What is an offense? Must claims to an offense have any relationship to reality? Does the "offended" party have the right to respond in any way, including with violence?
These are questions that were, or should have been, asked with respect to the "cartoon riots," in which Muslims in many countries violently demonstrated against cartoons depicting Muhammad in a Danish newspaper. In the same vein, a German opera that depicted a number of religious figures was cancelled for fear that it might offend Muslim sensibilities.
Numerous smaller incidents of Western self-censorship with respect Muslim sensibilities abound, while Christian and Jewish societies continue to subject themselves and their religions to withering criticism, parody, and self-doubt.
Violence and bullying, in other words, has worked. The more violent the Muslim world becomes, the more likely the West is to see the side of the "offended" party and question its own actions.
The Muslim world's tactic of combining claims of offense, followed by intimidation through violence is not new to Israelis. We have been victims of it for years, and we are seeing it again right now.
In Gaza, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and elsewhere, Muslims are up in arms about what even a moderate like Jordan's King Abdullah called "a threat to the foundations of the Al Aksa mosque."
"What is happening is an aggression, we call on the Palestinian people to unite and protect Jerusalem," said Muhammad Hussein, the top Muslim cleric in Jerusalem. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for the Islamic world to "retaliate" and make Israel "regret" what it had done.
What is Israel doing that has sparked such violent threats? Some years ago, the pedestrian ramp leading up to Jerusalem's Temple Mount fell apart. Now municipal authorities plan to build a permanent ramp to maintain access to this holy site, and are conducting, as required by law, an archeological salvage dig to make sure no artifacts are destroyed in the process.
All of this is completely outside the Temple Mount platform, and bears no relation or threat to that structure, let alone to the Aksa mosque. Why would Israel dream of undermining the Temple Mount, which is Judaism's holiest site? The claim that Israel is doing so is patently absurd, as anyone familiar with the area can immediately see.
So how can the Muslim world be awash in violent threats based on an entirely fabricated pretext? Must there not be something to it?
The answer is that Muslim indignation is taken as self-justifying, and the more violent it is, the more the Western victims of it tend to question themselves.
The US State Department, instead of rejecting outright the claims that Israel was threatening a holy site and condemning Muslim extremists for incitement to violence, said it was seeking "clarification." "As always, we urge all parties to exercise great care when deciding whether and how to engage in any activity near sensitive religious sites," the spokesman said.
In other words, the State Department is at best agnostic on this "debate." If anything, its statement is directed against Israel, since who else is engaged in "activity near sensitive religious sites"?
This is scandalous, but perhaps less so than our own defense minister, Amir Peretz, who has written to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asking that work on the site be immediately stopped. Why? Because security officials complained that this construction is causing foment in the Arab world at a sensitive time.
But why do these officials not think to ask why this foment is happening and how to prevent it from repeating on the flimsiest of pretexts? How many times will we and our allies capitulate to baseless violent intimidation?
What is going on now, of course, is a rerun of the violent riots of September 1996, over the opening of an additional exit to the then already existing Western Wall Tunnels, well outside the Temple Mount. Today this tunnel is a popular tourist attraction. It too had as much to do with the "foundations" of Al Aksa as does the reconstruction of the World Trade Center in New York.
Radical Islamist intimidation tactics will continue to multiply if the West, including Israel, does not show minimal respect for itself and the truth. Western condemnation of extremist threats should be swift, universal, and unequivocal. This time the victim happens to be Israel; next time it could be anywhere else.