Respecting Muslim Sensitivities: Magnanimity or Cowardice?

The New Criterion has an excellent editorial that raises many of the issues of honor-shame culture and our systematic mishandling of our relationship with the Arab/Muslim world as a result of our misunderstanding of the dynamics involved.

Sensitivity’s slippery slope

If you are like us, you probably often find yourself too busy when the luncheon gong sounds to manage a proper meal. You wind up ordering in a sandwich to eat at your desk. Even doctors in Glasgow, Scotland, used to avail themselves of this expedient. No more, apparently. You remember Glasgow: that’s where Kafeel Ahmed, part of a terrorist cell dominated by foreign-born Muslim medical personnel, rammed a Jeep Cherokee filled with explosives into the airport’s main terminal in June. In response to this, ah, incident, Britain raised the terrorist threat level to “critical.” What, you might ask, does that entail? Here’s one thing: according to some press reports, local hospitals ordered staff not to eat at their desks during Ramadan lest they offend the sensibilities of their Muslim colleagues and patients. Food trolleys, too, were to be rerouted out of sensitivity.

According to a hospital press release, these “suggestions—not orders— … have been greatly exaggerated in the media.” Perhaps. But a suggestion broadcast to “senior managers” can seem an awful lot like, well, a very strong suggestion, indistinguishable in practice from what the hospital refers to as “a policy directive,” i.e., an order. People will, in any event, take the hint. Meanwhile, the BBC has dropped plans to include an episode about a terror attack by Muslim extremists in its hospital drama show Casualty.

This seems to be standard operating procedure. After the subway bombings in London in July 2005, the BBC suddenly announced that it was scrapping plans for a dramatization of John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle. Why? Well, the book, whose plot revolves around Germany’s effort to enflame Muslim extremists in the First World War, contained “unsuitable and insensitive material.” Very considerate of the BBC, of course, but where were those scruples when they aired Jerry Springer: The Opera? That scurrilous, anti-Christian expostulation occasioned widespread protest among Christians, but in that case, as the London Telegraph tartly noted, “the BBC said that it would not be dictated to. Faced with potential Muslim anger, its courage is less visible.”

Do we discern a pattern here? Last month, Cambridge University Press announced that it would pulp all unsold copies of its 2006 book Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World by Robert O. Collins, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California, and J. Millard Burr, a retired employee of the State Department. Why? Becuase Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi banker, filed a libel claim to quash the book. According to a story in The Chronicle for Higher Education, Cambridge instantly capitulated, paid “substantial damages” to Mr. Mahfouz, and even went so far as to contact university libraries worldwide to ask them to remove the book from their shelves.

Have we got this right? Muslim medical personnel conspire to construct and detonate car bombs. Result: local hospitals “suggest” greater sensitivity to Muslim eating habits and the BBC cancels a television program depicting more or less what just happened in the street because it might anger the wrong people. Meanwhile writers from France, Britain, and the United States have their work suppressed by a Saudi businessman who doesn’t like unpleasant things said about Muslim charities. Where does it end?

This article originally appeared in
The New Criterion, Volume 26, September 2007, on page 3
Copyright © 2007 The New Criterion | Back to top |


The dynamics at work here reflect two different cultures operating at such vastly disparate levels, that what one culture thinks it is doing actually registers as the opposite on the other’s perceptual screens. The British think they are being magnanimous by trying not to offend Muslims’ notoriously delicate sensibilities. Muslims who favor Western tolerance may well be impressed with such concerns — like the Muslim students who was amazed that their university put in footbaths for students preparing to pray. But the people who are the most problematic, the Jihadis and their sympathizers, see these concessions as signs of weakness of will. For them, the willingness of the Western media not to inform their public about the dangers of Jihad is an Allah-send — the perfect cover for their activities, while the extensive efforts not to offend Muslims by, say, eating on Ramadan, is just another sign of how Muslims are extending Sharia on unbelievers. In other words, they view this kind of behavior as evidence that the West has already begun — willingly — to adopt their designated role as Dhimmi.

In a sense, this might work if those “moderates” who appreciate our concern for their sensibilities were then to turn around and contest publicly their fellow Muslims’ reading of the West’s concesssions — magnanimity vs. weakness. But they don’t. In the Muslim world, at least so far, the dominant reading is that of the zero-sum honor-shame approach: Western concessions represent a lack of will to resist Islamification and an invitation to further aggression. If failed attempts to blow up British civilians — including targeting women — lead to these kinds of concessions, then not only do they not lose ground — heightened suspicions and crackdown — but they gain ground — concessions and self-censorship that covers their behinds.

And at a fundamental level, the Jihadis are right in their assessment. As often in the case of honor-shame dynamics, people can’t publicly address what motivates them because to admit it would be shameful, so they fill their discourse with rationalizations. When Western intellectuals respond to the violent reactions of Muslims to perceived insults — like Danoongate or the Pope’s remarks — by attacking the cartoonists or the Pope for “provoking” the violence, they essentially side the with aggressors and show not magnanimity but cowardice.

The clincher in deciding which motivation drives this behavior comes from the behavior of groups like the BBC and the British Editorial Cartoonists Society when it comes to the sensibilities of others — their lack of any compumction in running pieces that deeply offend Christians and Jews puts the lie to their compassionate concerns. Quite the contrary, as the BBC’s response to complaints about material offensive to Christians — we will not be dictated to — indicates, they are proud of their independence.

The contrast here is between an independent media which defies the powers that be, no matter whose feelings are hurt — the basic nature of modern free media in a civil society — and a subservient media which self-censors in order to avoid offending people who will retaliate for being offended — the basic nature of a pre-modern, fettered media. What the British media — really the Western media — display is a particularly dysfunctional combination: defiant to their own modern culture, submissive to Muslim honor-shame culture.

Attack your side, protect your enemy: that’s a recipe for self-destruction.

How long before their public — viewers and readers — start to hold their own media responsible? The French case of Karsenty’s appeal could be a great place to begin: nothing better illustrates the dhimmi nature of the Western media than their fear of challenging the Arab world in this affair. As a fellow at ABC said to me after I showed him — and convinced him of — the staging: “I’m not sure how much appetite there is for this kind of thing here.”

7 Responses to Respecting Muslim Sensitivities: Magnanimity or Cowardice?

  1. fp says:


    I am in complete agreement with the whole piece, except the last paragraph, which is incongruous with the rest. The last does not follow from the previous, but is rather wishful thinking.

    The western media erroneously believe that they are tolerant and magnanimous, you erroneously believe that the audience will hold their media responsible. There is no evidence that the cowardice and ignorance are diminishing, just the opposite (see, for example, the treatment of Ahmedinajad’s visit to the US). The west has already dhimmified itself and the process is accelerating and won’t stop. The more blood is spilled, the more the submission.

    Indeed, one of the main reasons the media and the likes od W&M take their line is precisely because they discern that the public accepts it, or is gullible enough to be fed it. If you think that the last Karsenty decision signifies some change in the trend, you’re mistaken.

    Ahmedinajad is willing to do all that shtick in the US because he knows there’s tons of imbeciles in the west. And he explicitly said so in a MSM interview.

  2. This is an excellent article and commentary; very concise and to the point. We will lose the civilizational war if we constantly submit to a culture that has only one aim and many different and varied tactics. Thanks for printing this.

  3. Andreas says:

    Perhaps we need a new category of pathology. For want of a better term let’s call it toxic self criticism. The logic is almost inescapable. In order for me to feel the exquisite guilt that animates my psyche and proves my existential goodness, I have to take responsibility for the violent vengefulness of others. Since my power and authority is complete and total, it follows that the misdeeds of others must be caused by something I (or my civilization)have done or not done. It’s a perfect system that maintains the status of those who perceive the world in this way as being at the center of the universe. It’s easy to call it narcissism, but even narcissists do not normally adopt suicidal narratives that will eventually lead to their own destruction.

  4. […] Deadline,” a novel about terrorism. If Westerners want to see an example of genuine magnanimity and great heartedness, it’ […]

  5. fp says:


    We WILL lose the civilizational war? In practical terms we already did. The trend is clear.


    No, we don’t. RL called it correctly cowardice.

  6. mark says:

    This article by Richard Landes is superb. He has a sure hold on the dynamics of fear as they are expressed in the media, and imprinted in leadership. He is right to see hope in Karsenty… that is where a transformation may germinate for sure, if the west is awake enough.

  7. […] It’s as if we were embarrassed about shaming Islam even when it deserves to be shamed. […]

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