Saturday, February 11, 2006

Inadvertent Irony in Islamdom

My article about Quantum Noise is rapidly growing into a smallish book. While I work at trimming it down to blog-friendly size, I wanted to comment on another variety of irrationality in the world.

No doubt you have all seen the pictures, on the telly or in the newspapers, of Islamic outrage over a cartoon initially published on September 30, 2005, in the Danish newspaper "Jyllands Posten". It wasn't until the cartoons were re-published in the French newspaper "France Soir" and the German "Die Welt" - and others - a few weeks ago that the "Islamic World" exploded in paroxysms of violence. Apparently, "Jyllands Posten" doesn't have a wide circulation among Muslims - and I can't find it at my local newsstand, either.

Here's the ironic part:

In response to cartoons that portray the Prophet Mohammed and Islam in general as promoting violence, destruction and murder, Muslims all over the world have exploded in an orgy of violence, destruction and murder.

I think that pretty much proves the point, don't you?

Images of Muslims rioting, burning embassies (usually the Danish Embassy, but they aren't too particular), screaming hate and invective while holding the Koran and burning home-made Danish flags (I suppose the local Angry Mob Supply shops don't stock flags other than US and British these days) has certainly driven home the point that Islam does not promote or even condone violence, destruction and murder. Right?

As my son would say - "Not!"

Let me make doubly sure that everyone is getting the point - people are dying and property is being destroyed because of a newspaper editorial cartoon.

A cartoon is killing people.

Seriously - I'm not making this up!

Those involved - at least, those who can calm down enough to talk to the ubiquitous reporters - claim that they are avenging an insult to the Prophet Mohammed. Apparently, destruction and murder in the name of the Prophet is not nearly as insulting to his memory as a cartoon. Am I missing something?

To be sure, not all Muslims are involved - not even a majority. However, the number of "prominent Muslims" (e.g. Imams and other Islamic religious leaders) who have condemned the violence has been...underwhelming. And I don't see any of them out in front of the mobs saying "Stop!"

Certainly the cartoons were in marginally poor taste - so are many political cartoons. And I have seen cartoons disrespectful of other religious icons on numerous occasions and have failed to note an explosion of rage and violence from Christians, Jews and Buddhists. So what has happened to the "Islamic World's" sense of proportion? These cartoons were worth a stern rebuke and a flurry of letters to the editor - perhaps even a boycott of "Jyllands Posten". But rioting, burning and killing?

Most of you - at least those who weren't out burning Danish flags and spewing spittle all over your Koran - are probably thinking, "There's got to be more to this than just a cartoon." And you're right - the "Islamic World" has a serious axe to grind with the West, and it all goes back to something that happened outside Vienna.

I can hear you say to yourself, "Vienna? What happened outside Vienna? What about Western exploitation, support of Middle Eastern dictatorships and support of Zionism?"

No, the problem actually started outside the city gates of Vienna when Jan Sobieski and a small force of Polish cavalry (Hussars) routed a Muslim army of over 300,000 (if you believe contemporary accounts, which may have inflated the numbers a bit) led by Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa. This was the high-water mark of the armies of Islam. From that moment on, they were on the defensive and were gradually pushed completely out of Europe. If it hadn't been for Jan Sobieski's gallant attack, Europe would now be Islamic and world events would have unfolded in a completely different fashion. Maybe better, maybe worse, but certainly different.

How do I know that this is what the Islamic world is really upset about? Let me tell you the date of Sobieski's attack:

September 11, 1683

How's that for a non-coincidence?

So, the next time someone in the Western world asks "Why do they hate us?" (and they will, you can bet), you can tell them to blame Jan Sobieski and those gallant and colorful Polish Hussars.



Blogger EoR said...

Don't forget the Western Front of that particular tribal skirmish as well - in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain. Hey, 1492... That date sounds familiar... Hmmm, I'm starting to develop this whole Muslim-American Biblical Prophecy Conspiracy thing here...

11 February, 2006 20:01  
Blogger M said...

You see, I'd put the high-watermark of Islam in Europe being when Charlemagne defeated a Muslim force inside modern France. Almost all of Spain under Muslim rule, some good bits of southern Italy, the Vatican sucessfully sacked by a Muslim raiding party.

But then I'm a biased early-medievalist.

13 February, 2006 01:42  
Blogger GJ said...

I could be incorrect, but wasn't Sobieski's attack actually on September 12, 1683?

13 February, 2006 09:45  
Blogger Prometheus said...


The date of Sobieski's attack is sometimes given as 11-12 September, for reasons that are not given. I suspect that there may have been a two day battle, with the charge on 11 September and the final rout on the 12th.


Good point - this would have been more accurately described as the last major incursion by Islamic forces.


13 February, 2006 20:49  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Prometheus;
I answered you on Mike Stanton's blog but I guess it didn't get past the moderator. I don't feel like writing it again as I can't understand why it was rejected.

14 February, 2006 21:06  
Blogger Michael said...

I've written this in my own blog but there is a continual bias within Western media. The truth is, the public face of Islam in the West is dominated by violent thugs. However, they are a minority and just about every Muslim leader everywhere, including the leaders of "terrorist" groups like Hamas have condemned the riots... and yes, even in front of mobs. However, Muslims telling other Muslims about the path of non-violence has never been considered particularly newsworthy.

Yes, there is "irony". The "I told you so" smugness is nevertheless unwarranted. The charges that the whole affair with the cartoons being "baiting" the violent sections of Islam are not false.

Michael Tam
vitualis' Medical Rants

15 February, 2006 22:45  
Blogger Bronze Dog said...

I try not to bash the apparent silence of non-violent muslims, since I recognize that American media love to create outrage, since outrage generates ratings. Muslims condemning the violence goes against that, so I can imagine it being shoved to the back.

I did read about one case of UK muslims condemning the riots. Think it made it into the Washington Post.

16 February, 2006 05:49  
Blogger GJ said...

For a minority, the "thugs" of Islam have a very strong grip on the governments of most of the Islamic theocracies. Regardless of the bias(es) of the Western media, this public face of Islam speaks for the entire group when the majority fails to assert itself and instead allows extremists to run the show.

16 February, 2006 07:29  
Blogger ebohlman said...

this public face of Islam speaks for the entire group when the majority fails to assert itself and instead allows extremists to run the show.

I think you're forgetting that in a theocracy, the majority doesn't have the freedom of speech to assert itself. Only the ruling class does. A large proportion of the world's Muslims live in countries whose governments suppress their voices. You should note that American and British Muslims are not, in general, condoning the violent responses to the cartoons. Do you think that might have something to do with their living in countries that allow them to speak freely?

In some environments, the behavior that rationality would demand would be effectively suicidal. I, for one, don't fault such people for unwillingness to commit the ultimate sacrifice. Admire them if they do, yes, but don't demand it of them. Recognizing heroism is good; insisting on it is bad.

17 February, 2006 00:39  
Blogger Michael said...

The government of the largest Muslim country in the world (Indonesia) has quite openly condemned any violence. Indeed, the governments of just about EVERY Muslim country has condemned the violent protests, including those that I would consider to be theocracies.

"Mob" justice, is never justice and even "theocracies" can see that. It does no ruling class or government any good with people running down the street torching buildings.

Apart from this being a side story or paragraph in most articles, this has not really been reported in the major Western publications at all.

The "public face of Islam" in the West is one of perpetual media bias. It is an absolute shame that we can't seem to see that.


17 February, 2006 07:33  
Blogger GJ said...

ebohlman--point taken. However, the same argument was made for the average German during the rule of the Nazi Party...and yet, the majority of Germans did nothing to derail the Nazis. Yes, it's hard to fight those in power when they're in the wrong...and yes, it can cost you your life. It's still the right thing to do...imho, anyhow.

michael--your point on the perpetual media bias of the West is well taken. I think this bias is less a political issue than one of the media's view on what they believe our information needs are. Do we want to see Islam in a realistic, complex manner, or see it in a simple one: demonized? It's an indictment of the need of most people (in the West, anyhow) to have a simplistic view of the world where things are either right or wrong and require no real thought to digest.

17 February, 2006 20:01  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a very right-wing person (backed Iraq I, backed Afghanistan, backed Iraq II, though the peace could have been handled better, and will back US vs. Iran when it happens, probably), but I'm far from seeing "Muslim = nasty" as anything like a universal truth. The good guys in the Islamic world, frankly, are terrified of the bad guys. Most of the Muslims I have ever known would be in outrage that people are acting in the name of THEIR god and THEIR prophet when they commit these murderous stupidities.

You have the right not to have your god insulted. However, you have the responsibility not to commit mayhem in the face of that insult that brings disgrace upon the name of your god.

The antispam verification word for this post was "fhilth", which is what I think these extremists are. One day there will be a backlash, and they will all be swept away. The sad thing is the number of innocents who will inevitably go with them - the Western military tries its hardest not to, but we are fallible and mistakes happen.

Come out from behind your women and children, you cowards, when you decide you're ready for your Jihad.

20 February, 2006 05:47  
Blogger potentilla said...

I must say it was surprising to come to a blog which I normally associate with being evidence-driven and understanding of the subtleties of complex analysis to find the following gross over-simplification

"In response to cartoons that portray the Prophet Mohammed and Islam in general as promoting violence, destruction and murder, Muslims all over the world have exploded in an orgy of violence, destruction and murder.

I think that pretty much proves the point, don't you?"

The history of who did what to whom and why is immensely complicated; a reasonable summary is provided here:-

People have made some good points above. In response to bronze dog's comment about the bias of the American press, here's a little more data

The BBC over here is considerd by some factions of society (not me!) to be biassed in favour of putting the Muslim point of view, so you may like to try it as a counterweight to the US press.

21 February, 2006 11:02  
Blogger Prometheus said...


Perhaps I was unclear - sarcasm is so hard to convey in written form.

The phrase, "I think that pretty much proves the point, don't you?" - the "point" being that the Prophet and Islam are not in favor of destruction and murder - was meant as sarcasm, as the rioters have clearly not made that point. What they have done is given more ammunition to those who would equate Islam with violence and murder.

I also think that a dispassionate appraisal of the political cartoons that routinely appear in the newspapers of Muslim countries would reveal that these cartoonists routinely insult and debase other religions and their followers, especially Judaism and Jews. In the West, there is a tradition that "turnabout is fair play". This might be something the rioters could benefit from learning.

I don't see that the bias of the press - which is manifest in every country, if in differing directions - can be at work here. Did mobs in several predominantly Muslim countries riot in response to the cartoons or did they not? Was the rioting accompanied by destruction of property and loss of life or not? No matter how much one may try to "spin" these facts, they remain.

My point, if there is one, is that the rioting has less to do with whether Islam was "insulted" and more to do with the direction a verbal and violent minority of Muslims want to take the Islamic world. And this direction will - make no mistake - end up in a catastrophic loss of life in the not-too-distant future if more moderate and rational members of that group do not step up and take charge.

The Islamic world cannot go back to the "Good Old Days" when they controlled half the world and were the center of civilization and learning - it's just not possible. And the sooner the verbal and violent minority gives up that fantasy (or is forced to give it up - along with the reins of power), the better life will be for people in those countries - and the world.

If you find that to be a gross over-simplification of the situation, then I will have to learn to live with my disappointment.


21 February, 2006 22:24  
Blogger potentilla said...

Actually, my point is best made by your new post (Feb 21st). A very large number of people, including some humble molecular biologists, have opinions on the Jyllands Posten affair, and a high proportion of them are under the mistaken impression that you cite, for the reasons that you cite.

"Did mobs in several predominantly Muslim countries riot in response to the cartoons or did they not?" Sounds very simple, indeed. I think that the better interpretation, however, is that they did not; they rioted in response to deliberate incitement much closer to (their) home, some of it quite cynical and some of it, for instance, sparked by the probably entirely cynical insertion by some Danish Muslims of three very much more offensive pictures in amongst reproductions of the original cartoons.

I am not a Muslim, either practising or apostate, nor am I an expert on any relevant area. I find the Jyllands Posten affair, in particular the fundamental philosophical issue of the limits (if any) to free speech a very hard problem; in pursuit of this I have spent a lot of time uncovering background fact and alternative arguments. It seems to me a shame that a number of normally sceptical commentators have not, apparently, done the same.

And as to your summary; you will indeed have to learn to live with your disappointment, especially in relation to the clause in brackets in the second sentence; unless perhaps you have a Martian invasian in mind.

22 February, 2006 02:57  
Blogger dr-exmedic said...

"they rioted in response to deliberate incitement much closer to (their) home"

Potentilla, this is something that not a lot of commentators have noted. Virtually all of the riots are happening in countries with dictatorships or near-dictatorships. It's very easy for a dictator to take anger of his people and direct it towards another source, to secure his own power.

Hitler had the Jews. Mideast despots have Danes.

22 February, 2006 13:21  
Blogger Martin said...

Just to add 2c to a very worthwhile discussion, with notably more thoughtful and worthwhile posts than most I've seen -

Don't you think that it's interesting that the western media has not reported this matter fairly or accurately? By and large they have played up a sensational position of the sort which leads an intelligent and unbigoted fellow like prometheus to jump (to some extent) to unwarranted conclusions. Here I particularly mean the objections of Michael Tam and potentilla to the thrust of his argument.

Similarly don't you think it's interesting that ill informed mobs (who already have grievances with the west in most cases) can be inflamed by their religious leaders to those leaders' political advantage?

In both cases it's a matter of information providers with an agenda, and people not being aware of that and trying to see past it to the truth. My opinion that such skills are the essential requirement to moving beyond the divided and cruel world we find ourselves in. Please let us all help one another, as kindly as possible, achieve this. :)

best wishes, and nice blog, thanks.

02 March, 2006 02:42  
Blogger Lenny said...

Ghostly Science verses Real Science.

Do you believe in ghosts? Would you believe in friendly ghosts, Prometheus the friendly ghost? A ghost is an anonymous presence on the internet, amongst other things, or non-things. To cloak one's words in anonymity is to decline personal responsibility for one's actions, to lack the courage of one's convictions. If a ghost can not believe in his or her own words, why should any one else? The cries of a ghost should not be completely ignored, however. Perhaps if someone were to change Promie's nappy, this intellectual loo of a blog would not be necessary. While it may appear that this criticism is ad hominum, it is not. To attack the person, there first must be a person. Boo! you back.

Lenny Schafer

12 March, 2006 16:40  

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