Thursday, June 02, 2005

Intimidated by extremists

The International Herald Tribune

Intimidated by extremists
Frida Ghitis

ATLANTA One day, when historians study this first major war of the 21st century, they will scratch their heads in disbelief, wondering how it came to pass that Muslim extremists managed to intimidate moderates of every religion - including Islam - on every continent on earth.

The whole planet, it seems, twisted itself into knots trying to untangle the forces at work behind the retracted Newsweek story about desecration of the Koran. Journalistic practices came under attack, while experts on Islam tried to soothe the less erudite, not quite justifying, but more than thoroughly explaining why desecration of the Holy Book leads to mob rampage and murder in a Muslim society.

No question, insulting any religion is beyond reprehensible. It appears, however, that nothing is more reprehensible than insulting the Muslim religion. And the extremists now decide what constitutes an insult.

In Pakistan, a Muslim nation whose president Muslim extremists have twice tried to assassinate, Islamists have decided that women's sports constitute a grievous offense to Islam. Some women, it turns out, find the idea of using Islam to repress them itself quite offensive. So, when the government of President Pervez Musharraf, which lately bends to the will of extremists, placed bans on women's rights, women decided to stage a protest

A leading Pakistani human rights activist, Asma Jahangir, was brutally attacked by the police during the peaceful demonstration. Participants in the "mini-marathon," a kind of sports event/political protest, came under violent police assault. This from a key U.S. ally, a government presumably fighting to defeat Islamist extremists. A fine way to strengthen the moderates!

And speaking of moderates, and of respect for religion, consider the official sermon on Palestinian Authority television, which is financed largely by the contributions of democratic countries in the West, shown to viewers on May 13. Sheik Ibrahim Mudeiris explained that "the Jews are a virus resembling AIDS." This man of God told the faithful that "the stones and the trees will want every Muslim to finish off every Jew," and he predicted that "the day will come when we (Muslims) will rule the entire world again."

With the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, on his way to the United States, the authority did not want such notions to dominate the headlines, so it took a stand against the imam. But this kind of rhetoric by religious figures goes unchallenged every day in much of the Middle East, including so-called moderate countries friendly to Washington.

Even in Africa, moderate governments behave timidly before mob-stoking Islamists. Muslim radicals in Nigeria a few years ago whipped the masses into a murderous frenzy days before the scheduled Miss World Pageant, all because a newspaper columnist speculated, tongue in cheek, that the Prophet Muhammad might have taken the winning contestant as his wife.

Frenzied Muslims killed 220 Nigerians to defend Islam from such an insult. Nigeria's moderate president accused the media of insensitivity and blamed the riots on "irresponsible" journalists. We can add the 220 to the hundreds who have died in protests against other affronts to symbols of Islam.

While Muslim moderates get swept away by the tide of extremism, unprotected by so-called moderate governments, the rest of the world frets in well-intentioned angst. Moderates everywhere now seem terrified of making missteps that might upset the extremists, while they obsess over the question, "What can we do to avoid offending Muslims?" Standing Pentagon orders instruct those touching the Koran that "clean gloves will be put on" and that "two hands will be used at all times."

Let me say it again: Disrespecting the Koran or Islam or any other religion is contemptible behavior. If American soldiers do it, it is particularly egregious because the United States self-righteously argues for more tolerance in the Muslim world. But tolerance must be demanded from all sides.

The views and life choices of moderate Muslims must be respected, as must those of people of all religions, by members of all religions. The demands fall on Muslims, too. And the requirement of standing up against intolerance falls on all governments. Only intolerance is undeserving of tolerance.

(Frida Ghitis is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." )

originally published JUNE 1, 2005