"By my reckoning, just five American newspapers mentioned the name of Imran Khan last week. Who? Well, he's a world-famous -- wait for it -- cricketer. No, hang on: Don't all stampede for the exits, this isn't a column about cricket. He is, as it happens, a beautiful cricketer, the first great fast bowler from the Indian subcontinent and -- whoops, no, honestly, it's not a cricket column. But the point is he's a household name in England, Australia, India and everywhere else where the summer game means the thwack of leather on willow.
And in the same week a mere handful of American media outlets mentioned Imran, over a hundred newspapers mentioned Michael Isikoff of Newsweek. Isikoff was the guy who filed the phony-baloney story about some interrogator at Guantanamo flushing a Quran down the toilet. But Imran was the guy who, in a ferocious speech broadcast on Pakistani TV, brought it to the attention of his fellow Muslims, many of whom promptly rioted, with the result that 17 people are dead.
To date, reaction has divided along two lines. Newsweek has been hammered for being so flushed with anti-Bush anti-military fever that they breezily neglected the question of whether their story would generate a huge mound of corpses.
Which is true. On the other hand, there are those who point out it's hardly Newsweek's fault that some goofy foreigners are so bananas they'll riot and kill over one rumor of one disrespectful act to one copy of one book. Christians don't riot over ''Piss Christ'' and other provocations by incontinent ''artists.'' Jews take it in their stride when they're described as ''a virus resembling AIDS,'' which is what Sheikh Ibrahim Mudeiris said a week ago in his sermon on Palestinian state TV, funded by the European Union. Muslims can dish it out big-time, so why can't they take it, even the teensy-weensiest bit?
All of which is also true, but would be a better defense of Newsweek if the media hadn't spent the last 3-1/2 years bending over backwards to be super-sensitive to the, ah, touchiness of the Muslim world -- until the opportunity for a bit of lurid Bush-bashing proved too much to resist. In a way, both the U.S. media and those wacky rioters in the Afghan-Pakistani hinterlands are very similar, two highly parochial and monumentally self-absorbed tribes living in isolation from the rest of the world and prone to fanatical irrational indestructible beliefs -- not least the notion that you can flush a 950-page book down one of Al Gore's eco-crazed federally mandated low-flush toilets, a claim no editorial bigfoot thought to test for himself in Newsweek's executive washroom.
Watching the media circling the wagons around the beleaguered Isikoff this week, Martin Peretz of the New Republic described them as ''a profession that is complacent, self-righteous, and hopelessly in love with itself.'' The media are the message: But, hey, enough about the war, let's talk about me.
As for the wackiness of Muslim fanatics, well, up to a point. But, you know, we've been told ever since 9/11 that the allegedly seething ''Muslim street'' was about to explode, and for four years it's remained as somnolent as a suburban cul-de-sac on a weekday afternoon. Invade their countries, topple their rulers, bomb their infrastructure from the first day of Ramadan to the last, arrest their terrorists, hold them at Gitmo for half a decade, initiate reforms setting the Arab world on the first rung of the ladder to political and economic liberty, and the seething Muslim street gives one almighty shrug.
In October 2001 Faizal Aqtub Siddiqi, president-general of the International Muslims Organization, warned that the bombing of Afghanistan would create 1,000 Osama bin Ladens. In April 2003, Egypt's President Mubarak warned that the bombing of Iraq would create 100 bin Ladens. So right there you got a 90 percent reduction in the bin Laden creation program -- just by bombing a second country! Despite the best efforts to rouse the Muslim street, its attitude has remained: Start the jihad without me. The short history of the last four years is: They're nuts but not that nuts.
Until, that is, Newsweek's story of Quran-flushing prompted bloody riots from Yemen to Afghanistan to Indonesia. To get a rise out of these guys, it took a peculiarly vivid combination of disrespect: the literal word of Allah plus the flushed toilet, a quintessential symbol of Western decadence to the remoter parts of the Hindu Kush. Message to Bush: You can do anything, but lay off of my holy book.
And even these riots wouldn't have happened if Imran Khan hadn't provided the short fuse between Newsweek's match and those explosive mobs. Imran is a highly Westernized, wealthy Pakistani who found great fame and fortune in England. He palled around with the Rolling Stones, dated supermodels and married Jemima Goldsmith, daughter of billionaire businessman Sir James Goldsmith. Jemima was hot but of Jewish background and therefore, like much of Imran's stereotypical playboy lifestyle, not particularly advantageous when he decided to go into Pakistani politics. So, having demonstrated little previous interest in the preoccupations of the Muslim street, Imran then began pandering to it. I doubt whether he personally cared about that Newsweek story one way or the other, but he's an opportunist and that's why he went out of his way to incite his excitable followers.
It's not the mobs, so much as the determination of the elites to keep their peoples in a state of ignorance. The most educationally repressive form of Islam, for example, is funded and promoted by Saudi princes who, though not as handsome as Imran, also spend a lot of time in the West -- gambling, drinking, womanizing and indulging other tastes that even the wildest night on the tiles in Riyadh just can't sate. Whereas most advanced societies believe that an educated population is vital to the national interest, many Muslim elites seem to have concluded than an uneducated population is actually far more useful. And, when you look at Saudi funding of radical madrassahs in hitherto moderate Muslim regions from the Balkans to Indonesia, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they're having great success de-educating hitherto relatively savvy parts of the world.
This disaster took a combination of factors. We can't do much about Muslim fanatics; we probably can't do much about our self-worshipping vanity media whose reflexive counter-tribalism has robbed it of all sense of perspective or proportion. But we ought to apply pressure on the link between the two worlds: the self-serving elites who enjoy the privileges of the West even as they exploit their co-religionists' ignorance of it. That's just not cricket, is it?"