02/08/2006 06:42 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Muslim Cartoons: That's Enough, All of You!

Hey, want to hear a great Martin Luther King joke? No?? How about this one - Elie Wiesel and Gandhi go to "Brokeback Mountain" and ... what? You're offended? You think I'm a what? If I don't shut up you'll what?!? Oh, I forgot to explain ... I'm "experimenting with the press's ability to express itself in a civil society." Wanna hear my jokes now?

The idea to run these cartoons was a bad one. Worse, they were intentionally offensive. If the editors wanted to test the ability of the press to override religious taboos (although I'm still not sure of their point) it could have simply printed an image labelled 'Mohammed' (forbidden by Islam), perhaps together with blasphemous images of Jesus and Moses.

Instead, they leave the impression that they were singling out the religion of a despised minority in Europe for insult and provocation. If you know anything about Muslim beliefs - and about the daily humiliations they suffer - their rage and pain are understandable. But having said that, let me talk to ...

You - yeah, you! You Muslim leaders (not too many, but a few) who have been inciting these riots: Knock it off! You bring dishonor and shame to your faith. My Muslim friends always told me that Islam teaches self-control, respect, and dignity in the face of insult and oppression. So act like it! A few thousand of you are making 1.5 billion people look bad, at a time when we all need to get along.

After all, as vile as the cartoons were, the Danes could have done worse: They could have released another Lars von Trier film.

Everybody's pushing their own agenda. Now that the controversy's turned into full-scale chaos, everybody's jumping at the chance to use it for themselves. Radical Islamists are saying "I told you so" to more moderate Muslims who suggest that co-existence with the non-Islamic world is possible. Right-wingers are using to suggest all Muslims are untrustworthy.

Christian fundies are using it to push the notion that Muslims are all savages. The atheist mullahs are pimping their intolerance again, saying the actions of a few reflect all 1.5 billion who live under Islam.

So I say to all of you, too: Zip it! Enough already! People are getting killed here. It's a tragedy, and a farce. Stop trying to use it to further your own ends.

To those liberals who say this represents some kind of moral dilemma for the left, caught between diversity and freedom of speech, I say: Not at all. Freedom of speech and a civil society should always be defended - in Denmark or Skokie, Illinois - but we retain the right to tell jerks (like the character in the first paragraph, above) to stick a cork in it. Not as a government, and not by suppression or force, but through dialog.

The idea that there is a struggle between "freedom of speech" and "Islam" is nonsense anyway. There is no "Islam" in any institutional sense. It's a religion that has no centralized authority or hierarchy, and doesn't even have official clergy. (Powerful teachers attract followings, but there is no ordination process.)

Which "Islam" are you struggling with, anyway? That of a few thousand radical Islamists marching in the streets? Or that of the Wahhabis, who are the evangelicals of Islam (not unlike our own)? Are you fighting the syncretic Islam of Indonesia? Or maybe that of the Sufis, who have practiced the highest forms of spiritual practice for a thousand years? They've lived a creed of universal love and acceptance, while producing some of the world's finest art and poetry (like that of Rumi, who is a best seller in the US nine hundred years after his death).

If you stop and consider, you'll probably realize that what you're fighting isn't "Islam" at all. It's the existence of a few hate-filled individuals who can terrorize and kill. They hold the whole society hostage just by existing, because we know what they can do. They're out there. They exist. Some are Muslims. Some are not. (Thirty years ago leftists - not Muslims - held Europe in the grip of terror.) But whenever and wherever these people exist: they're the problem.

So, everybody: Sit down. Take a deep breath. Meditate (the Sufis can show you how). If you do, we can all put this foolish incident behind us.

And to all of you: Peace be upon you.

A Night Light