Burning embassies! Trampling on the flags of Denmark and Norway! Death threats to Europeans! Glorifying 9/11! Men and women with crazy, violent expressions on their faces and Qurans in their hands! These are the images that have stuck with global audiences over the last tow days.
When, a few days ago, hateful anti Denmark banners started appearing on quite a few Arab blogs we knew things would not end in a ‘peaceful’ boycott of products’. Although the reports from Syria and Lebanon seem to suggest that the embassy burnings were instigated by a violent minority amongst the demonstrators, the hateful messages across the web and mobile phones and the overzealous media and preachers have played a role in mobilizing the mob.
All of this is happening in an atmosphere of increased global polarization. As Ethan Zuckerman has pointed out earlier, the ‘Western’ blogosphere currently has a disappointing wealth of hatred and ignorance too.
Today there is a dangerous chain of reactions and counter-reactions occurring in a devilish, vicious circle. Who exactly is responsible? The ‘West’ with its sense of superiority and its double standards in Middle Eastern foreign policy? Or the ‘Islamic Nation’, with its dangerous collective feeling of humiliation, anger for ‘lost historical glory’ and its failing culture of self oppression?
At this point, maybe it does not matter. In any case these two attitudes are a dangerous mix, especially when we realize that every culture today is global: millions of muslims live in Europe, and western culture has become a part of the muslim world’s reality.
Karen Armstrong, the leading British commentator on religious affairs and author of ‘Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet’ summed the situation up for the BBC:
Each side needs to appreciate the other’s point of view. I think it was criminally irresponsible to publish these cartoons. They have been an absolute gift to the extremists – it shows that the West is incurably Islamophobic. It sends a very bad message.
But, more seriously, it is letting ourselves down. We trumpet abroad about what a compassionate culture we are. But these cartoons depicting Muhammad as a terrorist are utterly inaccurate, feeding into an Islamophobia that has been a noxious element in Western culture since the time of the Crusades. It can only inflame matters at this very crucial juncture of our mutual history.
On the other hand, in a secular Europe, freedom of speech has developed as one of our sacred values. We fought hard for it, but we have to remember it carries responsibilities. For example, do we have a right to say whatever we want even if it is false and dangerous?
More importantly, however, freedom is as sacred a value for us as the Prophet is to Muslims.
We are seeing here a clash of two different notions of what is sacred and this is part of the modernising process.
Modernisation and secularisation has this bumpy ride where people at different levels of modernisation are clashing. In other parts of the world where modernisation is not yet complete it is not regarded as a crucial as other sacred realities.
And now we are all living in this multicultural society cheek-by-jowl with one another, not even within a single country but we are linked to one another in our global village. We have to learn to live side by side better than this.
So, what’s up with the Europe?
Various interrelated factors, such as the aging of western societies, economic globalization, muslim immigration to the west and the perceived and real threat of terror are driving the rise of new ‘Western-centric’ and right wing (but sometimes also liberal) Islamophobic tendencies in Europe and the US. These people, institutions and media are attempting to ‘put Islam on the spot’ through criticism and provocation. Outright racist commentary and attacks are also becoming more common in this context.
Muslim culture is clearly unprepared and under-equipped for these criticisms and provocations. Already emotionally charged and mired in its own confusion, muslim culture’s loudest (and most visible) reactions often range from primitive to violent (for example the murder by a muslim extremist of the Dutch film director van Gogh).
The current reaction to the cartoons is often described as ‘defending’ the prophet, or ‘defending’ Islam. This ‘defensive’ posture reflects a feeling of insecurity and unease in a culture that has, in the modern age, largely failed to create properly functioning contemporary societies. This defensiveness has increased in the context of globalization, where the west is not just on the muslim world’s doorsteps but also in its living rooms (or where muslim actually LIVE in the west).
Criticizing the current globalization as ‘unfair’, ‘one sided’ or ‘American oriented’ misses the point. The point is: how does a culture actively respond to the challenge of globalization. (think about how Japan, China, India, Korea and other cultures responded). Muslim culture has, so far, responded in confused manner.
Religion vs. Religion? A war of civilizations?
When it comes to religions it is important to remember that all of them have been used/abused for conquest and violence, directed both internally and externally. Muslims have to acknowledge this, but equally so do ‘christians’ and ‘westerners’, as it is no secret how much blood was spilled in the name of Christianity and the West throughout recent history.
Thus, any talk of a ‘morally superior civilization’ from the East or the West should be viewed with a lot of skepticism. There is a lot of that talk in currency today, be it from the ‘superior-West’ camp or the Islamist camp.
The current advantage of western societies is that they have gone through a transformation in the past few hundred years that allowed them to evolve the modern concepts of freedom. What many angry Arabs and Muslims seem to forget is how many of their own have enjoyed these freedoms living in Europe and the US after fleeing the oppressive climate of the Arab and Muslim world.
When it comes to the Arab and Muslim side of the equation, the sad thing is that it has neither been able to adopt what is best of the Western culture, namely the modern principles of freedom, nor has it been able to clearly show the face of a humane, tolerant Islam.
The role of global media? What about the image of muslim culture?
Western media is not innocent. Through ignorance and/or deliberate manipulation (unfair selection of images and coverage), it has contributed to stereotyping the Islamic world as violent and intolerant . But the Muslim world has been happily providing an abundant supply of violent and intolerant images in the form of burning flags, hateful slogans, children draped in mock explosive belts, not to mention stories about the prosecution of intellectuals and the oppression of women.
The muslim world has also been hypocritical in its reactions: staying silent when the oppression or insult is internal, but screaming with rage at any real or perceived insult from the west.
Taking sides ‘defending’ Islam or ‘defending’ the West is not productive at this stage. Islamic and western culture are simply bringing out the worst in each other nowadays. Both cultures need some deep self criticism. The democratic nature of the west allows it to do this far more easily. Is Muslim culture up to the task?
What do muslims want?
The protest actions (ranging from peaceful to violent) are being done in the name of defending Islam and to ask for respect for Muslims, right?
So here is a basic question: what kind of respect does the global Muslim culture want today?
If it is respect through being feared by others (as in: if you mess with us we well burn you embassies and threaten to terrorize you) then let’s say ‘well done’ to the burners and shouters.
Being ‘respected through fear’ is what some muslims either explicitly want or are willing to tolerate. Their actions say: “So what if the action of the burners and shouters will lead to the interpretation that muslims and Islam are violent. JUST GIVE US RESPECT GOD DAMN IT!”
But we all have to live with the consequences of muslims being ‘feared’. The more people fear Islam and Muslims the more they will be willing to go for policies with negative consequences for muslims worldwide.
The other kind of respect would be of the kind inspired by what global muslim culture can actually give the world in science, art, culture and, dare I say, for the positive examples of freedom and tolerance it should set. If that is the respect we’re looking for then muslim culture has to become very vocal in dealing with the shouters and burners and in tackling our central cultural problem: self oppression.
Read these related posts on 360east:
- A teddy bear called “Mohammad”: does Islam need an even scarier image?
- Hollywood and holy sites: Vernacular branding, vernacular culture
- Flickr RSS glitch shows other people’s photos
- MixUp Arabia Episode 1 is here
- Dumb US Senators and dumber bloggers
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