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Monday, September 17, 2012

Why Is The Muslim World So Easily Offended?

Fouad Ajami has written an article of this title in the New York Times (9.16.12). In it he says that the current violent demonstrations in Egypt and Libya and the all-too-common recurrent anti-American sentiments in the Middle East are due to Muslim culture and history.  The glories of the Muslim world expressed in mathematics, science, and literature in the early Middle Ages are long gone, have never been repeated, and by comparison to Western countries Muslim countries are poor, backward, and politically weak.  It is a feeling of cultural loss, a cultural and geo-political alienation, and a persistent inferiority complex throughout the region that is behind the frustration, anger, and hostility shown against the West, the most prominent and visible being the United States.

There is an Arab pain and a volatility in the face of judgment by outsiders that stem from a deep and enduring sense of humiliation. A vast chasm separates the poor standing of Arabs in the world today from their history of greatness. In this context, their injured pride is easy to understand.

In the narrative of history transmitted to schoolchildren throughout the Arab world and reinforced by the media, religious scholars and laymen alike, Arabs were favored by divine providence. They had come out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century, carrying Islam from Morocco to faraway Indonesia. In the process, they overran the Byzantine and Persian empires, then crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to Iberia, and there they fashioned a brilliant civilization that stood as a rebuke to the intolerance of the European states to the north.  [Everywhere] there was poetry, glamorous courts, and philosophers who debated the great issues of the day.

The reign was short-lived, and beginning in the 13th century, Arab lands were overrun by Mongols and Ottoman Turks, and with them a destruction of the rich cultural life of preceding eras.

The coming of the West to their world brought superior military, administrative and intellectual achievement into their midst — and the outsiders were unsparing in their judgments. They belittled the military prowess of the Arabs, and they were scandalized by the traditional treatment of women and the separation of the sexes that crippled Arab society.

Arabs today “know that more than 300 million Arabs have fallen to economic stagnation and cultural decline. They know that the standing of Arab states along the measures that matter — political freedom, status of women, economic growth — is low.”

According to Ajami, the Western ‘insults’ to Islam, beginning with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, then followed by the Danish cartoons and Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh’s release of a documentary critical of Muslim treatment of women all resulted in an apparently spontaneous, violent, and widespread outpouring of rage and violence.  A fatwa was placed on the head of Rushdie who was forced to live in isolation for decades; and van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim extremist.  The latest violent protests in Egypt and Libya are a continuation of that rage. 

According to Ajami, Western free speech (i.e. Rushdie’s book, van Gogh’s film, the Danish cartoons) was a very visible symbol of Western corruption and indifference to religion and Islam.  Because these productions were graphic and could circulate within minutes through the Internet, they quickly became rallying points for an expression of Muslim frustration. 

Ajami’s explanation, however, is but one of many and is perhaps the most understanding and defensive.  A more compelling factor, say many on America’s ‘progressive’ Left is Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians.  The invasive and demeaning checkpoints, the insistent building of new settlements, the inhumane bombing of Palestinian cities and populations, the recalcitrance and inflexibility on matters of statehood, are wholly responsible for Arab and Muslim expressions of violence against the United States – a much more visible and much bigger iconic target than Israel itself.

This argument has as many holes in it as Ajami’s respectful historical analysis.  Israel was not responsible for the 1979 Iranian revolution, the rise and resurgence of the Taliban, and the increase of Islamic fundamentalism in Europe.  There must be something else going on which has its own internal dynamic.  Islam, these neo-culturalists say, is returning to its fundamental Wahhabi roots – a brand of Islam, practiced most noticeably in Saudi Arabia, which is fiercely conservative.  There, the   absolute simplicity of the faith (Islam has none of the baroque trappings of Christian dogma or the multiplicity of religious expressions as Hinduism) is rigorously followed.  This is not a movement in rejection of the West, but has existed for centuries, and its absolutism and extreme fundamentalism is a perfect foil for the corrupt, liberal, and undisciplined cultures of Europe and America.

This fundamentalism has expanded to formerly more moderate countries like Bangladesh because of its appeal to the poor.  Radical Islamists give both a religious and political voice to the disenfranchised, and give them both economic and spiritual hope.

Still other political observers say that the real problem is America itself.  For too long have we supported authoritarian regimes throughout the world in the name of political and economic stability.  Our support of Mubarak is only one example of an obvious and persistent policy.  These authoritarian regimes were repressive towards any opposition, but particularly toward Muslim fundamentalists such as the Muslim Brotherhood.  Where the US had no client state relationship, it supported colonial and neo-colonial regimes in Algeria and Tunisia.  America has been seen not only as a friend of the hated Israel, but a friend of many other national oppressors.  

In short, Ajami’s conclusions are reasonable, but only part of the explanation.  What is clear is that these recent developments are not just over the weird indie film, but over many, many other perceived grievances.

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