What began as an act of not-so-innocent bravado in Denmark last September has ceased to be a laughing matter. Yet, amid all the outrage, indignation and hysteria, people haven't entirely lost their sense of humour. There are at least two interventions in the fiery debate over blasphemy worthy of a chuckle. Both, incidentally, are from the not-very-angst-ridden Daily Telegraph whose editors refused to reprint the offending cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed because they were 'vulgar and fatuously insulting' sentiments that also epitomize the broad Hindu consensus on the subject.
When, it was asked, was the last time you heard a Danish joke' 'The words Danish and humour', wrote Stephen Pollard, 'are rarely found together. The only Danish joke I have ever been told ' 'Can you play the violin' 'I don't know. I've never tried' ' is hardly side-splitting.' On the subject of flag-burning, Charles Moore, a former editor and an old-fashioned, enlightened Tory, said the obvious: 'It's some time since I visited Palestine, so I may be out of date, but I don't remember seeing many Danish flags on sale there. Not much demand I suppose.'
These cute displays of Anglo-Saxon flippancy are not pointless. First, it is clear to all but the most committed libertarians that the publication of the cartoons was a wilful act of provocation by editors who are yet to transcend their very Viking notions of daring and irreverence. Second, it is also quite apparent that the delayed explosion in the Muslim world was not a case of the tube-light syndrome. The cartoon controversy is an orchestrated bid by sundry west Asian demagogues, dictators and terrorists to make the clash of civilizations a self-fulfilling prophecy. The initial targets were the Scandinavian countries but, predictably, the net has been enlarged to include Israel. In a show of exemplary bad taste, an Iranian body has even launched a competition to celebrate the most offensive expressions of anti- Semitism.
It was singularly na've of the Danish publication and its assorted supporters in Europe and Australasia to believe that the issue would be confined to an absolute defence of free speech ' the democratic right to offend. Given the bristling and temperamental nature of contemporary Islam, which has routinely gone overboard in flaying artistic licence ' Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen being the living examples and the Dutch film-maker, Theo Van Gogh, the murdered illustration ' this violation of a key Muslim taboo was bound to invite uncontrolled retribution.
Of course there is a context to this puerile expression of Danish exasperation. Since the Nineties, Europe has been confronted with what can only be described as its Muslim problem. The inability of a large chunk of Muslim immigrants to adjust to the cultural mores of their host country has bred social tensions and stretched the endurance of European liberalism to breaking point. The in-your-face assertions of religious and cultural separatism, coupled with the rising influence of the Osama bin Laden cult, have posited civil society in western Europe against Islam. It will not be an exaggeration to suggest that the subliminal feeling of most Europeans is that Muslim immigrants (and non-whites in general) are bad for the overall health of Europe. The 7/7 bombings in London and last November's riots in Paris have merely confirmed fears arising from an earlier sense of unease. Just as hijab, halal and sympathy for Hamas became symbols of an assertive minority to taunt Europe, the cartoons personify the knee-jerk European response to a problem that governments pretend does not exist.
Despite well-meaning Muslims calling for sanity and restraint, the Islamists seem hell-bent on provoking a popular backlash. The 24-year-old youth with the unlikely name of Omar Khayam, who dressed up as a suicide bomber for last Friday's demonstration in London, wasn't an aberration. The creation of a cricket-loving, European mujahedin has become the new Islamist project. This macabre counter-Crusade also enjoys a large measure of community sanction. A poll of British Muslims conducted by Populus last week showed that as much as 37 per cent of the community believed that British Jews were a legitimate target in the 'ongoing struggle for justice in the Middle East'.
What compounds the prevailing Islamophobia is the macabre certitudes and arrogance of those who have emerged as public faces of European Islamism. This week on a BBC show, the irascible presenter, Jeremy Paxman, asked Anjum Choudary, the spokesman of al Ghuraba, the organization that organized the London demonstration, why he chose to live in a country whose values he despised. 'Who said to you that you own Britain anyway' retorted Choudary. 'If I go to the jungle, I am not going to live like animals. I'm going to propagate what I believe to be a superior way of life.' The Islamic burden has emerged as the riposte to the white man's burden of a preceding century.
Dogmatic certitude is the new perversion. The consensus in India is that all religions should be respected and needless offence to any community should be avoided at all cost. Muslims have taken grave offence to the pictorial depiction of their prophet and have even exercised their legitimate right of protest. Unfortunately, the outrage does not seem to be based on universal principles of respect and tolerance. What is driving political Islam is the belief that their faith is innately superior and this gives them the right to both ridicule and wage armed jihad against the kafirs. The Jews have borne the brunt of this unappetizing show of supremacy but other religions have also been at the receiving end. The forcible abduction and conversion of women from the minuscule Hindu community in Pakistan have been carried out with impunity because the proselytisers believe that non-believers are less than human.
For long, non-Muslim democracies stuck to the belief that Muslim rage was a function of economic deprivation and a perceived sense of injustice in Palestine. Their response was centred on a strange beast called multi-culturalism. Although grounded in the noble ideal of cultural diversity and the harmonious coexistence of races and faiths, its practice rapidly degenerated into what the Israeli writer, Bat Ye'or, called 'dhimmitude' or what is also called cultural cringe. It involved the majority community making all the adjustments and becoming squeamish about their values and the self-beliefs, and the minorities upping the ante. India has faced political turmoil on this count and the West is encountering popular revulsion too.
The situation is more alarming than is admitted by governments. Muslim communities all over the world are increasingly becoming inward-looking, ghettoized and falling back on the unchanging certitudes of faith. The clash of civilizations is not turning out to be between Christianity and Islam; a faultline is developing between Islam and universal modern values. Where the need of the hour is introspection and reformation in Islam, Muslim societies are feeding on an exaggerated sense of victimhood. At the same time, as the furore over the cartoons in west Asia show, faith is being manipulated by extremists like Hamas, the ousted Taliban in Afghanistan, theologians in Iran and secular Ba'athists in Syria for their own, often contradictory, ends. The devout Muslim is the proverbial cannon fodder.
Small events have huge consequences. It was the religious and cultural insensitivity over the greased cartridges issued to the Sepoys in 1857 that triggered a monumental upsurge in India and ended the East India Company's rule. It brought into the open all the tensions and contradictions of the colonial encounter. Can we be sure that this ridiculous cartoon war will not initiate a chain of events that will need more than goody-goody platitudes to control'