Fury Unbound: the Muslim Dilemma (Majid)

Anouar Majid writes from Rabat, Morocco, in a guest column for Informed Comment

The French are in trouble. The publication Charlie Hebdo has just published cartoons of Islam’s prophet, Mohammed, and now the French government is taking measures to protect its citizens in Muslim countries. I hear Friday may be the D-Day of Muslim protests, but if such protests take place in Morocco, I won’t be here to see them. It will be on my way back to the US.

Last week, soon after I landed in Morocco, my 12-year-old son and I got to witness a ragtag group of protesters walking down the main boulevard in Tangier in Morocco, holding black-and-white pictures of Osama bin Laden, spouting anti-Semitic slogans about the massacre of Jews in the so-called Khaybar battle during the Prophet’s time, and denouncing US President Obama as if he were the chief villain in the sound-and-fury global drama about the defamation of Prophet Mohammed in a stealthily produced YouTube video film. Young men shouted slogans variously referring to Allah, America and Facebook. They displayed black banners with Islam’s declaration of faith, while women followed dutifully in the back, humanizing their menfolk with a less threatening demeanor.

The 200 or so Islamists seemed like a group of desperadoes who had bid their time and labored in the shadows for the longest time until they could find an excuse to walk defiantly along the city’s glittering streets. They were proud of standing up for the Prophet’s honor although few probably had seen the YouTube film. They had no idea that to the city’s café habitués they were a mere sideshow, a mere topic of conversation to fill up the long café hours and start new ones at some bar counter later that night.

Morocco has a mature civil society, a longstanding tradition of peaceful protests, and a strong government. It is also America’s oldest friend in the world. During that same week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a Moroccan delegation in Washington to plan out a road map for future partnerships. Things are not likely to get out of control here, despite the West’s repeat offense with the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. The point, however, is if such protests happen in liberal Morocco, what should one expect from dysfunctional states in other parts of North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia?

Welcome to the newest chapter in the Arab Spring. President Obama helped liberate the people of Libya, Yemen, and Egypt from the dungeons of secular tyrants, only to find himself ensnared in the web of the hard line Islamist monster and its moderate Muslim enablers. I am by now almost exhausted trying to explain to anyone willing to listen that in free societies everyone is lampooned—no exceptions—but I keep getting the same quizzical looks. One can’t mess with the muqadassat, or the sacred, is the common refrain here.

The West and the rest of the world will not know peace until critical thinkers in the Arab and Muslim worlds start speaking out and getting an audience from the global media. There is no alternative to native dissent to the suffocating culture of the sacred. Muslims are as intellectually capable as anyone else in the world, but their minds are almost hopelessly shackled by taboos, big and small, social and political. Instead of producing a culture of critical thinkers, Muslim societies are teeming with thin-skinned moralists.

Meanwhile, Muslim-majority nations, those whose flags display stars, crescents, and swords, can’t compete with a nation like South Korea in contributing to global scientific research, or invent anything to save their lives.

Muslims are struck in an impossible bind: They are totally dependent on the West for all the good things in life but are fanatically attached to religion as a marker of their separate identity. By being unable to be fully Western, they have forced themselves into an orthodox corner. Fanaticism is the result.

Westerners and Western-educated folk who apologize for Muslims by invoking the depredations of the West are not helping make things better. Muslims don’t need to indulge in a victim mentality; they need to develop their societies, build stronger economies, cultivate the arts and and encourage innovation and critical thinking in all fields. Neither self-pity nor piety will get them there.

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Anouar Majid is author of A Call for Heresy and Islam and America, among other books on Islam and the West.

21 Responses

  1. Irshad Manji writes about a lost Muslim tradition called “ijtihad”, which she says was ended sometime during the Middle Ages. I think it’s interesting that the Islam World was the intellectual light of the world until roughly that time and has declined ever sense. The Christian world was an intellectual swamp right up until about the same time, when the Renaissance changed the way we viewed the world, ourselves and religion. Since that time the two cultures have taken completely different trajectories.

    • It bears repeating that Islam makes no distinction between the sacred and the secular. And therein lies a problem that is key to why it is so difficult for Islam to accept and come to terms with modernity. There are many reasons for this, but in my opinion it is primarily due to Al-Ghazali and the Ashar’ites shutting down free inquiry in the 10th and 11th centuries and the lack of an Islamic equivalent of the 18th century Enlightenment. Replacing rational inquiry with faith and revelation remains an obstacle to modernization in Islamic societies to this day.

    • “Ijtihad” means to struggle with ideas and you are absolutely correct. Theologians (most of which were bought and paid for) decided they had figured everything out and all matters were now closed.
      Having said that I don’t think Mr Majid is going to lose his position. Unlike Eric Margolis or Norman Finklestein. And as for the oh-so-of-repeated popular narrative about the murder that took place in Benghazi – the really smug one – refer to Glenn Greenwald. A lot of people who consider themselves to be liberals have become reflexively imperialist in their mindset.

  2. In the first milleneum, Japan eagerly adopted from China Buddhism, Confucianism, writing, ways of governing, art styles, and much more.
    India’s history is one of repeatedly absorbing the cultures of those who conquered it. Today, India has millions of devoutly religious people as well as many highly educated and innovative people.
    Like you say, more Muslims need to realize that they stand to gain by being more tolerant.

  3. The article says Muslims are in a bind by being dependent upon the West for life while being “fanatically attached to religion as a marker of their separate identity.”

    It seems opportunists are misusing the Wisdom and Teachings of a Prophet by winding its followers into fanatical positions of ‘worship of the Prophet’, that cause them to act out barbarically, in an attempt to dominate the world. Perhaps if less focus was taken on ‘worshiping’ the prophet instead of the prophets positive and unifying teachings there would be less clashes world-wide.

    Now that Humanity is becoming more mature and heading towards a Cycle where Harmony and Balance is to reign it would be timely to start honoring the God within as a priority.

    From the ” Tahirih Path” No.11. Being beyond Prophet Worship and dogmas of any limiting advice

    Individual Outcome: This is a key teaching for all people living ‘now’ in this transitory time, if people are ever going to grow up and start recognizing their own God within. As long as people worship Prophets they will be subject to obeying any man-made statement or any interpretation of the Prophets sayings. Therefore, they will be cutting off their own inner promptings of Spirit. They will come to believe power is external to their own selves and will loose the knowledge and use of their own divine essence.

    Collective Outcomes: Obviously a society which is composed of individuals who are not controlled through Prophet-worship will be able to accomplish any imaginable progress. The test of man-made dogmas is to see if it limits the individual or society. If it does then it is a man-made advice seeking to control. Let us remember that the laws of magnetic attraction of Love are at play here – so there is no need to try and limit the potential of creative living.

  4. I have a little trouble with these types of comments that are in essence; “Why can’t you be more like us?” The speaker seems to forget that once we were like “them”. We became like “us” after much blood.

    But are we not like them, right? Do we react violently after some insult or incident? Try to make a joke about lynching to African Americans. Do they laugh? Does some incident in America spark a violent reaction all out of proportion to the provocation? Consider the Rodney King incident and the LA riot of 1992. Perhaps, under the veneer, we are not so different.

    Incidents like we are witnessing arise out of un-healed wounds. We are not yet over the legacy of segregation. Likewise in the Middle East we have 60 years of bad blood to overcome. We have not yet begun heal this wound, indeed we are still stabbing at it.

    When we are gone from the Middle East and they have come to their own accommodation with their own history then the healing can begin. Only then can we have respectful relations. I hope this process can begin soon.

  5. The victim of this Libyan Terrorist attack was the Ambassador to Libya and three U.S. employees at the U.S. Consulate. They were there at the invitation and approval of the new Libyan government of the Libyan people.

    We have here four Americans who study Near Eastern and Libyan culture. These people were there to promote friendship and commerce between Libya and the United States doing business that generally involves plenty of paper work.

    To my mind, it is incomprehensible that they would be murdered, and the Consulate and surrounding property would be damaged and destroyed just because some jerk made an awful movie that no one would watch, or wants to watch.

    There is no excuse on this event. Innocent people, guests of the Libyan people were giving time and careers toward the establishment of peace, commerce and Libyan prosperity. These innocent guests of Libya were simply murdered by thugs bent on murder and destruction.

    • To my mind, it is incomprehensible that they would be murdered, and the Consulate and surrounding property would be damaged and destroyed just because some jerk made an awful movie that no one would watch, or wants to watch.

      The Libyan government and many Libyans have condemned these killings and mourn them. From what I’ve read, it appears that the attack was carried out by what Clinton called a small and ‘savage’ fringe group linked to the mastermind of the ’93 WTC bomb. Whether they instigated the protests or came in later and took advantage of them to launch the attack is irrelevant. Was this about the film? I don’t think so. THe radical Islamists want to bring down the governments in Egypt and Libya which are headed by more moderate Islamic leaders. One way weaken those new, but democratically elected governments, is sow division between those new governments and the US to put international financial support in jeopardy.

      I’m not an expert, but I think this is the only way the ‘incomprehensible’ can be comprehended.

  6. “Meanwhile, Muslim-majority nations, those whose flags display stars, crescents, and swords, can’t compete with a nation like South Korea in contributing to global scientific research, or invent anything to save their lives.”

    As the first commenter pointed out, the Muslim world was the intellectual light of the planet. Without the influence of the Muslims on the West we might be still using Roman numerals, imagine building computers or exploring space with that level of math. It reminds me of the joke about why didn’t the Italians put a man on the moon? Answer – They ran out of scaffolding!

    ” Since that time the two cultures have taken completely different trajectories.”

    It seems that the Christian Fundamentalist United States may be starting to follow the same trajectory. When you have schools teaching that evolution isn’t necessarily so and the rest of the fundie anti-science hogwash, is it any wonder that the US is in danger of losing its position as a fountain of innovation if it hasn’t already?

    Unfortunately my home of Canada is following the US into ignorance rather than the example of Western European countries like Iceland or Germany when it comes to developing sustainable renewable energy source. If we continue to follow this trend perhaps North America will become like a giant real life set of Mad Max, Mexico is already leading the way to that kind of world and the desolated parts of the US, like the places Chris Hedges writes about like Pine Ridge, Camden NJ and West Virginia aren’t far behind.

    • As the first commenter pointed out, the Muslim world was the intellectual light of the planet.

      Was.

      Noting that Muslim societies weren’t backwards a thousand years ago, when confronted with the good Perfesser’s statement, is dodging the question.

      As is changing the subject to an imaginary decline in American innovation.

  7. Westerners and Western-educated folk who apologize for Muslims by invoking the depredations of the West are not helping make things better.

    Westerners who apologize for Muslim fanatics by invoking the depredations of the West are not trying to make things better in Muslim societies.

    Rather, such people are trying to use an orientalized image of Muslims (all of whom share the viewpoint of those 200 Moroccan marchers, doncha know) as a weapon in their own political conflicts with other factions in their own countries.

  8. It seems strange that we want to stigmatize the Islamic World for the violent actions of a few while ignoring the reaction of China and a few Chinese protesters demonstrating with the same level of violence over the sale of a few unoccupied islands to Japan.

  9. This reminds me of another guest piece, where the author was criticized for generalizations of prideful cultural backwardness and close-mindedness that effectively stymie Arab progress. In speaking with people who have taught English in the MENA, and others involved directly with education and ideas there, I consistently hear this sort of thing, and its impossible to discount.

    Still, it is not genetics at the heart of the problem, but rather the memetics. It seems new ideas will inevitably soak in over time, unless some curtain is drawn, as a function of a smaller world and better communications. And nothing opens minds more than significant exposure to others. The trouble is that people with mind-opening opportunities tend to squander them by hanging out other expats or cannot make the social/linguistic connections necessary. Then there are those for whom a potentially enlightening experience motivates them in another direction entirely, such as Qutb or any number of nameless disenchanted who would find such an exposure a frustration, and an invalidation of their sense of self-worth.

    The right sort of exposure, however, can do wonders, and they might be more carefully conceived and offered. On the net, over time I sense the potential of cultural enlightenment to be strong and positive, but it’ll take time. We will have to expect a lot or rough patches along the way, and there are other manifestations of progress than what the West now has to offer.

  10. “President Obama helped liberate the people of Libya, Yemen, and Egypt from the dungeons of secular tyrants.”

    How did Obama help overthrow Mubarak? By giving the Egyptian military billions of dollars in aid? By going to Cairo to give a speech to Muslims? This article is strange.

    S. Rapp

    • Agreed. As Mubarak and Saleh were forced off-stage, the stages themselves (their respective Military Industrial Complexes that hold the countries fortunes & portfolios) are held firmly in hand.

      Some day soon Americans will have to consider the growing need for their own “liberation” from “the dungeons of secular tyrants” – that is, the sprawling Pentagonal Basements throughout the world?

      And please let’s not forget Secretary Clinton’s bereaved
      plea to the World Press that she considers the Mubarak Family to be Personal Friends! Well, of course.

  11. “I am by now almost exhausted trying to explain to anyone willing to listen that in free societies everyone is lampooned—no exceptions—but I keep getting the same quizzical looks”
    That is because much of the rest of the world (including other democracies) do not live in the type of “free-society” envisioned here. Most countries have objects/symbols/persons that are sacred and therefore off-limits to ridicule—such as monarchs in Thailand, Japan and elsewhere, or other types of religious/national symbols/objects.
    Even in the U.S. speech/ideas disliked by the government/military are not tolerated under the guise of patriotism or national security…In Europe, Jewish symbols and sensitivities are protected under law…..Therefore the idea that unfettered “free-speech” is actually practiced anywhere on this planet is a myth…
    Rather than concentrating on the mythical concept of “free-speech”—it would have been of more benefit to both the West and East if the conversation had turned to the value/ideal of tolerance and respect—this is both a Western value (both secular and Christian) as well as an Islamic/Quranic value. (particularly since there is intolerance and disrespect(=oppression or persecution of others) in both the West and the East)

    “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs, rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others” John F Kennedy

  12. I don’t think you can change the law over this. Despite the face that many reasons are provided for closing down free speech over numerous other matters.
    However if one is to make such an offensive movie about someone who is loved as a family member, or more so, by millions, the public need to think how they would like it if similar material was made about their father or mother or daughter. Not just about celebs or politicians or royalty – but for every single family.
    Muslims do not make such material about Jesus, Moses, Abraham and so forth. But maybe, if they wanted to go down to the same level, and do some Photoshop jobs on a lot of families, across generations, and maybe throw in a few dogs and so forth. If they did this for several million families, it would be interesting to see how well the victims of these provocations, en masse, handled it.

    • I find Tom Friedman the NYTimes columnist frequently annoying but it was none the less useful to see him demolish the notion that Muslims do not express intolerance and disrespect towards other religions. I think the column is worth a read if you think “Muslims do not make such material about Jesus,” etc. Here’s a few examples for Christians (there are others for Jews and Shiites):

      ON CHRISTIANS Hasan Rahimpur Azghadi of the Iranian Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution: Christianity is “a reeking corpse, on which you have to constantly pour eau de cologne and perfume, and wash it in order to keep it clean.” link to memritv.org — July 20, 2007.

      Sheik Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi: It is permissible to spill the blood of the Iraqi Christians — and a duty to wage jihad against them. link to memri.org — April 14, 2011.

      Abd al-Aziz Fawzan al-Fawzan, a Saudi professor of Islamic law, calls for “positive hatred” of Christians. Al-Majd TV (Saudi Arabia), link to memritv.org — Dec. 16, 2005.

      column:
      link to nytimes.com

  13. Thanks for this sane and insightful article. It is rarely pointed out that Jews, Christians, and others have been insulted. Their beliefs have been lampooned in the past – over and over. There members have been martyred. Where are the mobs of Jews and Christians and others killing and burning because of these slights? There aren’t any. The Muslim world could be a great world, except it seems to be in love with violence and outrage. Obama should stop this endless apologizing. It makes no difference. One thing the Muslim world does understand and respect is power. Weakness and equivocation are not respected.

    • Rewrite. “One thing the Muslim world does understand and respect is power”.

      Let’s try it this way: One thing the Muslim world does understand (because its been on the receiving end for over a century)is power.

      And the one (and seemingly only) thing the USA respects is power (absent understanding!).

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