Like white phosphorus, the mocking cartoons of Muhammad have inflamed and lit up the battlefield in the culture war between the secular and the sacred, between West and East.
Since 9/11, President Bush seems to have understood that if we wish to win the war on terror, we must separate the Islamic masses from the monsters. To defeat the Islamic extremists, we must win the hearts and minds of the moderates.
To this end, Bush has visited mosques. He has held White House celebrations for the breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan. He has sent Karen Hughes to State to develop ideas to show we respect the Islamic faith and that our war is against terror, not Islam. He has said more times than many of us care to recall, "Islam is a religion of peace."
Those cartoons — insulting, blasphemous, provocative to Muslims — have wiped out much of what Bush had accomplished. The cartoons have given the Muslim radicals visible proof to show the masses that the West mocks what they hold sacred.
All Muslims believe that to depict the face of the Prophet or to ridicule him as Salman Rushdie did is a sacrilege. Why did that Danish newspaper do it? Why have conservatives rushed to show solidarity with the European editor-idiots who plastered these mocking cartoons all over page one?
"We believe in the First Amendment!" comes the blustery reply.
But just because the First Amendment may protect the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, or Larry Flynt to publish pornography, or Mapplethorpe to publish photos of himself with a bullwhip protruding from his rectum does not mean we stand in solidarity with Nazis, Larry Flynt or Robert Mapplethorpe — or does it?
Conservatives rage in rebuttal that Islamic nations tolerate cartoons, books, billboards and TV shows far more anti-Semitic and anti-Christian than these cartoons were anti-Islamic.
All of which is true, and none of which is relevant. For this is not a debate over double standards. It is a battle for the hearts and minds of Islamic peoples. And if we are to have any hope of winning that battle, we cannot condone insults to what they hold most sacred and dear: their faith.
Though State initially condemned the cartoons — "Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is unacceptable" — neocons who lust after "World War IV" with "Islamofascism" seem to have regained control of the message. While Bush, standing next to King Abdullah of Jordan, denounced the violence the cartoons ignited and Condi Rice charged Iran and Syria with exploiting the crisis, neither would criticize the cartoons.
But if Bush cannot follow the lead of our best friends in the region, like Abdullah, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Recep Erdogan of Turkey and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, or even Jacques Chirac, and denounce the insulting content of the cartoons as well as the violence promoted by the anti-Western demagogues, our wars for democracy will be in vain. For we cannot win the friendship of these people if they believe our words of respect for their religion are a cover for an abiding contempt.
And let us admit the truth. Contempt for the beliefs and values the Islamic faith holds dear, and for the Prophet, has been widely expressed by ideologues, entertainers, preachers and even conservatives post-9/11.
We are all entitled to hold such views. But if we wish to exercise our right to air them in print or broadcast, we should expect to reap what we have sown. For, as Bishop Berkeley said: "Things are as they are, and their consequences will be what they will be. Why then should we seek to be deceived?"
To understand Islam, we might read more deeply into our own history. When Christianity was as old as Islam is today, we, too, were prepared to die in crusades to defend Christians abroad. We, too, were prepared to burn heretics, schismatics and infidels. Their Most Catholic Majesties, the king and queen of Spain in the 15th century, and the father of the Anglican Church, Henry VIII, had no problem with beheadings.
Five centuries ago, Christians would have responded to insults as Muslims do today. However, given our pathetic protests of Hollywood sacrileges such as "The Last Temptation of Christ," one could argue that Muslims are simply more devout and resolute in defense of their faith than the milquetoast Christians of modernity.
Like Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century, Muslims do not believe all religions are equal. They do not believe freedom of speech and the press should protect those who blaspheme their God or Prophet.
And if we are unwilling to curb our tongues when it comes to their faith, or to condemn those among us who use their freedom to insult the Islamic religion, we should probably pack up and get out of the Middle East. Before they throw us out.