RELIGION: First comes the rage
David Ignatius

Washington, February 16, 2006

Looking at the cartoons, a non-Muslim wonders how they could possibly have given such offense. How could a few juvenile, satirical drawings of the Prophet Mohammed have created a global crisis? It seems inexplicable; until you think about American reactions to a word we hesitate even to write for fear of giving offense, calling it instead the `N-word`.

The African-American experience reminds us that there is a rage so deep and abiding that it can be triggered by a small comment, an unintended slight, a remark perhaps meant as a joke but heard as a grievous insult. The legacy of slavery left behind that residue of anger. It created taboos that protect what Sigmund Freud described as the sacred totems of cultural identity. It established boundaries where outsiders - in this case, white people - are not allowed to venture. That`s why the N-word is so powerful - it is the symbol for the suffering that a people experienced at the hands of others.

By drawing this comparison, I don`t mean to condone what Muslims are doing in their violent, deadly over-reaction to a provocation by a foolish newspaper editor in Denmark. And I think the Muslim world could learn something about tolerance from African-Americans. The United States still abounds with racist images, but blacks are no longer rioting in the streets or burning down buildings. With time, people have learned to deal with their anger in less self-destructive ways - even, sometimes, to laugh about it.

This week, the African-American cartoonist Aaron McGruder is running a series in his taboo-busting strip `The Boondocks`, making fun of civil rights leader Al Sharpton`s protests about racism. In Monday`s strip, Huey Freeman muses to his friend: `Give me news of hope, Caesar. Tell me of the leaders who dare to stand against the grave dangers faced by this world. I crave inspiration.` His pal Caesar looks up from his newspaper: `Says here Al Sharpton is protesting a cartoon for using the N-word.` To which Huey responds: `I`m going back to bed.`

Maybe the Muslim world will someday be able to laugh off slurs against the Prophet Mohammed, but not now. The wounds are too raw; the sense of victimization is too immediate. I travel often to Muslim countries, and I am sometimes astonished at how hundreds of years of history can seem condensed into the present, so that every current injustice is magnified by the weight of every past one. I don`t understand it, but then, I have to remind myself, I`m not a Muslim. I haven`t lived it.

Hoping to understand this blood-knot of rage and intolerance, I called Randall Kennedy, a prominent African-American professor of law at Harvard University. He is the author of a 2002 book that explores the intense emotions aroused by the N-word, which he actually dares to spell out in the book`s title. He says he`s not surprised that a cartoon, like a taboo word, can become a focus for rage. For African-Americans, he explains, `there are all sorts of indignities and insults, but they`re momentary and ambiguous`. But when white people say the hateful word, `it crystallizes something that`s often hard to discern`.

`When people feel they`re being disrespected, they respond in all sorts of ways, including very self-destructive ways,` Kennedy observes. That said, he finds the Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons unacceptable - just as he thinks people over-react to the N-word. `Are we going to bleep out Richard Pryor`s album? Are we going to scratch out every reference to the word in Huckleberry Finn? I would say with respect that`s what is happening here with the reaction to the cartoons.`

Whenever I`m feeling really pessimistic about the world, I remind myself of the American civil rights movement. In the space of my lifetime, America has gone from a country of brutal racism and outright segregation to a place where black folks and white folks pretty much get along. We haven`t abolished racism, but by working honestly at the problem, we`ve made real progress. Along the way, we experienced rage and violence: Our cities burned; our nation sometimes felt at war with itself. But we passed through that dark period into a brighter one.

I want to believe that Muslims and the West are now in that kind of transition. We`re in the rage phase - the part of the story where black folks are torching cities, white governors are sending in the National Guard, and the problems seem insoluble. But if people keep their heads, we will eventually pass from this crazy moment into a different one where a genuine reconciliation is possible. Let`s face it: We are living the clash of civilizations, and it`s likely that things won`t get much better until they get a bit worse.

David Ignatius is a Washington-based journalist who has worked for such publications as the Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune