Decision time for global muslim culture: end the cycle of hate or feed it?

Burning Denmark Embassy Cover of Der Spiegel

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.


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18 Responses to “Decision time for global muslim culture: end the cycle of hate or feed it?”

  1. Sabbagh Says:

    Thank you for the great post.

  2. notook Says:

    Ahmad, thanks for this very thorough and level-headed analysis.
    One thing i would like to add though is that for muslims to righfully demand the respect of the “west”, they must also offer this respect back. You cannot ask for people to respect you if you arrogantly proclaim that your religion is the only “answer”, and if you attack other religions’ sacred places, and if you continously refuse to listen and / or integrate. This goes for both muslims in the arab world and in europe.

  3. Ameen Malhas Says:

    Thanks. Really.

    I’m really tired, and that’s scary. I thought I had the stamina to see this extremist tide come and go, but I’m losing patience, and I’m sure millions of other are too. Armed with Canadian and American passports, this will not bode well for the region.

    Again. You said everything so well.

  4. Kamal Bakhazi Says:

    Very thoughtful comments, thank you.

  5. Kasho Says:

    May I quote your post on one of the forums that I use ?

  6. RadioFreeBabylon Says:

    To remove all offensive imagery, or rather all potentially offensive imagery, from the free press would result in text only newspapers.

    Perhaps we are seeing that certain images, like certain words, are considered “off limits.” Here in the States, it was “the n word,” “fag” and “pro abortion” that received ample debate, with the style guides and editorial policies being adjusted to reflect the political, religious and cultural sensitivities of various groups. But I can’t seem to recall any other violent worldwide protests on the part of any group who believed those sensitivities had been violated.

    In other words, it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it. If the worldwide Muslim community offended by this caricature of the Prophet were to peacefully voice their collective concern, their view on the matter would be more likely to gain a hearing. The Spanish, German and French papers that reissued the cartoons seem to have done so in response to the inappropriate reaction the cartoons initially received.

    To those of us not schooled in Islam, the idea that any representation of Mohammed is forbidden was news to us. Now we know. We’ll add that to the list of stuff we don’t do or say anymore.

  7. Abdullah Says:

    Dear Ahmad,
    Thank you for striving to be objective, however, you should not!
    Allow me to further explain myself: if you think it is the Muslims call to end the cycle of hate, then you cannot be more mislead; or misleading (which happens to be my main concern here).
    Since when are contemporary Muslims in a state that is powerful enough to decide how the others percieve them? You are giving them much bigger of a role they actually can play at this particular point in history. Muslims are rookies when it comes to media and very poor when it comes to power!
    As a muslim, I agree with you in the regard of having a stand, but not towards becoming more peaceful to the others, trust me, we already are! No matter how hard we try, the rainbow will not shine and the birds will not sing and peace will not furnish earth a better place to be…
    Greed, being the true driving force of the world today is your area of change, not Muslims.
    Q: Of all the educated muslim friends you have and all the muslim people you know, can you think of anyone who is willing to burn a church? I cannot think of any…
    We need to know much more about true Islam through digging into its raw sources. First revelation of Islam asks and encourages us to learn “Read” it is by doing so we will be educating us about ourselves and the others and consequently become sensetive to ourselves and the others as well.
    The world today is so unfair to Muslims, so why should we strive for being level headed? concerned about what ‘they’ might think of you? Well, sad news my friend, we have no weight to become a concern, not just yet!
    My message here is to stop worrying about how the others see you and work more into making a better you! this is when the world will become a better place… knowing yourself!

  8. Rob Says:

    As a Christian, I blame the Europeans. Apathetic religious blasphemy is becoming very popular in the West; and this has served as a wake-up call, even if it was blown out of proportion a bit.

  9. Lina Says:

    Ahmad, let me re-iterate everyone’s Thank You’s! At a time when I’m so frustrated by most of what’s been said and written about this, your posts offer a refreshing dose of thoughtful and well-expressed opinions that many of us share.

    I hope you don’t mind that I will be forwarding the link around, just like I did with some of your earlier posts on this. Thanks again!

  10. tom Says:

    Ahmad,

    Wonderful post; the punctilio of reasonableness. I wholeheartedly embrace your views.

    The publication of the images were initially intended as a rebuttal to self-censorship in which the paper engaged regarding muslim issues. It wasn’t necessarily an expression of hatred or attempted provocation. It was, however, irresponsible and unreasonable. As were disproportionate shows of violence in response to the cartoons. What was missing from the discourse between the west and the muslim community was any understanding of the underlying forces: western liberalism, allowing blasphemous material to be published without necessarily endorsing such views; and muslims norms, customs, respect for religious observances, and sharia. I think your post addressed exactly that issue.

  11. Humeid Says:

    Thanks everyone for the great input and encouragement, be it on this post or the earlier one on the same issue. The past few days have been difficult. I can only hope that some enlightened discussion will be able to offer some kind of counterweight to the craziness that is going on. I am sorry I can’t reply to everyone, but I appreciate all your input, wether I agree or disagree with it :)

  12. vistaman Says:

    I would like to add further to the previous posts:-

    It’s important to acknowledge that this event was not a random one. It is very obvious that it was planned to see and understand the reactions of the Muslims as one of its objective. Therefore, it is important for us as Muslims to make sure that our reaction is also a well-planned one rather than a Random one. However, not having a real representation for the Muslims is what brought us to where we are in this problem we are in now

  13. Global Voices Online » Blog Archive » The Jordanian Blogosphere Reacts to the Danish Cartoons Says:

    [...] ll see no problem in us expressing how we felt in a peaceful way.” Ahmad Humeid has several insightful posts on the topic, as well as several suggestions as to what would have been a better reaction [...]

  14. Ali Says:

    Brning embassies is wrong and attacking churches in Lebanon is also wrong. But what happened is extremely bad. and we must respond in a very aggressive way but not burn and destroy properties. here arises the boycot which is the best solution and attacking Danish government and newspapers in words is also a solution but the boycot shall hit all the danish economy not leaving any space for any exceptions. to make them learn that we muslims love our prophet Mohammad (PBUH) more than ourselves. and they are lost in their sins.

  15. Ali Says:

    To Notook …
    We muslims claim that our Religion is the only solution and that is the truth. But some people make the picture of muslims in Europe very bad and that is the only problem and the time will come for all the world to realize the Islam is the only solution. And respecting Europe doesn’t mean respecting their aggressive and non ethical attitudes.

  16. Johnny Says:

    Good post Ahmad. As an American in America whom has no feeling of hate for Muslims, I would like to inject a little perspective on freedom of speech. Here, it is not a vague concept or new development, it has been hashed out a thousand times and examined at great length. The lessons can be summed up by looking carefully at one word: FREEDOM

    What the word implies is that human beings ought not be subject to the judgement of other human beings as to what they can or cannot say. It means that one may publish photographs of a crucifix submerged in urine. It means men dressed in white hooded robes can march down city streets. It means one may wear a t-shirt bearing a depiction of Mohammad with a bomb on his head.

    All these things are offensive to many people. And the people offended may rebut such statements freely. No crime is committed by any such expression of free speech. Reason can prevail.

    However, violence against persons or property is criminal, as is advocating violence (in a specific. insiteful way). Violence by Christians against Muslims (or any other group) is not acceptable, despite America being overwhelmingly Christian by faith.

    Boycotts, rallies, speeches, banners…fine. Violence…unacceptable. This arrangement is not purported to be perfectly fair, but it is the one that has been adopted as least unfair. It’s well understood that any number of groups would like to limit what others say, but no group gets to do so.

    Muslims are being horribly presented, not by some second rate cartoons that would never have been noticed, but by screaming, pillaging mobs that claim some creepy Divine right to riot. I pray that peaceful Muslims will not be lumped in with this nonsense.

  17. Bill Kumar Says:

    The violent and extreme reactions of Muslims all over the world to the cartoons, fanned by their ‘learned’ religious leaders only helps to prove the point that the cartoonist has attempted to make in an intellectual manner.

    It is amusing at one level and deeply disturbing at another, to see protestors carrying photgraphs of Osama Bin Laden.
    We seem to have forgotten what he and his brood did in Afghanistan. Remember the dynamiting of the Budhas in Bamian? These people were so intolerant – no – afraid of even mute statues depicting Gods of other religions that in 21st century they had to destroy them. Did any one in the Muslim world protest then? This almost total lack of reaction, almost silent approval of Muslims, to the destruction of the Budhas should have woken everybody up….that this has been going on for centuries was starkly brought into our living rooms then.

    While no one has a right to defame Gods of others, it is a principle that has to be applied to all equally. When it is not, we lose our right to show such indignation. Muslims want a one-way street….they had it going for centuries and they trampled on every one else going the other way, when and where they could. Now they are on the wrong side, but are not willing to understand one basic fact : it is time to give way to others too.

    Therefore, when someone gently tries to point at the source of the ugly face of Islam seen daily by the whole world, as he understands it, disapproval is warranted in civilised manner by all. But what do we have? Violent reactions, ‘fatwas’ calling to kill, and posters of Laden.

    I may be wrong, but at a macro time and space level, I see all events involving the Islamic world in the last two centuries or so, as the painful pangs of a dying philosophy.The pangs are gettiing more frequent, more painful….and deep down there is a frustrated sense of helplessness finding expression in the vortex of ever increasing violence and self-destruction. The leaders of Islam cannot teach their followers to live peacefully with others in a plural world. With that insurmountable difficulty there is no hope. It is the End. They know it too, but want to beliieve that the End is of others.

    I am certain that the Prophet never taught what has been learned. God is of and for all. But when his followers persistently keep taking off at a tangent, can you really blame somebody for pointing a finger, even if wrongly? If only there was a mechanisn within the Muslim world for introspection, for honest debate without fear of being killed in the name of God, there would have been a transformation, an evolution, as there has been in Christianity. And that would surely have saved Islam.

  18. Luke Says:

    I surf the net for hours looking for an answer to our problems. I am a normal wetsern man with a young family. Just trying to survive in a world dominated by greed, intolerance and hate. I pray to our one GOD that we can all just stop. It really is that easy. Just STOP the hatred. STOP the greed. Be at peace with yourself. Love yourself and then you will love others. I know that there are those that have lost family members on both sides of this horrible religious war but if we all just STOP hating and start to pass the word to our friends. STAND UP for peace STAND UP for love. WE may never understand each others faith but we can accept each other. Just STOP and think – HONESTLY to yourself. LISTEN to your soul – it’s not hard, there is no need to focus – it’s just below the surface – that voice from GOD - he is just waiting for you to LISTEN - it doesnt need priests of imams – he is there within all of us. Please STOP the killing – all of us please STOP.

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