The other day while driving to my office, I passed byThe Philadelphia Inquirer and viewed a familiar sight: demonstrators protesting the publication of what they saw as an offensive cartoon in the newspaper.
Many groups in this city have taken their turn waving signs in front of the Knight-Ridder bastion on North Broad Street. In the not-so-distant-past, some of those lined up angrily outside of the Inquirer building were members of the Jewish community, venting their disgust at what they believed to be biased coverage of the Middle East, which did Israel a grave disservice.
And at times, prominent on the list of their complaints, were those focused on the Inquirer'seditorial cartoonist Tony Auth, who has taken his share of pot-shots at the Jewish state in ways many of us believe has gone over the line between fair comment and utter bias.
But this week, the complainers were local Muslims, voicing their outrage at the Inquirer's decision to reprint - in the context of a news story - one of a series of controversial cartoons about Islam originally published last fall by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
In a controversy that's gradually been gaining steam, Muslims around the world have been taking to the streets to show just how angry they are about the cartoons they say violate a religious taboo by depicting the image of the Prophet Mohammed, though only four of the 12 cartoons can be fairly characterized as criticisms of Islam or its prophet (to view the cartoons, go to: www.brusselsjournal . com/node/698).
As someone who has made pointed criticisms in print of the Inquirer, I might be expected to sympathize with Muslims, who now perceive themselves as being in the cross-hairs of Knight-Ridder's local media monopoly.
But I'm not at all - because this debate isn't about a bad cartoon or even the perception of slurs against a faith group.
On the Side of the Angels
Despite the abject apologies for the cartoons voiced by people like former President Bill Clinton and the U.S. State Department, the Inquirer's decision to print the cartoon put it on the side of the angels, not that of the bigots.
The original publication of the cartoons was not a casual slur or a prank by a Danish publication few had ever heard of. It was, instead, a deliberate response to a campaign of vilification and violence carried out by Muslims in Europe against anyone who dared criticize their behavior or their politics.
Muslims see any depiction of Mohammed as a grave offense, and that is a point we should not take lightly. In Israel, such acts are punished with prison, which says a lot about its sensitivity to Arabs and not much for its defense of free speech.
But what has been happening in Europe is that Muslim immigrants have been seeking not so much tolerance as demanding that everyone else conform to their sensibilities. And, in those instances where European critics of Islamic culture have dared to broach those differences - such as Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh - what followed was violence; in his case, death.
The growth of the Muslim population on the continent and the willingness of all too many European intellectuals to rationalize Islamic intolerance (with hatred for the State of Israel being an issue that gives them common ground) were leading to a trend of self-censorship.
Independent thinkers were not only fearful of being themselves the victim of Muslim violence. They were also wondering whether the rest of society would have the guts to back them up if they challenged the Islamist view on issues such as the treatment of women, the authoritarian nature of the Islamic world, and, yes, the treatment of Jews and Israel.
So Jyllands-Posten commissioned a group of artists to depict their impressions of contemporary Islam. And the answer they got from much of the world was hardly encouraging.
Many European governments, including that of Denmark itself, apologized. Rather than maintain a steadfast defense for freedom of speech in a context of assaults on that freedom from Muslims, the impulse to appeasement has generally prevailed.
And when a few European newspapers printed the cartoons in solidarity with the Danes, this - as was the case with the Inquirer - created new protests. The editor of one French newspaper who did so was fired.
The response from the Arab and Muslim world has been widespread riots and threats aimed at Europeans. And the more the Euros apologize, the more the calls for the beheading of cartoonists and editors - and the stifling of any anti-Islamic voices - grow.
It's Come Full-Circle
This is the Europe that Swiss historian Bat Ye'or so vividly described in her book Eurabia,published last year, which spoke at length about the ways European culture and politics was being subjected to a hostile takeover by Islam. Many critics scoffed at her gloomy view, in which the West was gradually being subjected to the same humiliating treatment that non-Muslims traditionally faced in the Islamic world.
But what word could better describe Europeans who are issuing craven apologies for the cartoons than that of dhimmi, the word Bat Ye'or uses to describe the inferior status of a non-Muslim subject in an Islamic state.
This is, after all, an Arab and Islamic world in whose press cartoons and articles depict Jews and Christians in a far more offensive manner than anything published in Denmark. Their anger is not that of the victim, but of the aggressor caught in the act.
Where is their outrage when Jews are depicted as ritual murderers, or in terms and images that are taken straight out of the Nazi handbook? Why don't they demonstrate when the leader of Iran simultaneously engages in Holocaust denial, while making his own implicit threat of committing the mass murder of Jews with the nuclear weapons he covets so badly?
Arab wrath would be better directed toward the Islamist terrorism against Americans and Israelis, or at the lack of freedom for believers in other religions in places like Saudi Arabia.
Viewed in that context, these violent Muslim protests must be seen as a vindictive attempt to silence critics of Islamist radicals.
Local Philadelphia Muslims were merely voicing their hurt feelings when they demonstrated peacefully. But when you look at these cartoons - rather than worrying about the delicate and curiously selective sensibilities of the Muslim world - think of the slain Theo van Gogh and the others who challenged Islamists - individuals who are under the threat of death. Think also of the intolerance of the Islamic world and wonder whether we want such people dictating what our newspapers can or cannot print.
Like it or not, this is merely part of what is a going to be a long and difficult clash of civilizations. It's time to tell the would-be censors of the Islamic world that Western freedoms will not be sacrificed to the demands of theocrats.