It is fitting -- and ironic -- that Salman Rushdie's memoir of his life in hiding is being published this month. The book chronicles the "new, darker existence" forced on Rushdie after the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for his death for having written the novel "Satanic Verses."
The Middle East and much of Asia have been in flames this week, just as they were in 1989 after the infamous fatwa was delivered. Four Americans, including an American ambassador, have been killed and more than 300 protesters are dead. Bricks and stones have been hurled at U.S. and other Western political, cultural and financial centers in more than 20 countries with large Muslim populations. Embassy walls have been breached; American flags torn down and replaced by the black flags of jihadi Islam. "America is Satan," one placard declared as protesters broke through the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. Satan and savagery are in vogue once again.
The ostensible cause of this mayhem is Muslim outrage over a stupid 14-minute movie trailer about the Prophet Muhammad and crude caricatures of him published by a French satirical weekly. But these are not the cause of the mass violence, hatred and envy.
Rather, the "roots of Muslim rage," as Bernard Lewis wrote in 1990, lie in the decades, indeed, centuries of Arab economic, political and cultural decline, which has bred a visceral resentment of the once "imperial" West. Whether or not secularization is key to modernization, as Lewis argued, the independently produced Arab Human Development Reports document a region that has been sinking into distress due a lack of knowledge and freedom, its deplorable treatment of women, and disdain for human rights.
The Arab world, the reports show, has the highest unemployment rate and among the highest illiteracy of any developing region. It has the lowest percentage of Internet users and the smallest investment in education, research and scientific innovation, despite its oil resources. The political upheavals that toppled American-backed autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya -- the much-heralded Arab Spring uprisings -- have disappointed many who staged them and ushered in untested Islamist rulers in Tunisia and in Egypt, the largest and most politically significant Arab state.
The government of impoverished Yemen fights al Qaeda-backed groups for control, as well as secessionist movements in the north and south. In Libya, Islamist militias refuse to disarm or respect the writ of the recently elected secular government in Tripoli. Throughout the region, pragmatists clash with extremists -- secularists against Islamists, pragmatic Islamists against radicals and fanatics. The Arab Spring has become an autumn of failed expectations and, most likely, more winters of discontent.
President Obama has stressed Washington's respect for all faiths and embrace of tolerance. He has kept a low profile, "leading from behind" and hoping that the current wave of rage will dissipate -- until the next perceived provocation. Mitt Romney seems equally clueless if not more so, doubling down on an initial accusation that Obama appeared to sympathize with those who resorted to violence, even after the governor learned that four Americans had been killed.
An isolationist impulse grips our nation. Obama touts withdrawal from Iraq and soon Afghanistan as his key foreign policy achievement in the region as Syria bleeds. Republican strategist Ed Rogers blogs about an "October surprise" -- a reprise of Obama's dramatic Obama bin Laden strike, a bid to ensure his re-election by "punishing" those who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya. Meanwhile, America slowly retrenches, leaving the political field and advantage in this vital region to the well-organized, hate-filled militant Islamists to claim.