When I was in fourth grade, I was bullied mercilessly by a boy in class. It got so bad that I once took him to the school gift shop to buy him a present to appease him and get him to stop. When I look back 30 years later at that incident, I am filled primarily not with anger toward the boy but with shame for my own actions. I cannot believe that I allowed the bullying to take place, that I cowed in fear before a disturbed kid who used intimidation to feel powerful.
I believe that the world in general, and Europe in particular, will also look back one day at their feebleness in the face of global Islamic bullying and be ashamed of their own cowardice.
For make no mistake about it, Islam, once the world’s greatest civilization, is fast becoming a global bully.
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 all over the Middle East have done is give 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 American support for Israel has inflamed the Palestinians against the United States, that the failure of European states to assimilate Arab immigrants has led to the anger of the Arab street, and that the West must not take on Iran’s nuclear capabilities militarily for fear of inciting an incalculable Islamic response.
But now that we see that something as insignificant as cartoons – some admittedly offensive and odious, but cartoons nonetheless – could provoke such carnage and mayhem, it is clear that a once great faith is now going through a dark period where violence is treated an act of first resort.
It was not always thus. Those who believe that Islam is an intrinsically violent and bullying religion are guilty both of prejudice as well as ignorance. For at least half a millennium, Islam led the world in sophistication, education and civility. Al-Mamun, caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, established state-funded places of study, focusing on translations of Greek and other works of antiquity, that predated the first European universities by more than 300 years. The Abbasid Muslim Empire had an agricultural revolution in the eighth century that produced technological innovations the likes of which wouldn’t have been seen in the West until at least 1180.
In the area of medical advancement, the 10th century Al-Razi of Baghdad wrote numerous medical books that included groundbreaking health treatments which Western medicine could not match until the 18th century. The Muslim Sultan Akbar of India was known for his cross-cultural appointments to office, his enactment of laws embracing religious toleration and protection of women and children, not to mention the fact that he was one of the very first commanders to insist upon the proper treatment of captured enemy troops. Then, of course, there is Sultan Saladin of Egypt who was greatly admired for his humanity even by his Frankish, crusading enemies. It is said that he taught the European knights the code of chivalry.
How tragic that a religion with such a glorious legacy could be reduced to using bullying and violence as the principal means by which it achieves its objectives. We in the West have become so accustomed to speeches by imams calling for people’s heads to be chopped off and for the blood of infidels to run like water that such sacrilegious words hardly even raise an eyebrow.
The embarrassing fiasco of the Saddam Hussein trial drags on with the unbelievable spectacle of an international criminal bullying an entire court. Here is a human slug who murdered, according to the New York Times, at least 1.1 million people, and yet, rather than receiving any kind of real justice, every day in his trial he yells at his judge, insults the court, and amazingly, gets away with it.
Then there is the Iranian president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who is the Islamic world’s bully-in-chief. My father was born in Iran, and I was raised surrounded by Iranian culture. That a country that produced one of the most sublime and advanced civilizations of all time could be led in modern times by a cruel clown is a tragedy of unspeakable proportions. That this brutal buffoon is allowed to carry on calling for the destruction of a U.N. member state without any sanction or censure demonstrates the extent of U.N. impotence in the face of a real bully.
In this clash of civilizations we are currently witnessing between the Islamic and Western world, the one great issue that defines the divide is the role of violence in everyday life. In the West, the belief is that violence is an option of last resort. It is to be used sparingly, and only after every other avenue has been exhausted.
The problem with the Islamic world is not that Muslims get offended at cartoons that are against their faith. Indeed, we Jews should likewise defend Islam against every act of defamation. But as Jews, we have been conditioned to believe that violence is never a legitimate response to anything but a direct threat to human life. Arab newspapers regularly publish anti-Semitic caricatures displaying Jews with giant noses snorting up money. But the idea of going and torching Arab offices or threatening journalists with beheading, as leaders of Hamas have done to the Danish cartoonists, would be as distant from us as eating pork on Yom Kippur.
I come across Islamic men and women all the time and invariably find them pious, pleasant and kind. I find an immediate affinity between their love for their Islamic faith and my love for Judaism. Most Muslims live lives like you and me, working hard to support their families and striving to impart G-dly values to their children. And since they are such decent people, how can they remain silent while their glorious religion becomes a global bully?