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What the riots that were provoked by the cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten – and the torching of European consulates, embassies and missions in Damascus and Beirut and other parts of the Middle East – have done, is put the lie to that old roasted chestnut that Islamic fundamentalism is fueled by Western incitement.

We have heard repeatedly that the war in Iraq is what has created and sustained terror, that the American invasion of Iraq has galvanized al-Qaida. We have heard that the West should not take on Iran’s nuclear capabilities with military force for fear of inciting an incalculable Islamic response.

Now that we see that something as insignificant as an offensive cartoon – admittedly odious, but a cartoon nonetheless – could provoke greater outrage on the Islamic street than the America invasion of Iraq, it is clear that Islam, a once peaceful religion that led the world in such humanitarian issues as the proper treatment of prisoners of war, is now going through an extremely dark period, where violence is an act of first resort.

At least once a week, I will meet an Islamic man or woman in the New York area, sometimes in a taxi cab, sometimes on a street or a hotel lobby, and I always make a point of engaging them in conversation. Invariably they are extremely pious, pleasant and kind. I find an incredible symmetry between their life of religious commitment and my own commitment to my Jewish faith. No one is saying for a moment that Muslims are violent. Most Muslims live lives like you and me, devoted to their families and attempting to impart proper values to their children.

But what we are saying is that the collective entity of Islam as represented by those who consistently speak in its name or take to the streets to fight its battles, are violent, and they are the new Islam.

I do not know if all Germans in World War II were peaceful. I assume a great many were. But it didn’t matter, because its government wasn’t. And not enough of the peaceful ones were prepared to stop those who believed in violence. In this clash of civilizations that we are currently witnessing between the Islamic world and the democratic world, there is one defining characteristic of that clash, namely: What role does violence play in one’s posture vis-a-vis the world?

In the West, the belief is that violence is a last resort. It is to be used sparingly, and only after every other avenue has been exhausted. Even for those who claim that George W. Bush is a warmonger must remember that Saddam Hussein flouted international rules for 12 years and killed 1.1 million people and invaded two neighboring countries before the United States moved to disarm him militarily.

The problem with the Islamic world is not that they get offended at cartoons that are against their faith. They have every right to, and as a Jew, if anyone were to defame Moses I would likewise be offended. The difference is that I have been conditioned to believe as a Jew that violence is a last resort. Every day Islamic papers in many countries publish anti-Jewish libels that are often accompanied by gross caricatures of Jews with giant noses snorting up money.

My response as a Jew to this is to first complain about it to friends and acquaintances and then, often, to write an article about it or raise the issue on my radio show. I might mobilize some people to call up the editorial office of the publisher if they can be reached. But the idea of going and torching their offices and threatening the journalists with beheading, as leaders of Hamas have done, would never cross my mind. If any Jew had called for that, I would immediately call that Jew a bigger abomination than the cartoonist in the first place.

In the Jewish faith, violence is allowed in one instance and one instance only: a direct threat to human life. If Jews were to use violence and if Israel were to bomb Arab governments that officially produced grotesque caricatures of Jews and anti-Semitic libels, then Israel would be bombing these cities non-stop, day and night. It has never happened and it never would: Violence is not part of being Jewish unless Israel or Jewish life is in mortal danger.

I would venture to say that violence is not part of being a Muslim either. The real story behind the recent clashes is not that the Islamic world became so riled up at a cartoon. Many of us who have watched the growing violence are tragically not at all surprised this has happened, given how extremists continue to flourish in the Islamic world.

The real story is the question why all these peace-loving Muslims whom I meet all the time – good, God-fearing people have not risen in even greater protest to declare that this disgusting response in the name of Islam is the true desecration of a great faith.

One stupid cartoon could never hurt Islam. But the rest of the world looking at the actions of Muslims and saying, “God almighty, is this really a religion of peace?” is what truly desecrates a religion that teaches that God’s greatest blessing for the world is brotherhood.

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