The recent protests in the Muslim world against the United States (including many violent ones) on account of an amateur film have once again raised the issue of the causes behind such strong reactions, and what can be done to avoid them. While such deliberations are doubtless occurring behind the closed doors of policy-making chambers, comment has also proliferated in the media and in think-tanks. The actions recommended range all the way from acting tough to being more sensitive to the sensibilities of other cultures. However, the first step in any sensible policy-making or intelligent debate and comment should be to understand the causes underlying the problem.
There are some 1.7 billion Muslims in the world. Their homelands stretch all the way from the Atlantic across Central and North Africa to the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and on to the Indonesian islands in the Pacific. They encompass many different races and nationalities, and speak many languages. But beneath this vast diversity they share certain common features that make them a single community, especially in their own view.
The first of these common features among the world’s Muslims is their allegiance to Islam. The religion Muslims practice in different regions often varies in details of ritual and even of dogma, but what is common to them all is their commitment to the ideal of Islam, as well as their avowal of the fundamental tenets of the faith that include certain core beliefs and practices.
A second common feature is their shared cultural base. While the culture of Muslims in different parts of the world varies based on their historical environment and the way it has developed, all these cultures share the same bedrock of certain traits derived from what might be called Muslim culture. This has descended from the earliest Muslims and is heavily tinged with their Bedouin culture, fostering such personal traits as individualism, self-respect bordering on touchiness, courage and fortitude, endurance, generosity and hospitality. This basic culture also encourages such collective values as loyalty to the group, sacrifice to preserve the group and its honour, and conservatism.
A third common feature is their recognition of Muslims throughout the world as one community (the Ummah). For them this is not just a figure of speech, or even an intellectual position, but a deeply felt belief. Every Muslim feels himself to be part of this community, and thus connected to each of its members, wherever they may live. Good or ill fortune befalling any part of the community is felt by other Muslims as if it had happened to them or their family.
A fourth common feature among Muslims worldwide is their antipathy to the West. This has nothing to do with the dictates of their religion (as some with vested interests would like people to believe), but is rooted in their history, specifically their feeling of having always been at war with, or under attack by, the West. These wars began soon after the rise of Islam with the conflict with the Byzantine Empire that lasted from the 7th to the 11th centuries. There followed the successive Crusades against the Muslims during the 12th and 13th centuries, while the destruction of the Muslim states in Spain in the Reconquista went on from the 8th to the 15th centuries. The 14th and 15th centuries saw the wars between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. From the 17th century the era of European colonialism bloomed and most of the Muslim world was taken over and brought under Western rule, remaining under subjugation well into the 20th century.
While the details of these earlier conflicts are known only to the educated, they reside in the collective memory that colours the attitudes of succeeding generations. However, several generations of Muslims now living have personally experienced the eras of colonialism and/or post-colonialism. Those who lived through the former not only experienced the humiliation of living under foreign Western rule but also felt their culture to be under attack. The ending of colonial rule often exacerbated old wounds. The botched handover of power by the British in the partitioned Indian subcontinent led to horrendous killings and displacements. In Algeria about a million Algerians died in the war to oust the French. After the Second World War the Dutch waged war for several years against the people of Indonesia in an attempt to re-establish their colonial rule.
In the post-colonial era Muslim countries found themselves caught up in the Cold War, unwilling pawns in what they saw as a Western conflict. Their leaders were often manipulated by the West to serve its own interests, while they neglected the welfare of their own people. The few who tried to assert their independence were slapped down (like Nasser in Egypt and Mossadeq in Iran). Meanwhile, Muslims were still under attack. The Israelis, with Western backing, took over Palestinian lands, and then defeated the Arabs in successive wars, taking over more of their lands. The Soviet Union decimated Afghanistan (and, later, Chechnya). Then came George Bush’s Great War on Terror which destroyed Iraq and Afghanistan (again!) with the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims. In addition, the recent development of worldwide communications has unleashed what many Muslims regard as an assault on their culture and its values by Western culture, a battle in which they are losing many of their young people.
It is this sense of conflict with the West and aggression by it against Muslims for centuries that underlies the almost universal antipathy felt towards it by Muslims. The United States, as the current leader of the Western world, now attracts to itself this suspicion and animosity, solidified by its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan’s tribal areas, and its military and economic dominance of many Muslim lands. (Many Americans who have had dealings with Muslims might be surprised to read of this general sense of animosity because they have not encountered it in their interactions with individual Muslims. The reason for this is that the average Muslim that Americans are likely to encounter is usually discerning enough not to blame individual Americans for the policies and actions of their country, and interacts with them mainly on the basis of their personal attributes and attitudes).
This latent hostility makes it easy for political and religious leaders in the Muslim world, if it serves some purpose of theirs, to arouse people against the US and the West. They can do this using even relatively flimsy reasons, but need no excuse when the triggering event is an attack, actual or alleged, against the Prophet of Islam; in fact, in such cases, they have to line up behind the aroused populace to avoid being accused of indifference. People in the West are generally puzzled by the extreme sensitivity displayed by Muslims on this particular issue, and it is worth explaining.
The Prophet plays a special role in Muslim consciousness. Since the laws and details of their religion, as well as the essentials of their culture, are largely based on the Hadith (the reported actions and sayings of the Prophet), he plays a pivotal role in their sense of the religion, personifying it as its perfect practitioner. To attack him is to attack the foundation of their religion.
Islam is an austere religion and so is its culture; it has no ‘pegs’ to which its followers can attach their emotions. Unlike other religions it has no revered saints and martyrs, no resplendent popes and bishops, no ornate churches and temples, no elaborate rituals and services, no hymns and sacred music, no pomp and ceremony, nothing that can engage the emotions of its followers. The one exception is the Prophet. He is the only entity in Islam that evokes an emotional response in all Muslims. The uniqueness of this emotion adds to its power. To demean and ridicule the Prophet is to strike at the emotional core of being of every Muslim. It is an attack on their sense of identity, on who they are, on the very basis of their existence. (The dynamics at work here are similar to those that cause denial of the Holocaust to be such an extremely sensitive issue for Jewish people. Both are existential issues).
The United States, as the principal power in the world, with its global interests and reach, needs to develop a viable policy of dealing with the Muslim world. Its policy makers (and their supporting cast of numerous advisors, think-tank ‘specialists and experts’, and media commentators) need to first understand what they are dealing with, how the vast majority of Muslims think and feel, what matters to them and why. Without policies based on such a sound understanding the US will continue to encounter the problems and crises that have so far marked its dealings with the Muslim world.