I write not to justify the violence that has exploded over the past few weeks in the Muslim world. The chaos that resulted in the death of four US diplomats, including the US Ambassador to Libya, can only hurt the image of Islam. As a Muslim who grew up listening to accounts of the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, the anger is neither alien nor incomprehensible. But my fellow Muslims make me ever so anxious. It seems like that every single time the Muslim community in America takes one step forward to improve relations with society as a whole, events in the Middle East throw us several steps back. It’s a frustrating cycle that refuses to let up. But, even as I wring my hands in frustration, it’s hard not to see the violence in the wider context. It’s very easy to condemn violence, to write off angry mobs as lunatics who are acting out their basest instincts. Their uncritical approach to life is laughable. “How awfully childish,” we tell ourselves. And in that moment, even as Muslims, we find ourselves in the glowing halo of our own self-satisfaction. As the “enlightened, civilized” Muslims of the West, we cannot but emphatically distance ourselves from our “distant cousins” across the Atlantic (or Mediterranean).
But are we that much different from the regular Joe on the streets of Cairo or Benghazi? Is our privilege of wealth and power so potent that we become different creatures because we happen to live in different societies? The answer obviously is no. So what drives these people toward their inexplicable madness? That is a hard question to answer. Being no expert of either the Middle East or Islam I cannot provide anything close to an answer. But as an informed citizen of the world what I can say is that the protests did not happen in a vacuum. The violence isn’t just about the film. Just as in 2005 when Jyallands-Posten published the infamous cartoons of our beloved Prophet, peace be upon him, the subsequent violence was not just about the Cartoons themselves. If we are to understand why slander against a historical figure could trigger such visceral outrage, then it’s important to look at the role of religion in the Muslim world.
In the West, religion is part of the individual identity. Religion’s role in the public sphere is intentionally limited. But in the Muslim world, religion it is an integral part of the collective identity. For better or for worse, religion rules the lives of ordinary, even non-practicing Muslims in powerful ways. The Arabic language itself is a testament to the powerful influence of Islam on wider society. One of the common Arabic words for mosque is jami’a, which is related to the word Jama’i, the word for the praying as a collective. The Friday congregational prayers are called jumma’. All of these words, referring to the collective manifestation of Islam, come from the Arabic root meaning “gathering ; collection; connection ; joining.” And this joining is real. As I found out for myself in Morocco this past year, on Fridays the whole country literally takes a break for the prayers and the mandatory couscous lunch afterwards. It’s not about whether you’re a good Muslim or not. At the end of the day, it’s about your community. The Islamic community exerts a massive presence in the individual’s identity. So when that collective is attacked in such brazen ways, the reaction can be cataclysmic. Taken in context of the history of colonialism, the cold war proxy wars, the non-stop drone attacks that result in the deaths of innocents, the ruinous war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, the unfair, biased treatment of Palestine and the support of autocratic, brutal dictatorships by America, the violence suddenly starts to make sense. It certainly does not justify it, but when taken in context, even angry, crazy Muslims seem soberingly familiar.