2018 will be remembered as a year in which Islamists commanded the world to respect their beliefs—or else! And far too often, they made strides forward as an ever-timid West acquiesced. This is a dangerous trend that will encourage Islamists to demand further obeisance and embolden them to penalize those deemed insufficiently deferential to Islam. The trend is most obvious in Europe, but it is creeping into American life.
There is a long history of Islamists complaining about insults (real and perceived) to images and texts they hold sacred. President of the Middle East Forum Daniel Pipes has documented examples of Muslims outraged over secular images such as Burger King’s ice-cream swirl, Nike’s “Air” logo, Coca-Cola’s logo (but only when rendered backwards) and many others. The infamous “Muhammad cartoons” published in the Danish paper Jylldens-Posten in 2005 set off a fury of Islamist outrage throughout the Muslim world. For its satirical insults, the French journal Charlie Hebdo was firebombed in 2011 and placed on an Al Qaeda hit list. In 2015, 11 members of the staff were murdered.
In 2018, Islamists took their grievances to the world stage, with Pakistan as the key driver of the demand that non-Muslims respect Islam.
In July, former cricket star and leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Party, Imran Khan, was elected prime minister. In 2018, Khan transformed his anti-corruption political party into an Islamist one. He took up the main issue of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) Party, which rose to power in 2015 by agitating for full enforcement of the anti-blasphemy laws (articles 295b, 295c) added to Pakistan’s constitution by an earlier Islamist leader, Zia ul-Haq. Khan campaigned by promising, “We are standing with Article 295c and will defend it.” Since winning election, he has taken his campaign to the United Nations, pushing an international blasphemy law so that everyone respects Islam, or at least is too scared to say otherwise.
Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, also happens to be spokesman for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). On Sept. 29, he issued a statement to the U.N. General Assembly on behalf of the OIC demanding that non-Muslims respect Islam and “its revered personalities and symbols.” In his meetings with U.N. representatives, “Qureshi expressed serious concern at the alarming rise of defamatory activities which were hurting the sensibilities of Muslims.”
In his speech to the United Nations, Qureshi expressed the OIC’s “deep concern over the misrepresentation of Islam.” If he really cared about the worldwide image of Islam, he would devote his attention to Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas. Those four organizations have done more to damage the image of Islam worldwide than all the skeptical Western analysts, satirists, YouTube crackpots and Koran-burning preachers combined. But that would require a degree of introspection that Islamists lack.
By contrast, 2018 also offered an example of toleration and civility in the face of insult that the OIC would do well to emulate. It came in July when Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, discovered that the Springfield Brewing Company in Missouri was selling beer with a label depicting the Hindu deity Ganesha. Zed complained that “feelings of Hindu devotees are hurt by trivialization of revered Hindu deities whom they worship.” But rather than assembling mobs to intimidate and protest, he asked the brewery “to apologize and not use Hindu deity Lord Ganesha’s image.” This is the kind of behavior that merits respect. Respect must be earned. There were no riots, no threats, no warnings about dire consequences should the request be ignored. Upon learning of the complaint, the beer company apologized for the offense and “immediately removed the … artwork from our website, which was the only place this imagery resided.”
The European Union surrendered to Islamist pressure in 2018 when the European Court of Human Rights upheld a Vienna Regional Criminal Court’s 2011 conviction of Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff for disparaging Islam’s prophet. Her “crime” consisted of lecturing on the history of Islam and mentioning accurately (as per Islamic texts) that Mohammed was 56 years old when he married a 6-year-old girl named Aisha. Muslims were insulted by a non-Muslim telling this truth. The court’s ruling amounts to a forfeiture of the right to question, refute and even mock the pieties of political and religious authorities.
Hypersensitivity to perceived insults by non-Muslims is a hallmark of Islamism. It is also a recurrent theme in Al Qaeda rhetoric where Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri frequently cite “humiliation of Muslims” as a motive for attacking the U.S. Zawahiri has claimed that whenever Muslims abandoned offensive jihad “Allah humiliated them through division and conquest.” “The Prophet,” he asserts, “made abandonment of jihad in the way of Allah as the cause for humiliation and disgrace.” Whatever the underlying cause of this fragile self-esteem, it is a common denominator of Islamism. Somewhere in the world, someone is making fun of Muhammad, and Islamists can’t tolerate that. Moderate Muslims, on the other hand, don’t need to be reassured that everyone respects their religion.
The truth is that no amount of respect will satisfy Islamists. Since the end of World War II, U.S. policy makers have nearly always sided with Muslims against their enemies. For decades, U.S. administrations sided with Muslim Pakistan over Hindu India. U.S. power and technology liberated Afghanistan from the Soviet Union, Kuwait from Iraq, and Bosnia and Kosovo from Yugoslavia. Americans have fought—and some have died—to save starving Muslims in Somalia and flooded Muslims in Indonesia. In 1982, U.S. power even saved the loathsome PLO from destruction by Israel in Lebanon. And, in spite of all this, the U.S. remains the No. 1 target of Islamic supremacists. U.S. policymakers should recognize that no act of kindness, no amount of aid and no military rescue mission will ever be enough to appease Islamists.
So what will 2019 bring, especially in the United States? At present, American courts seem unwilling to bend to Islamist demands, but American politicians may be another story. The Democratic Party-led House of Representatives will certainly not take a stand against Islamism. Its rising stars, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, will likely push the party to mimic the E.U.’s march towards civilizational suicide.
And what about social-media platforms?
Twitter in 2018 began voluntarily enforcing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, warning analysts and journalists of their violations. Will Facebook take orders from the OIC or the United Nations in 2019? As good a year as Islamists had in 2018, it might pale compared to 2019.
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
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