The Muslim reaction to the provocative cartoons published in Denmark has reached absurd levels. From this reaction one would think that the biggest problem in the world plaguing Muslims is a few ill-conceived cartoons published in an insignificant newspaper in an insignificant backwater of Europe. The New York Times today has a somewhat nuanced story about what is increasingly sounding like a dialogue of the deaf.
As a secular humanist and a cultural Muslim this has been a sad and dispiriting episode. Beyond the merits and deficiencies of the arguments on the various sides, to me, this widespread Muslim reaction is a rage of the impotent, powerless and humiliated.
This is a muddle-headed response of a civilization whose glory days are in the distant past but whose children are still raised with the conviction of the superiority of their belief system. For all the verbal emphasis on the greater importance of the after-life, the adherents ultimately also desire the benevolence of God in the here and now. However, in its bones the Muslim world knows that in every possible way Western societies have won the worldly battle. The West has delivered freedom and prosperity for its citizens. In contrast, a vast majority of Muslims continue to live in oppressive and desperate conditions. This cognitive dissonance mixed with the historic memory of the real and perceived injustices meted out to them by an assertive, confident and expanding western civilization since the 18th century are key contributors to the current state of Muslim impetuousness.
Obviously it is true that the billion plus Muslims are not a monolithic whole and there are vast differences amongst them but for all the talk about marginalized Muslim moderates, ultimately what we have here is a clash of civilizations. I believe that a majority of Muslims in the world (including in the West) are in varying degrees hostile to the West's values on moral and political grounds and this clash will continue to dominate the headlines for years and decades to come. The reaction to the cartoons just demonstrates that the cognitive dissonance in the Muslim mind is leading it toward destructive nihilism. There will be lot more rage and violence before the beginnings of a new order.
But what is to be done? The Economist is spot on in its editorial this week called "The one thing Bush got right" . Ultimately constitutional democracy is the only path which slowly, tortuously and by fits and starts will eventually chart the path toward a more stable Muslim world. My problem with the administration is that their approach has been neither consistent nor nearly energetic enough. Pakistan and Egypt are the glaring examples where the US is making a mistake by siding with unpopular but friendly strongmen, weakening the countries' political structure. This is bound to backfire. Behind the reluctance to spread the democratic message has been the concern about Islamists taking over but unless these societies are given an opportunity to grow up the current dynamic will continue to prevail. Muslim societies need to take responsibility for governing themselves and have a right to make their own mistakes so they can evolve more mature polities (even if it entails some short and medium term costs for the West) . In this context I do not necessarily despair about the election of Hamas. Given sufficient time and freedom to make their own choices but being held accountable for them (as David Brooks would say), the Muslim world will eventually find its footing. The spread of constitutional democracy in the Muslim world is the only long term antidote to its current virulence.