Wednesday, February 08, 2006

What did the vast majority of Muslims do last week?

Over the last few days I have read very many things about the Muhammad cartoon row, both those written by journalists and those written by normal, every-day people. Among them there have been a great number of comments which basically said – It’s just a stupid cartoon, by reacting the way they have to it, the Muslims have once again shown themselves to be crazy, religious fanatics. For my part, whenever I read such comments I wonder if I am actually living on the same planet as the people who wrote them. I am also reminded of the racist riots that took place in Sydney a couple of months ago and the fact that I heard no-one make the comment that they showed Australians to be a bunch of crazy, racist fanatics.

I think that any serious comment on the current events, just as on current affairs in general, needs to start from the premiss that people are people everywhere you go. This means that you get your extremists of every stripe, be it religious, political or pretty much anything else; people for whom religion means a commitment to non-violence and those for whom destruction of those who think differently is primary; governments and other organisations that seek to shape public perception and discourse; all the while most of the people most of the time simply want to go about their lives without having someone interfering in them and without causing harm to anyone else in turn. The overall picture is one of great diversity underpinned by normalcy. This isn’t the case just in western pluralist democracies but even in theocratic dictatorships – not that even Iran fits that bill these days. People are people everywhere you go.

This means that any substantive generalisation about what Muslims or Australians or bicycle-riders are like is bound to be false. When people say that Muslims are burning down embassies what does it mean? How many embassies did Mr. Bhersafi who runs a corner store in Beirut burn down this week? Chances are that he didn’t, instead watching the events unfold on the television in the back-room and swearing at those who were tearing apart the Danish embassy. What about Mr. Bhersafi’s cousin, the Muslim cleric? Well, he could well have been among the clerics who waded into the rioting mob and tried to stop them (showing great personal courage). So, who did burn down the embassy? As the events in Australia showed, everywhere you go there are young men who are angry and impetuous enough to act on their violent impulses and, so long as they feel that their actions will be condoned, they will act on them. The difference between places where violence occurs and those where it is rare isn’t in the make-up of the people but in the make-up of the societies. This isn’t just a claim I make on this occasion but a phenomenon that has been studied by psychologists, with the infamous Stanford experiment run by Zimbardo being an early example.

So, Middle Eastern societies are violent while Western democracies are not? Well, it isn’t as simple as that either, as anyone who’s been to the United States will know given their gun culture and the seeming naturalness with which violent ‘solutions’ to problems are accepted there. Violence is a fluid that flows from place to place, cascading from generation to generation. To the degree that societies in the Middle East are violent it is necessary to ask why that is the case – otherwise one is likely to get trapped in the same sort of conceptual determinism that just saying that Muslims are violent invites. The answer has to be sought in history of the area.

A big part of that search is going to have to look at the relationship between the Middle East and the West. Saying that the current violence is a reaction to the cartoons is grossly simplistic and forgets the centuries of contact and conflict that have left many in the Middle East resentful of Western influence in the area. Just as in a marriage, this row is not about the event that sparked it but about the long-term relationship.

A search for the historical roots of the current problems and for an analysis of the reaction to the cartoons leads to the same place, a British journalist who has spent more time in the area than any other English language journalist and who has developed a deep understanding of it, founded as it is upon encyclopaedic knowledge of its history. Those who know him, already know that I am speaking of Robert Fisk. His analysis of the current reaction to the Muhammad cartoons is, not surprisingly, once again insightful, giving a lot of the local background the other reporters miss:

Yesterday’s violence may have been inspired by the previous day's assaults on the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus--or were perhaps encouraged by the same Baath party which must have originally permitted the Syrian demonstrations to take place.

More likely, the crowds in both cities were allowed by the authorities to stage protests, but the demonstrators quickly became overwhelmed as Sunni extremists--in Lebanon, perhaps from the Salafist Hezb al-Tahrir party in Tripoli, and equally Wahhabi-minded Palestinians from the Ein el-Helweh refugee camp--arrived with sticks and stones to assault the Danish property and then to attack the St Maroun church and march on the Lebanese foreign ministry.

Wishing to have a proper understanding of the causes of what is going on, I think I will have to turn to Fisk’s Great War for Civilisation, which was published at the end of 2005 and which covers the history of the Middle East and our, the West’s, involvement.


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