nation? Tolerance to the intolerants does not pay - it produces only more intolerance and creates the impression that we are unable to stand up for our values.
- Lorenzo Vidino is deputy director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism and is the author of "Al-Qaeda in Europe: The New Battleground of International Jihad."