Pope Benedict XVI, an exiled Egyptian journalist, a bleach-blond Dutch parliamentarian and Danish cartoonists all have something in common with a Teddy bear named Mohammed. They have been at the center of that seething storm called Muslim rage in the last few months, and, with the exception of Mohammed T. Bear, they appear to be testing that anger to see if it will erupt … yet again.
If it does, the crisis could peak just as Benedict begins his visit to the United States in mid-April. As he preaches world peace before the United Nations, once more we'll witness scenes of books and flags and effigies burning in the world of Muslims. If precedent holds, rioters may die in Kabul, a nun could be murdered in Somalia, a priest might be gunned down in Turkey. All this is all too predictable, as provocateurs like the peroxide blond must certainly know.
And yet, this time the shockwaves may amount to nothing more than ripples. If the satellite networks allow their lenses to zoom back from the book burners, they may discover there's no raging crowd there, just the usual collection of unemployed malcontents on any street in Karachi. And what is most important, we may find that the Muslims of this world are just as weary of this sorry spectacle—maybe even more so—than the Christian, Jewish and secular publics in the West.
There are several signs of change, and not always from the usual suspects.
In Turkey, the once militantly secular government is now dominated by the AK Party, which has Islamic roots and recently passed a constitutional amendment that ended the ban on women wearing Muslim headscarves at state universities. Yet the same government is supporting theological scholarship intended to modernize—and moderate—traditional Islamic teachings. An initiative run out of the prime minister's office is re-examining interpretation of the Qur'an itself as well as the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet. Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkey at Chatham House in London, recently told the BBC, "This is kind of akin to the Christian Reformation. Not exactly the same, but if you think, it's changing the theological foundations."
In Lebanon, Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah once was known as the spiritual leader of Hizbullah and of its suicidal shock troops, who blew up American Marines and diplomats in Beirut in the early 1980s. Today, instead of calling the faithful to arms in response to perceived Western insults, Fadlallah calls on Muslim intellectuals, elites and religious scholars to work through the media and political organizations as well as "legal, artistic and literary" channels.
Fadlallah tells the faithful that the goal of Westerners who commit "aggressions against the Muslim world's sacred symbols" is to create a rift between Muslims and Western societies—and to isolate those Muslims who live in Western societies. He decries those Muslims he calls takfiri who claim they are fighting heresy with violence. He says they play into the hands of Islam's enemies. He even calls for "a united Islamic-Christian spiritual and humanitarian front."
In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah was pushing an agenda of political and religious moderation even before he assumed full control of the country in 2005. The kingdom still holds to the ultraconservative Sunni religious dogmas known as Wahhabism, and the monarchy's legitimacy is tied to its custodianship of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. That won't change. But Abdullah has fired 1,000 of the Muslim prayer leaders on the government payroll and decreed that the 40,000 who remain must be retrained to make sure they are not stoking radical violence.
Yes, there may be less here than meets the eye. When I talked to Hakura on the phone Wednesday morning, he cautioned that the Turkish rethink of Islam is rooted in national traditions and might be a hard sell in the Arab Middle East. Fadlallah may be enthusiastic about reconciliation with Christians, but on his Web site he still presents himself as an implacable foe of what he calls Israel's "Zionist project that is based on violence, arrogance and despise [sic] of other countries." A highly placed Saudi friend assured me the other day the so-called "retraining" of Saudi Arabia's retrograde imams really would be more like "a dialogue" to discuss the best ways to preach.
Islam, like any faith, has plenty of violent fools and fanatics. Certainly it is hard to credit the judgment or intelligence of anyone in Sudan connected with the arrest of British expatriate schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons a few months ago. You'll recall she made the nearly fatal mistake of letting her class of seven-year-olds in Khartoum name a Teddy bear Mohammed. To the kids, many of whom were named Mohammed themselves, the name just sounded friendly and cuddly. Sudanese authorities claimed Gibbons was inciting religious hatred and insulting the Prophet. Eventually she apologized and they released her—against the wishes of the mob calling for her death.
But even with many qualifications and reservations, in my view the conciliatory trends in Islam make an interesting contrast with renewed provocations coming out of Europe.
There's no use wasting much space on the Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, the dyed blond with ugly roots who is promoting a film he says will prove his belief that "Islamic ideology is a retarded, dangerous one." What to say about a politician reminiscent of Goldmember in an Austin Powers film who claims the Qur'an should be banned like Adolph Hitler's "Mein Kampf"? No Dutch television network will show his little movie, so he released it on the Internet this week, reportedly drawing 2 million page views in the first three hours. The general reaction in Holland thus far has been little more than shoulder shrugging.
Danish cartoonists and editors previously unknown to the wider world garnered international attention when they published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005 that brought on bloody riots in several Muslim countries in 2006. Having sunk once again into obscurity, the editors decided to publish one of the cartoons again last month, reportedly after the arrest of an individual plotting to kill the cartoonist. Great idea. Take one man's alleged crime and respond with new insults to an entire faith.
The most problematic event of late, however, was Pope Benedict's decision to baptize the Egyptian journalist Magdi Allam in Saint Peter's on the night before Easter, thus converting a famously self-hating Muslim into a self-loving Christian in the most high-profile setting possible. Perhaps Benedict really thought, as the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano opined, that the baptism was just a papal "gesture" to emphasize "in a gentle and clear way religious freedom." But I am not prepared to believe for a second, as some around the Vatican have hinted this week, that the Holy Father did not know who Allam was or how provocative this act would appear to Muslim scholars, including and especially those who are trying to foster interfaith dialogue.
Ever since 2006, when Benedict cited a medieval Christian emperor talking about Islam as "evil and inhuman," and the usual Muslim rabble-rousers whipped up the usual Muslim riots, more responsible members of the world's Islamic community have hoped to restore calm and reason. And now this. "The whole spectacle, with its choreography, persona and messages provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope's advisers on Islam," said a statement issued by Aref Ali Nayed, a spokesman for 138 Muslim scholars who established the Catholic-Muslim Forum for dialogue with Rome earlier this month.
Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vatican's representative in Arabia, was reluctant to criticize the pope, of course, but when I reached him in Abu Dhabi Wednesday morning he clearly had reservations about the way Allam was received into the Church. He said that local Christians took him aside at Easter services and asked him "why it had to be done in such an extraordinary way on a special night." Hinder contrasted Allam's conversion to Catholicism with former British prime minister Tony Blair's, which "was done in a private chapel."
"What I cannot accept is if it is done in a triumphalistic way," said Hinder. That is, if Allam were not declaring only his personal beliefs but intentionally demeaning the faith of Muslims. Yet it is hard to read the spectacle of his conversion otherwise, because that's exactly the tone in which Allam writes. He has made his career portraying Islam as a religion that terrorizes. Allam says he has lived in hiding and in fear for years because of reaction to his columns in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra, which regularly denounce excesses by Muslims and praise Israel. Allam converted to Catholicism, he says, as he turned away from "a past in which I imagined that there could be a moderate Islam." Speaking as if for the pope, Allam told one interviewer in Italy, "His Holiness has launched an explicit and revolutionary message to a church that, up to now, has been too prudent in converting Muslims." A Vatican spokesman says Allam was not speaking for the pope.
Allam claims he is hoping his public embrace of Catholicism will help other converts to speak out in public. But that hardly seems likely. The more probable scenario is that others will feel even more vulnerable, while Allam's books, like many Muslim-bashing screeds that preceded them, climb the best-seller lists.
Unless—and this really would be news—the Muslim world just turns the page.