Attacks on U.S. Embassies

I suppose my thoughts will reflect ignorance as well as insight when it comes to such a sensitive topic, but let me get some ideas on the table and hopefully draw some feedback, especially from my international friends (as public comment here or private email), to fill the gaps in my understanding.

It seems the pan-Islamic riots would divide Moslems into several categories:

  1. Those who know that most Americans think the filmmaker is an idiot, who understand the American system tolerates the self-expression of idiots without endorsing it, and who feel that the rioters are giving Islam a bad name in the world.
  2. Those who don’t understand how free expression without government approval works, who assume that the American government and people at least vaguely endorse the film or they would have shut it down.
  3. Those who understand the American system and its freedoms, but who still blame America for being a little too complacent about those who fan the flames of Islamophobia.
  4. Those who understand the American system and its freedoms, but who also see America as an imperialist bully having its economic and cultural way with the Middle East, and who will take what occasions they can to push back on that economic and cultural influence.

I assume that the rioters are a subset of # 2 and # 4, possibly with the more savvy # 4 folks harnessing the raw energy of the # 2 folks (and of young men angry about conditions unrelated to the film).

An equivalence:

After 9/11, a subset of Americans blamed the whole Moslem world for the actions of a few evil men, potentially giving Americans in general a bad name.

After some knucklehead makes a homemade video that most Americans would scorn, a subset of Moslems blames the whole Western world for the actions of this renegade knucklehead, potentially giving Islam in general a bad name.

A non-equivalence:

At least from the Western perspective, it is obvious that the sparks are not equivalent – a renegade idiot making an offensive amateur film in his garage is not the equivalent of killing thousands of people and destroying the WorldTradeCenter.

Equivalence # 2:

If America tolerates Bill Maher’s ridicule of Christianity in the widely distributed “Religulous,” then it can’t very well censor (note it can vocally condemn but cannot legally censor) someone’s garage film ridiculing Islam.

Non-equivalence # 2:

At least from the Middle Eastern perspective (as my Western mind imagines it), religion inevitably has a different cultural place and a different level of sensitivity. Americans can easily shrug off Maher. We’re free to agree or disagree with his point of view, and either way there’s not much at stake in terms of our freedom or our cultural identity. But religion and history are differently entangled in the Middle East. In the Medieval West, the Christian Church exerted hegemonic control over people’s lives. When the Enlightenment brought forth ideas of personal freedom and democracy, it was to a large extent liberating us from the oppressive control of the Church. Religious and intellectual dissent become tolerated and then cherished.

In the Middle East, my sense is that something of the reverse happened. The secular Western democracies have been perceived for a century or more (at least since World War I) as the oppressor, the colonizer. In this configuration, traditional Islam is seen as the vehicle of liberation, the inner source of power that can help the Islamic world to throw off shackles of secular Western democracies and flourish in freedom once again.

This historical analysis at least would explain what is otherwise inexplicable to many of my American friends: i.e., if you really want to gain your freedom, why invite religious hegemony, censorship, and sharia law? If my assessment is correct, historical contingencies can answer that question … but in the long run I still favor a system that gives maximum leeway for individual expression and dissent, one that does not censor expression on behalf of any religion. Making a film like “The Innocence of Muslims” is an asinine act but not a criminal act. And that’s how it should be.

2 thoughts on “Attacks on U.S. Embassies

  1. I think there are some larger cultural issues involved as well that are difficult for a secular West to understand completely (before some House Republican claims that is an “apology” it is not). There was a good editorial in the WSJ yesterday by a Muslim writer who pointed out—-what Bernanrd Lewis has previously noted— that the Muslim world has fallen way behind economically, culturally etc, since its zenith as a culture. Indeed one could argue that it is at its nadir now. Besides it having fallen behind the rest of the world (read the “West”) it has yet to consolidate its religious factions as the Christians did, largely through Constantine’s embrace (and it has yet to be co-opted by government as Christianity was by that same embrace). (and then of course Christianity rewrote its history to make it appear there never were such schisms). Anyway, one of the things this leads to is a frustration in the mass of Muslims which is easily inflamed by the more radical elements. The disenfranchised are always at the front line as the foot soldiers of someone else’s agenda (look at who Republicans have motivated to vote against their own self interests in America in support of a “cause” which helps corporate interests).

    But I think, to come back to my first point; that it is hard for those of us who think in a secular manner (The “profane”) and who routinely assign religion its role and then separate science and other matters of progress from it, to understand the linkage for those who live for their religion—-and because of the economics and the other falling behind aspects mentioned have little else to live for (Remember Hoffer’s admonition that “faith in a cause is a reflection of loss of faith in oneself”—or words to that effect—and the religious zealot easily wears those clothes). The true believer does not segregate their life. Their religion is the lense through which they view the whole world and anything that contradicts that perspective is dismissed as alien and unfounded. As Gandhi wrote many years ago: “I am told that religion and politics are different spheres of life. But I would say without a moment’s hesitation and yet in all modesty that those who claim this do not know what religion is.” Mondo Blue.


  2. Gary
    As ever, your logic is sound, and you have itemised the causal options accurately (in my opinion). Similarly, you seem to accept a range of possible perceptions within the impossibly large and diverse population of Muslims. From my perspective in Abu Dhabi, there is real truth to the assertion that most people believe that the rest of the world is as the Gulf, namely, a controlled environment wherein undesirable things do not get published (or posted, or passed on). Of course there is a value judgement there, and what is undesirable to the powerful may be highly desirable to the rest. There is a presumption that everything “published” is “official”. It is a naive perspective, no doubt, and quickly crumbles under scrutiny, but it is a common mistake.

    Secondarily, let us also remember that by many accounts the protesters are under-educated and quick to allow themselves to be stirred up for whatever cause, especially if it is foreign. With authoritarianism on the wain throughout the Arab world, there is no heavy hand to keep the people in check, and the frustration level in the region is very high indeed. Any excuse will suffice.

    See also Ross Douthat in the New York Times (Sunday, 16 Sept)


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