When Muslims take to the streets in nearly 30 countries to engage in various degrees of anti-Western violence, something important is under way. The following are reflections on what this might mean:
The Rushdie Rules have gone viral: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 masterstroke of imposing a death edict on Salman Rushdie has spread and become the humdrum response of Islamists to perceived insults. By telling the West what can and cannot be said about Islam, Khomeini sought to impose Islamic law, or Shariah, on it. The recent round of violence has mostly taken the form of demonstrations and violence against the West’s diplomatic, commercial and educational buildings in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Sudan, Syria (including the American-backed rebels), Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen as well as in Australia, Belgium, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. So far, about 13 people have lost their lives. Recalling Khomeini, the Iranian and Egyptian governments both want to get their hands on the filmmakers of “Innocence of Muslims,” a film on YouTube they’re blaming for the violence.
Anti-Islamic provocations have proliferated: Mr. Rushdie had no idea what he was walking into, as he explained just this week. Others, such as the American soldiers who burned Korans in Afghanistan in early 2012, likewise unwittingly set off Islamist disturbances. But the activities of Florida pastor Terry Jones and the group behind “Innocence of Muslims,” as well as anti-Islamic groups in Canada and Spain, overtly want to rile Muslims. Thus have Islamists and anti-Islam activists developed a symbiotic relationship in which the one spurs the other.
Individuals hold government hostage: When Mr. Jones spoke of burning copies of the Koran in 2010, he received calls from no less than the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, the secretaries of defense and state, the attorney general and the president of the United States, all pleading with him to desist. Last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff picked up the phone to chat with him. Never before could random individuals drive policy like this. French humorist Jean-Jacques Sempe drew a cartoon in 1989 capturing this reversal: As Mr. Rushdie is working furiously on his typewriter under the gaze of the 15 policemen guarding him from Islamists, one Bobby yells into his walkie-talkie, “Close the airports! He wants to write Volume Two!” While Mr. Rushdie never wrote a Volume 2, Mr. Jones returns repeatedly to the limelight.
A growing separation of civilizations: The famous clash of civilizations does not exist; in fact, a separation of civilizations is under way. It takes many forms, from Muslim-only enclaves in the West to matrimony, economics, education, culture, media, entertainment, travel, websites and even timekeeping. How many tourists, for example, will sun themselves on Tunisian beaches or explore Egyptian antiquities anytime soon?
“Obama, we love Osama”: That’s what a crowd in downtown Sydney, Australia, chanted. Meanwhile Afghan, Indian and Pakistani Islamists burned President Obama in effigy. Such hatred of Mr. Obama is the more remarkable given Mr. Obama’s many childhood connections to Islam, his 2007 prediction that his presidency would witness a major improvement in relations with Muslims, his strenuous efforts to win over Muslim opinion on becoming president and the initially favorable Muslim reaction to him. In fact, his standing has plunged to the point that he is as unpopular or more so than George W. Bush.
Minimal impact on U.S. presidential elections: Polls show that voter attitudes toward Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney have hardly budged over the past six months, suggesting that Islamists on the rampage will have little impact on the election results.
Western civilization in the balance: Islamist aspirations grow with improved communications and weakened Middle Eastern governments, ultimately posing an existential question for Westerners: Will we maintain our historic civilization against their challenge, or will we accept Muslim dominion and a second-class dhimmi status?
In sum, Islamists want to impose Shariah, Westerners are divided and the battle of wills is just getting started.
Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum.