The last time that Americans spent this much time concerning themselves with blasphemy, witches were being tried in Salem and many a settler suspected that on a dark and stormy night the devil might come wandering through the woods. But in those parts of the world where women are still put on trial for witchcraft and pilgrims to Mecca annually stone the devil, blasphemy is a matter of life and death.
Blasphemy is not however the joyless affair that the modern mind anticipates. Blasphemy in the Muslim world is what a blackout is to Chicago or Detroit, a break from the normal routine and a chance for bored teenagers to spend some time out in the fresh air throwing stones, looting stores and committing assorted crimes that would be unacceptable under normal circumstances.
It is a mistake to think of such riots as a reaction to blasphemy. One might as well call the Fourth of July a reaction to fireworks. When the weather is warm, the economy is lousy and some politician stands to benefit from shouting, "Death to America" at an embassy or a fried chicken place, then the internet cafes in Cairo and Karachi begin buzzing with bearded men eagerly searching for something properly blasphemous to outrage the sensibilities of Muslim burghers waiting around to be shocked by the decadent infidels with their cartoon-drawing, chess-playing and kite-flying ways.
The Islamist fireworks were scheduled to take place on September 11. The only questions to be asked were, how, where and why. To help answer the last question an Egyptian Salafi cable channel dug up an obscure movie that no one had ever heard of before to give their followers the needed motivation to do what they were going to do anyway.
If the Salafis hadn't come upon a properly blasphemous movie, then they would have found an offensive cartoon, book, song or cave painting. And if they couldn't find any of those, then they would have made one on their own and blamed it on the infidels.
Seven years ago the Salafis wanted to start some riots, but all they had to work with were some Danish cartoons, which despite trying hard to be provocative weren't nearly offensive enough. Western journalists may have gasped at the sight of a drawing of Mohammed with a lit fuse coming out of his turban, but in a religion where the highest attainment is martyrdom by personal bomb, it would have been unclear whether the infamous drawing was meant as compliment or condemnation. Similarly a drawing of Mohammed with a sword and two veiled wives might count as an obvious criticism in Denmark, where citizens of good character are expected to refrain from walking down the street with sword and slaves in tow, but aside from the prohibition on depicting Mohammed, swords, slaves and bombs would have been considered a good thing back in Salafiland.
To cook up a properly blasphemous scandal, the Salafis were forced to make their own cartoons to meet the high standards and good taste of their audience -- these cartoons featured Mohammed as a pig, a demon from hell and engaging in unnatural congress with a dog. It took them a few months; and while their artistic skills were lacking, the violent outbreaks of looting and killing that followed more than made up for their failure to obtain a full scholarship to The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
Like Hearst, the Muslim policy on blasphemy is, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." And if the pictures are not forthcoming, then they will furnish both the pictures and the war. When a Muslim cleric in Pakistan wanted to persecute the local Christians, he framed a mentally retarded little girl for blasphemy, and he would have gotten away with it too if the whole case hadn't become an international embarrassment for the Pakistani government.
Like charges of witchcraft, charges of blasphemy are the means by which the powerful persecute the vulnerable. To view blasphemy as a matter of theology or superstition misses the entire point. It is so much less than these things in the Muslim world, and also so much more.
Nationalism in the Muslim world is a precarious affair and blasphemy charges are the means by which Muslims emphasize religion as the defining element of citizenship, rather than territorial or ethnic ties. Any Christian can be charged with blasphemy at any time and the mob reaction emphasizes that they are not equal citizens, but a troublesome and untrustworthy alien element in the body of the nation.
The blasphemy charge is an accusation of treason that empowers local Muslims to seize lands and possessions. Its defense of the Prophet is quite profitable, whether looting a Christian village in Egypt or an American consulate in Benghazi, and it is also fun for those whose sense of fun is limited to burning things down and posing for snapshots with corpses.
When the time is ripe for a riot, then how much or how little free speech there is in the West will make as much difference to the final outcome as sending apology letters to a hurricane.