Extremists Have Hijacked the (Worthy) Muslim Debate

09/21/2012 08:04 EDT | Updated 11/20/2012 05:12 EST
A demonstrator holds a placard during a protest against the film 'Innocence of Muslims' in Jakarta, on September 14, 2012. More than 350 Muslim fundamentalists and their supporters staged an anti-US demonstration in Jakarta Friday, spewing anger at America over an anti-Islam film. AFP PHOTO / Bay ISMOYO (Photo credit should read BAY ISMOYO/AFP/GettyImages)

I've wondered often enough what utter hopelessness would feel like. I think I know now, because the raging battle between the demented people hell-bent on depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad in lurid and, frankly, insulting films and cartoons, and those equally demented people who respond to such presentations with unbridled violence are engulfed in a diabolical circle.

There is no solution to it, as far as I can tell, nor is there any indication either side is even interested in seeking one out. And for the rest of us stuck in the middle -- that is to say, those of us who see in this latest episode a complete lack of common sense on display in both these groups -- there is nothing to do but sit on the sidelines and watch. And hope we manage to avoid getting caught in the middle, which could very easily mean injury, even death, should we happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The wingnuts -- not only the religious, but the militantly secular ones, too -- who continue to produce salacious images of Muhammed have no agenda but to provoke Muslims. Their operation is not about freedom of speech or expression -- and it certainly is not about art (the infantile production and pathetic acting of the Innocence of Muslims "trailer" on YouTube is only one of many tip-offs). It is about garnering a reaction which is a known entity, for if there is one thing non-Muslims can say with certainty about Muslims it is that some of them will respond to any image portrayal of Muhammad with angry mobs and possibly the killing and maiming of demonstrably innocent people. There is, in short, no new point to be made by these cartoons and films, and if there is no point then there is no reason to produce them in the first place.

There is also no reason to react the way Muslims in the Middle East and parts of Europe have over the last two weeks. The level of fury and violence is inexcusable, the backlash as ill-informed and as stupid as the cartoons and the film. I don't ask that Muslims laugh these calumnies off as if they were nothing -- they are most definitely something. But a little perspective is quite obviously necessary, since, in the first case, as nearly everyone but the wingnuts has gone to great lengths to explain over and over again, these are the works of hateful fruitcakes with whom the vast majority of us do not associate (indeed, we detest them, too), and second, we are talking about a few bits of paper coloured in with magic markers and one atrocious 13-minute movie clip. (And it is not as though some Muslims are not guilty of presenting other religions in a, to put it politely, contentious manner, either.)

The berserk cartoonists and filmmakers (and their equally insane publishers and sponsors) cannot be stopped because we cannot legislate away hatred, try as we might. And the protesters and terrorists, simply put, refuse to stop because of a mistaken apprehension that the entire non-Muslim world is against them, with the proof being a handful of tasteless pictures in what is essentially France's version of Mad magazine.

The irony is that, try as they might to display how different they are from one another, it is impossible to distinguish these two groups from one another. They are both caricatures, which is a bad enough insult to heave on living, breathing humans, but, also, they need each other, equally: the not insignificant number of Muslims who believe the West is out to destroy their belief system and way of life require the crass images of Muhammed to legitimize their cause; the purveyors of the images need the Muslim reaction to validate their provocation. Around and around it goes.

It is maddening, absolutely maddening, to witness these two sides going at each other, especially since this is not some silly argument that will cool off with time and the acquisition of some perspective and understanding but the very serious, seminal struggle of our times, and there is no indication we are getting any closer to solving the question of how the Western value system and the Muslim one can coexist.

Of course, they can coexist, and it is the utmost hope of so many of us that some day they will. And this is why it is thoroughly disheartening, and so very disappointing, to see a discussion so worthwhile being hijacked by two groups of lunatics whose only point of agreement, seemingly, is that they must continue to disagree at all costs. And damn the rest of us caught, helplessly, in the middle.