Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker:
Last year, when plans were announced for Cordoba House, an Islamic community center to be built two blocks north of Ground Zero, few opposed them. The project was designed to promote moderate Islam and provide a bridge to other faiths. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Sufi cleric leading the effort, told the Times, in December, “We want to push back against the extremists.” In August, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously against granting historic protection to the building at 45-47 Park Place, thereby clearing the way for the construction of Park51, as the center is now known. A month later, it is the focus of a bitter quarrel about the place of Islam in our society.
The lessons of the Danish cartoon controversy serve as an ominous template for the current debate. One reason for the initial lack of reaction to the cartoons was that they were, essentially, innocuous. There is a prohibition on depictions of the Prophet in Islam, but that taboo has ebbed and flowed over time, and only two of the twelve published cartoons could really be construed as offensive in themselves: one portrayed the Prophet as a barbarian with a drawn sword, which played into a racial stereotype; the other showed him wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb. Newspapers in several Muslim countries published the cartoons to demonstrate that they were tasteless, rather than vicious. The cartoons, in other words, did not cause the trouble. So what happened? A group of radical imams in Denmark, led by Ahmed Abu Laban, an associate of Gama’a al-Islamiyya, an Egyptian terrorist organization, decided to use the cartoons to inflate their own importance. They showed the cartoons to various Muslim leaders in other countries, and included three illustrations that had not appeared in the Danish papers. One was a photograph of a man supposedly wearing a prayer cap and a pig mask, and imitating the Prophet. (He turned out to be a contestant in a French hog-calling competition). Another depicted a dog mounting a Muslim in prayer. The third was a drawing of the Prophet as a maddened pedophile gripping helpless children like dolls in either hand. The imams later claimed that these illustrations had been e-mailed to them as threats—although they never produced any proof that they hadn’t made the drawings themselves—and so were fair representations of European anti-Muslim sentiment. The leaders saw them and were inflamed. The Sunni scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi demanded a Day of Rage. So far, we have had five years of rage.