How can crudely drawn cartoons spark riots and demonstrations from London to Jakarta? It's easy, actually. After all, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which lasted for two years and killed thousands, is traced, at least in historical mythology, to ordinary bullet cartridges.
Once the Indian soldiers, known as Sepoys, discovered that the cartridges for their Lee-Enfield .303 rifles were coated in pig and beef grease--their British colonial masters were in deep trouble. The soldiers, after all, had to bite through the tops of the cartridges before loading them into their rifles. And for devout Muslims and Hindus, respectively, the fat of pigs and cattle is not something they should be chewing on. Not that the Lee-Enfield company really cared, though.
But ignorance, more than cartoons and bullets, is the real factor at play in the current outbursts and reactions over depictions of Mohammed. It's ignorance about how people live and what they believe. Freedom of press is as foreign to Iranian students as the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed are to a stockbroker in Chicago. And this ignorance allows radical leaders, especially in the cities where the riots have taken place, to exploit the mindless energy of the masses to consolidate their power, and improve their credentials. These leaders thrive in places where the young men lack both economic opportunity and a global comprehension--a description that can be applied to many big cities across the Middle East.
How big is the barrier between the West and the Islamic world? Won't globalization and the promise of democracy break down even that high wall? Today's cartoons show that these two worlds, increasingly intermingled, still know as much about each other as they did in the 19th century.
One ironic counter-example that reporters on the ground in Iran and Pakistan like to point out is that teenage protesters shout "Death to America" on the street, and then approach western journalists with whispered pleas to help them get a US visa. What does this show: Perhaps that many of the world's marginalized societies are hedging their bets--playing both radicalism and westernism to see which one will win. Plenty of Americans can relate--after all, even if we badmouth our boss to co-workers, we'll still kiss up to get a raise.