Richard Nixon famously had his “madman theory” during the Vietnam War. He wanted the North Vietnamese to believe he was irrational (not such a stretch, as it turned out) and ready to do anything to end the war. Faced with this dangerous lunatic, the North Vietnamese would beg for peace.
The madman theory didn’t work out for Nixon, but it has now become the strategy of a slice of an entire civilization. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the Ground Zero mosque, says failing to build the mosque will threaten “national security” by empowering Islamic radicals. Practically everyone in America urged Pastor Terry Jones not to burn a Koran to avoid provoking Muslims around the world. This is the “madman theory” writ large: Don’t offend Muslims for fear of their wholly unhinged reaction.
Jones deserved the condemnation heaped upon him for his planned gaptoothed act of interfaith belligerence. A little perspective, though: Jones wasn’t intending to threaten or hurt anyone or destroy anyone’s property besides his own. The truly freakish villains in the story — should the worst have happened — would have been the inciters, excusers, and perpetrators of mayhem in response to one man’s idiotic stunt.
That this reaction was plausible — likely, even — is testament to the power of primitivism in the Islamic world. It’s not even “an eye for an eye,” which would involve an imam in the backwaters of Pakistan roasting a Gideon Bible for the TV cameras. It’s worse. Some poor Christian in Nigeria would get his church and house burned down — and maybe get killed — over an offense half a world away.
This makes sense only to people who have a tribalistic attitude toward religion, and to people who have an interest in fostering and exploiting that attitude for their own purposes. Sadly, the former category includes huge swaths of the Islamic world, from Afghanistan to Somalia, and the latter category includes the governments of such important Islamic countries as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt.
The tribal environment in which millions of Muslims live emphasizes honor, solidarity, and revenge. “Since Muslims treat the tribal era of Muhammad and his early successors as the golden age of Islam,” Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center writes, “the cultural influence of the tribal template remains pervasive.” In this template, insults are not taken lightly.
Governments play on this prickly pridefulness. The deadly riots in reaction to the Danish cartoons lampooning Mohammed occurred months after their publication at the instigation of the Egyptian government and other opportunists. To push back against the Bush administration’s democratization agenda, Cairo stoked the controversy to show how the awful West was humiliating Muslims.
The danger is that threats of violence will intimidate us into limiting the ambit of freedom in the United States. It isn’t such a long step from saying Jones’s pyromania endangered national security to forbidding it for our own protection. In Europe, it can already be a crime to criticize Islam. This constitutes the importation of Islamic prohibitions on blasphemy that are used to stifle debate and inhibit reform.
Nina Shea and Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute quote the late Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid for the proposition that such Western laws “play directly into the hands of fundamentalists, who wish to avoid all criticism of their attempts to narrow the scope of discourse regarding Islam, and to inter 1.3 billion Muslims in a narrow, suffocating chamber of dogmatism.” Ideally, we want the transmission belt to work the other way, with Muslims who have imbibed Western values prodding the Islamic world away from obscurantism.
One day, perhaps, a Terry Jones will be invited as a performance artist at the Islamic equivalent of the Tate museum to “shock the Muslim bourgeoisie.” One day. Civilizational change doesn’t come quickly — the West’s escape from feudal backwardness took centuries and depended on fortuitous social and historical circumstances. In the meantime, we can’t be beholden to the dictates of madmen.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, email@example.com. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.