Of Teddy Bears and Cartoons
The unspoken rules.


Victor Davis Hanson

Here we go again. Thousands of Sudanese Muslims took to the street last week to threaten death to a British schoolteacher in Khartoum.

Her crime? She inadvertently committed the felony of allowing her class to name a teddy bear “Mohammad.”

The teacher, Gillian Gibbons, has been pardoned by Sudan’s president (after initially being sentenced to 15 days in prison) and sent home to England. Yet that happy ending doesn’t erase the reaction in the streets of Khartoum. The tired story behind irrational anger in much of the Muslim world remains the same.

Watch out if Westerners somewhere are judged blasphemous to Islam when they draw a cartoon, write a novel, make a movie or discuss history.

In their furious reaction, thin-skinned Muslims may issue death threats. And they expect apologies. Sometimes the offense — like the reporting of a Koran flushed down the toilet at Guantanamo Bay — turns out to be false but still causes riots and murdering thousands of miles away.

Likewise, the reaction to this madness is now stereotyped. Often apologies — not condemnation — follow from contrite Westerners. To prevent a recurrence, Western writers, filmmakers, teachers, and religious figures quietly edit their work and restrict their speech — but only when Islam is involved.

So-called moderate Muslims, often residing in Western countries, will usually say they deplore such extremism on the part of radicals. Then they claim such intolerance is simply not typical of Islam. Or that the embarrassing story has been reported in exaggerated fashion by those prejudiced against Muslims.

Few, though, ever explain why it is that Muslims — not Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, or atheists — are in the global news threatening to kill someone over a toy or a cartoon or an opera.

Finally, the uproar dies down — only to break out again in a new place over a new grievance.

There are certain unspoken rules of the game behind all these incidents. The first is the lack of reciprocity. Christ can be mocked in the Middle East without any consequences.

Muslim leaders can venture to the Vatican at Rome, the ancient center of Christianity, to consult with the pope about the necessity of more interfaith understanding. But should a pope or clergyman want to reciprocate by venturing to Mecca, he better convert to Islam first.

New mosques and conversions to Islam are common in the West. But to send missionaries to, or build a new church in, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, or Pakistan is to court death.

Condescension is also required. The demonstrator who waves a sword calling for a beheading is often excused. The poor guy must not be educated, rather than just cruel and dangerous. “We’re so sorry for the little mix-up” is the public Western answer to the shout of “Death to you!”