Jewish World Review Feb. 10, 2006/ 12 Shevat, 5766

Wesley Pruden

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Picking the right provocation | Muslims, as F. Scott Fitzgerald might say, are very different from you and me. Muslims say the same thing about us, sometimes with guns, scimitars and explosives.

The worldwide furor over cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad is beyond the ken of most of us in the West. Jews are rightly infuriated by cruelly fanciful insults of their faith, and Christians are righteously angered by "artistic" depictions of Christ in a vial of urine and portraits of the Virgin Mary defaced by elephant dung. But neither priest nor preacher has led a lynch mob to torch a museum or gallery.

Faith is defined differently in the West: Christians, Jews and even unbelievers regard faith as something freely held in the heart, a place where no tyranny can intrude nor mob defile. A government might as well tell a mother not to caress her child as to tell free men and women not to hold dear their link to G-d and eternity. In much of the Islamic world, governments decree that no man can hold any religious belief but Islam, and death to the brave and the bold who defy the edicts of thuggish authorities. To Western understanding, this is not faith, but fanaticism.

The West, to its everlasting shame, often acquiesces. When President George H.W. Bush visited his troops to share Thanksgiving in the midst of the first Gulf War, his Saudi hosts insisted that no one should offer thanks to the G-d of Christians and Jews, not even at a private dinner at which no delicate Saudi ears were at risk of being tempted by prayer and praise to an alien G-d. To the mortification of his friends, the president, with his excess of good manners, agreed. The American soldiers who cheerfully risked their lives to save the Saudis from the depredations of Saddam Hussein were told to keep their prayers of thanksgiving to themselves.

The temptation to confront such bigotry with mockery and ridicule is great, and the editors of several European newspapers published several cartoons portraying the prophet as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban, and as a sentry at the Pearly Gates telling arriving suicide bombers: "Go back, go back, we're running out of virgins." This offends many Muslims, though they should be more offended by the killings to protest something in a newspaper that few if any of their faith will ever see or attempt to read.

This was a deliberate provocation of the ignorant and the clueless, much like the schoolboy sport of poking the wasps' nest under the eave of the barn just to watch infuriated wasps in a frenzy of retaliation. The result was predictable, as frenzied Muslims firebombed embassies of Denmark and Norway, where the cartoons first appeared, and set fire to Christian churches in Arabia.

When the Europeans invited newspapers elsewhere to join the challenge, only a few accepted. Nearly all U.S. newspapers, including The Washington Times, declined. We're pleased to see European newspapers arouse themselves, without endorsing the motivations of all. (One German newspaper boasted that it would mock both Jesus and Muhammad.) But The Times picks its own provocations. The serious issue at hand was the first reaction of Western governments. Wise men of the West, notably Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush, lectured newspapers on their "responsibility" instead of instructing the Islamic governments that they must find a way out of the eighth century if they want to be a part of the real world. They must recognize that every man is entitled to think for himself, and every newspaper must decide for itself what to publish.

There are ways other than mockery to challenge the excesses of the religion of peace (and suicide bombers and beheaders), and we should encourage the voices of Islamic moderation, however timid. If the millions of peaceable Muslims want the respect of the West, they must effectively confront the bigots and killers in their midst.

For our part, we keep our promise never to mock the peaceable faith and beliefs of others. We will continue to confront bigotry, challenge the violent and scourge evil with the disinfectant of public disclosure. This is the authentic responsibility of a free press.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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