Recent press revelations have confirmed my initial suggestion that members of the Tsarnaev family were secular ex-Soviets rather than observant Muslims Only a few years ago did the late Tamerlan start exhibiting signs of fanaticism (he was thrown out of his mosque in Boston last January when he stood up to denounce the preacher there for praising Martin Luther King). Being a fanatic is, contrary to the impression both of Fox Cable News and some Muslim radicals, not actually the same as being a good Muslim; in fact, the Qur’an urges the use of reason and moderation ( “Do not commit excess in your religion” (Qur’an 4:171). All this shows that they were on an adolescent homocidal power trip, dressed up like al-Qaeda, the way the Aurora shooter was wearing an arsenal and dressed up like Batman. In any case, here are the signs that Dzhokhar in particular wasn’t ever observant, and Tamerlan’s later fanaticism led him and his brother to disregard Islamic ethics and laws:
4. The Tsarnaev brothers carjacked an innocent Chinese-American. This is called theft and kidnapping, which are both forbidden in Islamic law. In fact is is a complaint of modernists against Islamic law that it is so hard on theft. It was in hopes of stealing a gun, another theft, that they murdered police officer Sean Collins. Murder is forbidden in the Qur’an which says that to kill a single soul is the same as killing all humankind.
5. While they were driving around with their Chinese captive, they were discussing with him girls . Upright young Muslim men are supposed to have their minds on other things than girls.
6. Spreading terror (hiraba in public spaces in order to gain power or money is forbidden in Islam.
8. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev when he was naturalized pledged allegiance to the United States of America, saying “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic . . .” All but the most radical Muslim authorities agree that Muslims owe allegiance to their countries and are obliged to defend them. The Qur’an, 61:2-3 says of breaking an oath, “O you who have believed, why do you say what you do not do? Great is hatred in the sight of God that you say what you do not do.”
Between about 1:00 pm and 2:40 pm ET on Wednesday, April 17, the CNN news team was at the worst I’ve ever seen them. The afternoon began well, with the exciting revelation that the FBI now had recovered video of a suspect from a security camera at Lord & Taylor Department Store. But things went all downhill from there
John King reported that his source told him that the individual in the video was a dark-skinned male: “I was told they have a breakthrough in the identification of the suspect, and I’m told — and I want to be very careful about this because people get very sensitive when you say these things — I was told by one of these sources who’s a law enforcement official that this was a dark-skinned male. The official used some other words, I’m going to repeat them until we get more information because of the sensitivities. There are some people who will take offense even in saying that. I’m making a personal judgment — forgive me — and I think it’s the right judgment not to try to inflame tensions.”
Then Wolf Blitzer, refusing to take King’s hint that he didn’t want to say the words “Arab” or “Muslim,” asked if the person on the videotape could be heard speaking with an accent.
That was the low point. They were hinting around about Arabness or Muslimness, using skin color and accent as euphemisms. (Never mind that these are actually inappropriate markers for either group of Americans). King seems to have been told more of that kind of thing by his Boston PD source but, in his one piece of wise caution for the day, declined to retail further racist rumors. Blitzer can’t possibly be so naive about surveillance cameras as to think that they have audio. The question was a loaded one.
The moral tone could not have gotten any worse, but the journalistic one surprised us all by taking a nosedive. John King announced that a source in law enforcement had informed him that the authorities had made an arrest. This allegation was untrue, and Jon Stewart’s Daily Show raked King over the coals for being so eager for an exclusive scoop that he rushed to camera with a single, anonymous, uncorroborated source. In his defense, he later said that the source, in the Boston police department, had been reliable before, so he had a track record with the person. But clearly King should have checked with other sources before going on camera with that information. Dependence on a single highly placed source and willingness to grant the source anonymity are both banes of contemporary journalism.
Worse, it may have been a misunderstanding. CNN said the Boston PD source had said, “We got him!” Presumably that meant they had found a person on videotape who looked like the perpetrator. Did King simply misunderstand the exclamation? Did he not take the time to ask, “What do you mean by that?”
What made the afternoon truly horrible was that none of the substance reported or speculated on was known to be true by the FBI. The Bureau issued a denial that they had anyone in custody, or even had made a positive identification of the person in the video, about an hour after King’s breathless pronouncement.
The guy, he said in caps, was a WHITE MALE. Orr did not say if he spoke with an accent.
Almost nothing the experienced CNN television reporters said was true. At 2 pm you would have thought that a dark-skinned male, maybe a foreign one, was sitting handcuffed in a police car, the smell of bomb-making chemicals on his hoodie.
By the time we went to bed, we knew nothing again. Orr’s report on the appearance of the alleged perpetrator may or may not be true, itself.
What went wrong?
The technical problems derived from the capitalist model of news broadcasting. In a competition for advertising dollars, the scoop is not just the supreme public service or a source of prestige, it is big, big bucks. It is no secret that CNN’s ratings have been spiraling down. Hence the drive for the scoop that cuts corners, that accepts imperfect information from a single source not checked against others. The problems derived also in part from the 24-hour cable news format for dealing with big stories, which is to make them the only story for hours on end, requiring anchors and reporters to fill air time with speculation. It isn’t news reporting, it is chit chat, and derives from the entertainment model of news forced on the reporters by the networks’ search for advertising dollars. They are competing for eyeballs not because they have an important piece of breaking news to share but because each eyeball equals in increase in advertising rates. The goal is to keep people watching. They are petrified that if they switch to covering some other story than the one they have decided is on everyone’s mind, the audience will switch to a competing network. They therefore have to stay on the one story even when there are no developments, and are forced to emulate a talk show, engaging in a stream of consciousness discourse with one another, trying to keep the audience entertained with random thoughts expressed by good-looking people on weighty matters.
Streams of consciousness throw up streams of the unconscious, and sometimes darker thoughts and unworthy ideas bubble to the surface. The ethical problems enter there, superseding the technical ones. The contemporary anxiety around Arabness and Muslimness, despite the rarity of violence in the US from those quarters (American Muslims are disproportionately well-educated, well off, and Establishment) compared to terrorist actions of white supremacists, expresses America’s long national terror of the immigrant. That consideration is the significance of the marker of the accent in Blitzer’s question. (Again, never mind that by now most American Muslims are not immigrants). The underlying question is nevertheless the immigrant– that immigrant so necessary in a barracuda capitalist society for cheap labor but that immigrant so frightening for not yet being socialized to “American” values. That America has adopted fortress Israel as its frontier state, bestowing on it a role once played by Arizona and then by the Philippines, of being the furthest extension of white dynamism and virtue into a chaotic and barbaric brown world, reinforces the themes of the fear of the Arab and the Muslim, the inconvenient populations who decline to acquiesce in white assertion of superiority and dominance, the barbarians who resist despite their obvious inferiority. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), even manages to mix together in his fevered mind the supposed Latino threat with the supposed Muslim one.
Ironically, 100 years ago it would have been the Irish and the Jews, the Italians and Poles, to whom American racial anxieties attached, who would have been viewed as suspicious or dangerous for not being free market Protestants. (E.g. Sacco and Vanzetti.) The big wave of immigration that began around 1880 and was stopped by law in 1924 resembles that of our own day.
We’ve been here before. In Yogi Berra’s phrase, it is deja vu all over again. In response to a bombing in the West that killed former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg in 1905, high officials of the Western Federation of Miners were arrested and tried for complicity (the “Haywood-Moyer-Pettibone Case”). The Chicago Daily Tribune reported on May 20, 1907 on a sympathy march staged to support the accused union leaders. The article was entitled “Socialist Parade under Red Flags” (the chief of police had unsuccessfully tried to ban the red flags). Those marching, the report sniffed, included “One Polish revolutionary society, which had several hundred marchers in line, sang the “Warsha Vyanska,” or “Song of Revolution,” as it passed along the route. The Poles carried a banner which read: “I’m an undeniable citizen but Teddy Roosevelt wants my vote.” The newspaper reassured the North Shore elite that an attack on the police had been forestalled.
A bombing, a restless oppressed group; uppity immigrants with radical foreign ideas and accents who use strange phrases; their assertions of Americanness mingled with a challenge to the WASP status quo– the keyword terrain of the 1907 article is identical to our own desultory news day in 2013.
It is, however, over 100 years later, and we ought to have made some progress.
For the TLDR crowd, here are the top ten ways that Islamic law and tradition forbid terrorism (some of these points are reworked from previous postings):
1. Terrorism is above all murder. Murder is strictly forbidden in the Qur’an. Qur’an 6:151 says, “and do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct, save lawfully.” (i.e. murder is forbidden but the death penalty imposed by the state for a crime is permitted). 5:53 says, “… whoso kills a soul, unless it be for murder or for wreaking corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and he who saves a life, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind.”
2. If the motive for terrorism is religious, it is impermissible in Islamic law. It is forbidden to attempt to impose Islam on other people. The Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion. The right way has become distinct from error.” (-The Cow, 2:256). Note that this verse was revealed in Medina in 622 AD or after and was never abrogated by any other verse of the Quran. Islam’s holy book forbids coercing people into adopting any religion. They have to willingly choose it.
3. Islamic law forbids aggressive warfare. The Quran says, “But if the enemies incline towards peace, do you also incline towards peace. And trust in God! For He is the one who hears and knows all things.” (8:61) The Quran chapter “The Cow,” 2:190, says, “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loveth not aggressors.”
4. In the Islamic law of war, not just any civil engineer can declare or launch a war. It is the prerogative of the duly constituted leader of the Muslim community that engages in the war. Nowadays that would be the president or prime minister of the state, as advised by the mufti or national jurisconsult.
5. The killing of innocent non-combatants is forbidden. According to Sunni tradition, ‘Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, the first Caliph, gave these instructions to his armies: “I instruct you in ten matters: Do not kill women, children, the old, or the infirm; do not cut down fruit-bearing trees; do not destroy any town . . . ” (Malik’s Muwatta’, “Kitab al-Jihad.”)
6. Terrorism or hirabah is forbidden in Islamic law, which groups it with brigandage, highway robbery and extortion rackets– any illicit use of fear and coercion in public spaces for money or power. The principle of forbidding the spreading of terror in the land is based on the Qur’an (Surah al-Ma’ida 5:33–34). Prominent [pdf] Muslim legal scholar Sherman Jackson writes, “The Spanish Maliki jurist Ibn `Abd al-Barr (d. 464/ 1070)) defines the agent of hiraba as ‘Anyone who disturbs free passage in the streets and renders them unsafe to travel, striving to spread corruption in the land by taking money, killing people or violating what God has made it unlawful to violate is guilty of hirabah . . .”
7. Sneak attacks are forbidden. Muslim commanders must give the enemy fair warning that war is imminent. The Prophet Muhammad at one point gave 4 months notice.
8. The Prophet Muhammad counseled doing good to those who harm you and is said to have commanded, “Do not be people without minds of your own, saying that if others treat you well you will treat them well, and that if they do wrong you will do wrong to them. Instead, accustom yourselves to do good if people do good and not to do wrong (even) if they do evil.” (Al-Tirmidhi)
9. The Qur’an demands of believers that they exercise justice toward people even where they have reason to be angry with them: “And do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness.”[5:8]
10. The Qur’an assures Christians and Jews of paradise if they believe and do good works, and commends Christians as the best friends of Muslims. I wrote elsewhere, “Dangerous falsehoods are being promulgated to the American public. The Quran does not preach violence against Christians.
Quran 5:69 says (Arberry): “Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry, and the Christians, and those Sabeaans, whoso believes in God and the Last Day, and works righteousness–their wage waits them with their Lord, and no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow.”
In other words, the Quran promises Christians and Jews along with Muslims that if they have faith and works, they need have no fear in the afterlife. It is not saying that non-Muslims go to hell– quite the opposite.
When speaking of the 7th-century situation in the Muslim city-state of Medina, which was at war with pagan Mecca, the Quran notes that the polytheists and some Arabian Jewish tribes were opposed to Islam, but then goes on to say:
5:82. ” . . . and you will find the nearest in love to the believers [Muslims] those who say: ‘We are Christians.’ That is because amongst them are priests and monks, and they are not proud.”
So the Quran not only does not urge Muslims to commit violence against Christians, it calls them “nearest in love” to the Muslims! The reason given is their piety, their ability to produce holy persons dedicated to God, and their lack of overweening pride.
Pope Benedict XVI’s suprise announcement on Monday that he plans to resign at the end of this month marks a potential generational change in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. His successor has an opportunity to revive the breakthroughs of the Second Vatican Council in promoting inter-religious dialogue, and repairing the Church’s troubled relationship with the Muslim world. Roman Catholics and Muslims live side by side in much of the world, and there are Roman Catholic orders and individuals who have devoted a great deal of time and energy to good relations between the two. One thinks of the White Fathers in Algeria, for instance.
Although he backed down on some of his positions, Pope Benedict roiled those relationships with needlessly provocative and sometimes offensive statements about Islam and Muslims. His Regensburg speech contained inaccuracies and tried to position the European Roman Catholic tradition as the golden mean between the soulless atheism of modern science and the backward fanaticism of Islam. He initially opposed Turkey’s entry into the European Union, imagining Europe as essentially Christian, though he later moderated that view a bit. (Europe was settled by human beings some 45,000 years ago; Christianity is only 2000 or so years old and until fairly recently Christians were a minority there. Lots of religions have been practiced by Europeans, and the majority of them nowadays is probably secular unbelievers.) Islam may have arrived a few centuries later than Christianity, but European Islam has a 1300-year history on the continent, and not a minor or inglorious one (the way European history is written and taught often leaves out the Muslims of Iberia and those of the Balkans, giving a truncated view of the continent’s religious diversity).
The address is more complex and subtle than the press on it represents. But let me just signal that what is most troubling of all is that the Pope gets several things about Islam wrong, just as a matter of fact.
He notes that the text he discusses, a polemic against Islam by a Byzantine emperor, cites Qur’an 2:256: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Benedict maintains that this is an early verse, when Muhammad was without power.
His allegation is incorrect. Surah 2 is a Medinan surah revealed when Muhammad was already established as the leader of the city of Yathrib (later known as Medina or “the city” of the Prophet). The pope imagines that a young Muhammad in Mecca before 622 (lacking power) permitted freedom of conscience, but later in life ordered that his religion be spread by the sword. But since Surah 2 is in fact from the Medina period when Muhammad was in power, that theory does not hold water.
In fact, the Qur’an at no point urges that religious faith be imposed on anyone by force. This is what it says about the religions:
‘ [2:62] Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians– any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. ‘
The idea of holy war or jihad (which is about defending the community or at most about establishing rule by Muslims, not about imposing the faith on individuals by force) is also not a Quranic doctrine. The doctrine was elaborated much later, on the Umayyad-Byzantine frontier, long after the Prophet’s death. In fact, in early Islam it was hard to join, and Christians who asked to become Muslim were routinely turned away. . . The pope was trying to make the point that coercion of conscience is incompatible with genuine, reasoned faith. He used Islam as a symbol of the coercive demand for unreasoned faith.
But he has been misled by the medieval polemic on which he depended.
In fact, the Quran also urges reasoned faith and also forbids coercion in religion. The only violence urged in the Quran is in self-defense of the Muslim community against the attempts of the pagan Meccans to wipe it out.
The pope says that in Islam, God is so transcendant that he is beyond reason and therefore cannot be expected to act reasonably. He contrasts this conception of God with that of the Gospel of John, where God is the Logos, the Reason inherent in the universe.
But there have been many schools of Islamic theology and philosophy. The Mu’tazilite school maintained exactly what the Pope is saying, that God must act in accordance with reason and the good as humans know them. The Mu’tazilite approach is still popular in Zaidism and in Twelver Shiism of the Iraqi and Iranian sort. The Ash’ari school, in contrast, insisted that God was beyond human reason and therefore could not be judged rationally. (I think the Pope would find that Tertullian and perhaps also John Calvin would be more sympathetic to this view within Christianity than he is).
As for the Quran, it constantly appeals to reason in knowing God, and in refuting idolatry and paganism, and asks, “do you not reason?” “do you not understand?” (a fala ta`qilun?)
Of course, Christianity itself has a long history of imposing coerced faith on people, including on pagans in the late Roman Empire, who were forcibly converted. And then there were the episodes of the Crusades.
Another irony is that reasoned, scholastic Christianity has an important heritage from Islam itself. In the 10th century, there was little scholasticism in Christian theology. The influence of Muslim thinkers such as Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) reemphasized the use of Aristotle and Plato in Christian theology. . . Finally, that Byzantine emperor that the Pope quoted, Manuel II? The Byzantines had been weakened by Latin predations during the fourth Crusade, so it was in a way Rome that had sought coercion first. And, he ended his days as a vassal of the Ottoman Empire.
The Pope was wrong on the facts. He should apologize to the Muslims and get better advisers on Christian-Muslim relations.”
Pope Benedict later said that Byzantine Emperor Manual II’s views of Muhammad and Islam were cited for illustration and were not his own.
“Pope: Manuel II’s Views of Muhammad are not My Own Muslim Brotherhood Optimistic about end of Crisis
Pope Benedict said on Sunday that the quote he had cited from Byzantine emperor Manuel II, which said that the Prophet Muhammd brought only evil and conversion by the sword, did not reflect his own views.
“I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims . . . These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought. I hope this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect.”
Although there were protests in Iran and some scattered acts of violence, mostly in already-violent areas, this statement seemed to mollify some Muslim leaders.
A Muslim Brotherhood official in Egypt initially said that the statement was a clear retraction and sufficient as an apology, but apparently under popular pressure, he backed off that stance slightly, saying that the Pope hadn’t actually clearly apologized, though he had taken a good step toward an apology. But the Brotherhood clearly was looking for a way to defuse the crisis, and that it initially latched on to the Pope’s relatively impenitent remarks so eagerly, shows that it is eager to see things calmed down. The Egyptian MB thought the controversy was now likely to subside, and I hope they are right about that . . . ”
Another issue was Benedict’s views on Turkey in the European Union. I argued that Wikileaks showed a dramatic change in his position on this issue over time, toward neutrality and openness to the possibility. I wrote at the time:
The problem is that, while the article on this matter is clear and largely accurate, the headline: “Pope wanted Muslim Turkey kept out of EU” is grossly incorrect.
In 2004, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) spoke out against allowing Turkey to join the European Union. This position was not that of the Church as a whole. Indeed, a cable from that year says that “Acting Vatican Foreign Minister equivalent Monsignor Pietro Parolin told Charge August 18 that the Holy See remained open to Turkish EU membership.”
Contrary to what The Guardian implied, then, it seems clear to me that until he became pope, Ratzinger’s views on Turkey were not reflective of Vatican policy, and after he became Pope his stance changed dramatically in Turkey’s favor.
Ratzinger and others were, in 2004, attempting to have the European Union acknowledge the Christian roots of Europe, and they were afraid that Turkey’s accession might make that declaration less likely. (Since so much of European history (including all the Greek philosophers, Jewish thought on social justice, Irish and Norse mythology, the lives of the Roman emperors until the 4th century CE, not to mention the long centuries of Arab Spain and the Muslim-dominated Balkans) happened outside a Christian framework, this position seems to me invidious.
That the Vatican remained “open” to Turkish membership even after Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope is clear from a subsequent cable. The remaining reservations expressed by Vatican officials derived, at least as presented by Parolin, not from worries about the ancient Christian character of Europe, but concerns that Turkey’s human rights record needed to be reformed before it was admitted. From the Vatican’s point of view, Turkey’s Christians were badly mistreated, and their condition was just short of open persecution.
On becoming Pope, Benedict appears fairly rapidly to have changed his earlier hard line position, to the point that his nuanced neutrality on the issue of Turkish accession to the EU could be misunderstood by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodogan as wholehearted support. The “pope expressed his hope for ‘ “joint Christian and Muslim action on behalf of human rights” and emphasized his hope that Turkey would be a “bridge of friendship and of fraternal cooperation between the East and West.” ‘ By 2006, as well, the US was hopeful that Pope Benedict could be a positive force for Turkey integration into Europe.
Those hopes were not realized. Pope Benedict declared the Vatican officially neutral on the Turkey issue, since the Vatican is not an EU member state. The State Department cable speculated that “The Vatican might prefer to see Turkey develop a special relationship short of membership with the EU.” But if the Vatican was declining to push for this point of view and was actively neutral, this private wish is irrelevant in the world of diplomacy. If your official stance is neutrality, then that is your public position and others cannot abrogate it for you.
I see these cables as the evolution of Cardinal Ratzinger from a key Vatican official concerned with ideology to a pope aware of his global responsibilities, who backed off opposition to Turkey joining Europe and declared a studied neutrality on the issue even while admitting pros (Turkey could be an interlocutor for largely Christian Europe with the Muslim world) and cons (for Turkey to join without implementing religious freedom would endanger this key value for all EU states).
That is, my reading of the documents and the evolution of the Ratzinger position leads me to a conclusion precisely the opposite of the one implied by the Guardian’s headline. In fact, you only wish the Christian Right in the US was as capable of mature reflection on such issues and as willing to be pragmatic as this Pope.”
Pope Benedict clearly learned a great deal over time and moderated some of his initial, provocative stances. He thus established a trajectory toward, if not better, then less turbulent Roman Catholic-Muslim relations. His successor could usefully go further, back to the Vatican II spirit:
” The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”
I don’t think Pope Benedict began by agreeing with very much of the above, but over time he seems to have grudgingly accepted the wisdom of some of it. It is a passage that had a profound impact on me in my youth, and I hope the new pope revives this tradition of reformist theology. It is how the one billion Roman Catholics and 1.5 billion Muslims can hope to go forward together in the 21st century.
Michigan State legislator David Agema has introduced an anti-sharia bill that attempts to ban the implementation of ‘foreign law’ in the US that would contradict constitutional rights. Agema openly says he wants to target the Muslim-American community of southeast Michigan, falsely alleging that there are terrorist cells among them.
Arab-Americans have emerged as an important swing vote in Michigan, such that Republicans are unwise to complete the job of driving them into the arms of the Democratic Party. (They had earlier been split, but because of Bush administration policies and the rise of the Tea Party, a majority now vote Democratic).
Sharia is the living tradition of Muslim law, analogous to Jewish Halakha or Roman Catholic canon law. Anti-sharia bills are unnecessary since the first amendment forbids the government from establishing any particular religion. Sharia provisions can come into legal judgments (e.g. if a husband and wife have a pre-nup with sharia provisions (dowry?) agreed to by both parties, the judge would obviously have to consider it in a divorce case). The Agema bill could not stop that from happening, and depending on how it is worded, it is ignorant of the tradition of Anglo-American common law or it is just unconstitutional.
Ali R. Abootalebi writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
Today’s journalism and social media, with their increasingly short news cycles, are good at pitching issues but bad at analysis and summations. Stories are just abandoned, however important, as the blogosphere moves on to the Next Big Thing. There is no shortage of opinion and commentaries on the supposedly ‘widespread rage’ we witnessed in the Arab streets and the wider Muslim world over the attention given the You Tube trailer insulting Prophet Muhammad and Islam in September 2012. The ensuing publication of cartoon caricatures of the Prophet by French Magazine Charlie Hebdo only exacerbated the situation, leading to more demonstrations and condemnations. But it is time to stand back and review the debates it engendered and reach some conclusions in the cold light of day.
Some see the cause of the ‘rage’ differently. David Kirkpatrick (NYT, September 16) covered a variety of opinions of ordinary people in Egypt who mostly complained about Western, and primarily American, attitudes and behavior and insensitivities towards Islam and Muslims. (Academic studies by Georgetown’s Professor John Esposito and the Pew Research Center’ Survey studies are among numerous survey studies taken confirming that policy is seen by majority of Muslims as the main culprit behind strong negative perception of the United States across Muslim world.) In the end, however, ignoring all these comments, Kirkpatrick concludes that a cultural clash between Muslims (Islam) and the West (secular) is the root cause of the problem: Religion still remains sacred for Muslims, while the West gives priority to its secular values of individualism and democratic rights, like the freedom of expression.
Others (Ross Douthat, NYT September 15) see the recent anger and violence, instead, as mostly an exercise in old-fashioned power politics, with the video as a pretext for violence; contending that it is “the kind of struggle for power that frequently takes place in a revolution’s wake: between secular and fundamentalist forces in Benghazi, between the Muslim Brotherhood and its more-Islamist-than-thou rivals in Cairo, with similar forces contending for mastery from Tunisia to Yemen to the Muslim diaspora in Europe. Douthat entirely disregards external factors as having anything to do with the supposed ‘Muslim rage’.
While there are certain truths in some of such observations, these are highly overarching generalizations about the supposed ‘Muslim’ anger, hatred and rage.
Recall, there were no overarching statements about a ‘Hindu’ violence when violent ethnic killings in Assam, India in July 2012 led to many dead and displaced. By august 8, 77 people had been reported died and over 400,000 people had been displaced from almost 400 villages, who had taken shelter in 270 relief camps. (Hindujagruti.org, August 19, 2012) Interestingly enough, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself declared, even the government of India was at a loss understanding the roots of the violence.
Among academics, Stanford University’s Fouad Ajami (Washington Post, Sept. 15) thinks historical and psychological reasons can best explain Arab (and supposedly all Muslims) outrage and violent response to the video. So, the rise and fall of Islam as a civilization and later Western domination through its superior secular/rational ethos has translated into frustration and anger among 1.5 billion people and thus their violent response to the video incident. It seems Ajami believes that all Muslims share ‘a common history’ and that the long-foregone history is destiny. Ajami is not alone in his thinking, as others like known historian Bernard Lewis and activist Daniel Pipes also share such views of history and its impact on Muslims’ behavior today.
Such comments and explanations can hardly explain the truth about complex sociopolitical, cultural, economic, and international factors that impact people’s lives everywhere. One must take caution to generalize about the validity in correlating a wide range of variables to the supposed ‘Muslim rage.’ Moreover, media coverage of such events is almost always overwhelmed by sensationalism and hype. Angry crowds shouting ‘Allahoakbar’ often portrayed representing huge mobs of people across Muslim world. Exceptions are rare in accurate coverage of such events, as was the report by Dan Murphy of Christian Science Monitor who reported on September 17 that, contrary to the mainstream media coverage of demonstrations, those at Tahrir Square in Egypt were a sparse group and not reminiscent of Mubarak-era political protests.
There is no doubt that people across Muslim world, including their non-Muslim minorities, feel victimized by the You Tube video affair. While most Muslims may feel insulted, but only a tiny fraction has resorted to violent protest. The majority has either remained calm and silent or has peacefully demonstrated against an attack on what is so dear to them. Recall, there are 57 Muslim countries members of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).
Are all Muslim enraged to the point of madness? The Media in the United States certainly has portrayed the situation as such. The reality, however, is that Muslims like other people come from different backgrounds and thus react to the same situation differently. Peaceful demonstrations have occurred in Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Turkey, among other places, while violent demonstrations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia have led to loss of lives. All these demonstrations have targeted American flags and interests for the most part, but Israel, France, and the United Kingdom have also been targeted. The number of death resulted from violent demonstrations hit 28 in late September. Most of these deaths, however, occurred in two Muslim countries with long history of ethno-religious conflict and governance problems—-Pakistan and Afghanistan, and later in Somalia. In Pakistan, a national holiday was actually declared by the government to honor the prophet turned violent with reports of at least 15 people killed. In Karachi, where there was the most violence, at least 12 people were killed. Similarly, Afghanistan witnessed clashes between angry mobs and police leading to death.
It is not also surprising that widespread violence and death has occurred in countries weak in their legal-institutional and political structure (e.g., Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Iraq). In contrast, demonstrations in Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Indonesia, and Malaysia, where the state’s power is exercised more through legal and institutional mechanism and relies less on government sanctions and coercive measures, have been more orderly and peaceful.
The state in these countries has also used the occasion to redirect people’s anger toward the ‘enemy’—the West and Israel– and away from domestic socioeconomic problems. The view from Tehran, for example, is that a plot by the Zionists and the religious right in the West has been hatched to foment conflict between the Christian West and the Islamic world.
At any rate, the state behavior and its effective power matters a great deal in the state-society relations and how popular sentiments translate into peaceful or violent movements. We must not sacrifice explaining important world events, negatively impacting policy and policy outcomes, for the sake of either rudimentary media coverage or superfluous academic analysis.
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.