02/10/2006 12:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is History a Cartoon?

The inflamed reaction of the Arab world to a Danish cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammed was itself like a cartoon. This cartoon is usually labeled "the Arab street" and consists of crazed young males acting like hooligans while behind the scenes cynical regimes stand idle and gain publicity value from the violence. To many Americans, this cartoon is the real face of Islam, just as to many Muslims photographs from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are the real America.

It would be sad if cartoons turn out to decide the course of history. The real situation, as always, contains interwoven ingredients. The current violence over the cartoons began in Denmark, one of the most liberal states in western Europe, yet its Arab immigrants are neither liberal nor fully European. Should they be expected to adopt the humane values of their new country automatically? Westerners think so, and yet the same Westerners turn their backs on police harassment of Muslims throughout Europe and the degraded status of these immigrants. By analogy, should southern blacks have acted nice and polite in order to fit in with white society after the Civil War? If not, what limits are considered legitimate and by whom?

Europe has a population of 15 million Arabs with many more undeclared. This creates a strain, not just on the immigrants, but on societies that are not used to pluralism. The U.S. is much more used to a multi-cultural state, yet our Muslims have been cowed, silent, and separate since 9/11--as well they might be, given that the Bush administration has a free hand to put them under surveillance, investigation, arrest, and imprisonment with the slightest regard for civil liberties.

Yet this isn't a black-and-white picture, either, since Muslim-Americans often keep allegiance and cultural values with their home countries, leading to widespread sympathy for Al Qaida and its aims. That sympathy may be tepid and vague, but it exists. It's hard for down-trodden people to forget that they are down-trodden, even in a new country.

What's most obvious about this state of mutual hostility is the lack of respect from both sides. If liberal Europeans respected Arab culture--meaning its best qualities, not its worst--then it would make sense for Arabs to pay respect in return. But neither side can demand respect, and certainly not in a context where so much contempt is roiling. As long as we believe in cartoon images, history will record this as a dark and tragic time for both sides.