The provocateurs know politics and religion don't mix

It only takes a couple of loonies a few seconds to kick off a miniature war in the Muslim world

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So another internet clever-clogs sets the Middle East on fire: Prophet cartoons, then Koranic book-burning, now a video of robed "terrorists" and a fake desert. The Western-Christian perpetrators then go into hiding (an essential requisite for publicity) while the innocent are asphyxiated, beheaded and otherwise done to death – outrageous Muslim revenge thus "proving" the racist claims of the trash peddlers that Islam is a violent religion.

The provocateurs, of course, know that politics and religion don’t mix in the Middle East. They are the same. Christopher Stevens, his diplomat colleagues in Benghazi, priests in Turkey and Africa, UN personnel in Afghanistan; they have all paid the price for those ‘Christian priests’, ‘cartoonists’, ‘film-makers’ and ‘authors’ – the inverted commas are necessary to mark a thin line between illusionists and the real thing – who knowingly choose to provoke 1.6 billion Muslims.

When a Danish cartoon in a hitherto unknown newspaper drew a picture of the Prophet Mohamed with a bomb in his turban, the Danish embassy in Beirut went up in flames. When a Texas pastor decided to ‘sentence the Koran to death’, the knives came out in Afghanistan – we are leaving aside the little matter of the ‘accidental’ burning of Koranic pages by US personnel in Bagram. And now a deliberately abusive film provokes the murder of one of the State Department’s fairest diplomats.

In many ways, it’s familiar territory. In fifteenth century Spain, Christian cartoonists drew illustrations of the Prophet committing unspeakable acts. And – just so we don’t think we have clean claws today – when a Paris cinema showed a film in which Christ made love to a woman, the picture-house was burned-down, one cinema-goer was killed, and the killer turned out to be a Christian.

With the help of our wonderful new technology, however, it only needs a couple of loonies to kick off a miniature war in the Muslim world within seconds. I doubt if poor Christopher Stevens – a man who really understood the Arabs as many of his colleagues do not – had ever heard of the ‘film’ that unleashed the storming of the US consulate in Benghazi and his own death. It’s one thing to witlessly claim that the US would go on a “crusade” against al-Qaeda – thank you, George W. Bush – but another to insult, quite deliberately, an entire people. Racism of this kind stirs many a crazed heart.

And has Al-Qaeda – defeated by the Arab revolutionaries who demanded dignity rather than a Bin Laden Caliphate across the Middle East – now decided to cash in on populist grievances to advance their Islamist cause? Libya’s largely impotent government blames the Americans themselves for Stevens’ killing – since the consulate should have been evacuated – and suggests that a Gaddafi clique was behind the attack. This is ridiculous. If the armed militia in Benghazi, calling itself the ‘Islamic Law Supporters’, are more than telephone-gunmen, then al-Qaida involvement has to be suspected.

Ironically, there is room for a serious discussion among Muslims about, for example, a re-interpretation of the Koran; but Western provocation – and western, alas, it is – closes down such a narrative. Meanwhile, we beat our chests in favour of a ‘free press’. A New Zealand editor once proudly told me how his own newspaper had re-published the cartoon of the Prophet with a bomb-filled turban. But when I asked him if he planned to publish a cartoon of a Rabbi with a bomb on his head next time Israel invaded Lebanon, he hastily agreed with me that this would be anti-Semitic.

There’s the rub, of course. Some things are off limits, and rightly so. Others have no limits at all. Several radio presenters asked me yesterday if the unrest in Cairo and Benghazi may have been timed to “coincide with 9/11”.  It simply never occurred to them to ask if the video-clip provocateurs had chosen their date-for-release to coincide with 9/11.

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