Beyond the Riots

As hard as it is to divert attention from the Cheney train-wreck this week, compared to his misuse of buckshot, the worldwide riots over the now-infmamous Danish cartoons is surely the more important story. Forget for a moment that much like the uproar over "The Satanic Verses" more than fifteen years ago, many of those protesting did not actually see the cartoons. Their publication was astutely used by extremists and by the governments of Syria and Iran to fan anti-Western flames and distract attention from their own manifold failings.

Yet, the riots were also used in the West to justify the conclusion that a war of civilization is imminent. When was the last time so many people invoked the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand as an analogy, suggesting that World War IV is just around the corner? And the media outlets across the world took the photo-opportunity and (once again) flooded the airwaves with images of angry Muslims burning Western flags and chanting all sorts of mean things.

The average person could be forgiven for believing that the entire Muslim world had risen en masse to defend the honor of the Prophet Muhammad, but in truth, the riots represented an infintessimal percentage of Muslims and no more represented the average Muslims than angry abortion clinic protestors represent the average American. Even if the rioters were the vocal phalanx of a larger group, it takes leaps of math and of faith to translate the riots into a representation of "Islam" and "Muslims."

Once again, extremists have managed to claim the attention, and once again, our own ignorance of the vast variety of faith, attitudes, beliefs and practices among the world's more than a billion Muslim has allowed us to view Islam through the lens of extremists. We have our own radical fringe, yet how often to we draw a straight line from David Koresh and the Branch Davidians to American culture and Christianity? Yet that is precisely what we do with Islam and Muslims.

Meanwhile, calm and indifference - which are far more prevalent - receive little play. The government of Dubai is more interested in building malls and condos and its bid for a British port company than it is in l'affaire cartoon. Marrakesh is more focused on catering to French tourists, and few of India's nearly 200 million Muslims seem to have reacted one way or the other. Granted, shots of people going about their daily lives doesn't make the news. If it doesn't bleed, it doesn't lead. But the result is that once again, we have allowed the radical few to define the indefinable lives of the many, and in doing so, we have given the radicals exactly what they want and crave: free publicity and de facto validation as the voice of the silent millions who care more about what's for dinner than about what a Danish newspaper printed in its pages five months ago.