Why Muslims don’t protest peacefully like civilized Westerners

A comrade commented on my post about the controversy among German Catholics over the "Popetown" program ("German Catholics offended by ‘Simpsons’-style cartoon of Vatican") by predicting that many will respond that, sure, some Catholics may be calling for censorship, but at least they’re not burning embassies, killing people, etc.

I thought I’d repost my response to that observation on its own since I think it begins to addresse some of the underlying problems with the cartoon debate and punditry on Islam and Muslims in general:

I agree that this is what many will say but it’s ultimately a non sequiteur and an ad hominem ploy.

One, we’re talking about the principle of censorship and "modern" people’s supposedly instinctive and universal opposition to it, not respect for law & order or even nonviolence.  Those are legitimate but entirely separate questions.

Two, one’s subsequent actions do not retroactively justify (or invalidate) a particular reaction in a conflict.  Demands for censorship don’t become any less contrary to free speech if their proponents behave politely after they make them. 

Third and most importantly, Muslims for the most part live in and/or come from much rougher neighborhoods than Westerners, places with much less political stablity, and where in many cases various kinds of exploitation, sectarian violence,  and even outright warfare are facts of life.  One certainly hopes for and should work for a peaceful response, but expecting people living in such unstable societies to just write a letter to their non-existent congressman is hopelessly out of touch with reality. 

Politics and popular protests work rather differently in such places, and are inherently more prone to sliding into violence. 

And not just among Muslims.  Recently, I read of a case in China where university students rampaged (looting and burning) on campus in protest to proposed administrative changes which,  would have hurt their job prospects somehow. Is this because Confucian/Taoist culture encourages lawlessness and violence, or perhaps because China has yet to develop the social and political conditions for nonviolent protest (which, it should be noted, naturally foster a greater respect for rule of law) that we take for granted in the West?  I think the latter.

Just as Catholics in in India and the Philippines reacted quite differently to the "Da Vinci Code" recently–there were calls for the film’s outright ban–than did their coreligionists in Europe, so is it unsurpising, perhaps even natural, that Muslims living in considerably harsher  and less law-abiding environments would react less moderately and peacefully than protesters do in Western societies.

Finally, something we tend to forget is that Westerners misbehave simliliarly when put in comparable circumstances (e.g., the shockingly widespread and open sympathy for the abortion bomber Eric Rudolph in Appalachia) .  We just aren’t very often, thanks to our good fortune to inhabit the peaceful, well fed, and constitutionally governed First World.

Update (2006-08-01):  Made some stylistic tweaks and fleshed out some points.

  • http://abusinan.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    Good points, I think it is also safe to say, being German myself, that religion does not play the central role in the lives of most Germans as it does for most Muslims.
    Even the most devout Germans I have met are still less religious than the “average”(if there is such a thing) Muslim. It really is a different way of looking at the world.
    For the Muslim, the world revolves around religion to one extent or another. The same cannot be said for the overwhelming majority of Europeans. So to insult religion in Europe does not take on the measure that it does for a Muslim as you are not attacking how they define themselves.

  • Svend White

    That’s a good point, AS.
    This brings up another important difference between the JP cartoons and the “Popetown” case. In the former, outsiders were (to put it charitably) parodying a religion in a way guaranteed to offend; in the latter, people are parodying (perhaps even affectionately so) icons of their shared European cultural and religious heritage.
    That obviously doesn’t mean it’s impossible for them to be offensive, as well, but it complicates the discussion a bit.
    As the fact that Salman Rushdie was a Muslim should have complicated the discussion of the “Satanic Verses” among Muslims–i.e., that he was commenting on something that is part of his heritage–but that’s another sad story. I was on the other side of the debate in the Rushdie case.

  • http://abusinan.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    I agree with you about Rusdie. I, as a convert, believe that Islam has the “facts” behind it, so to speak, and doesnt need to resort to murder and violence to silence dissent. I believe we can do that with facts, ideas and conversation.
    Whilst I dont agree with Rushdie for doing what he did, I think the Muslim community reacted in the completely wrong way to it.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/dbrutus/ TM Lutas

    Svend White – I think that it is a bit unfair to the cartoonists to call the entire body of that work intending to offend. At least one, the fellow drawing himself nervously drawing a cartoon of Mohammad, were fulfilling the original intent of the cartoon contest in my opinion (commenting on the fear of those outside of Islam that muslims will kill us if we dare break islamic taboos). Other than formally breaking the taboo, I can’t see any intended insult in it.
    The christian opinion on iconography is long and varied. Ultimately, the vast majority opinion is that human representational art is permitted and there is no exception for the prophets that others believe in and we do not. There have been times where this was accepted by muslims. The current flow of opinion seems otherwise. I think that this is a legitimate conversation to have no matter how acceptable or unacceptable this instantiation of it was.
    So how are you to properly provoke the conversation without a visual representation of mohammed being at the heart of it? You have to not only start the conversation but have people on both sides care enough to carry it to a fruitful conclusion.

  • Svend White

    TM, I don’t disagree that there is a place for drawings of the Prophet, even ones that make Muslims uncomfortable. My point and contention is that this excercise was heavily politicized and therefore needs to be judged by political standards rather than the philosophical ones by offered by their architects.
    Also, I certainly don’t believe that Muslims have the right to ban portrayals of the Prophet by non-Muslims. The problem is that there’s a lot more going on here than art.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/dbrutus/ TM Lutas

    My point is that if you say “hey, here’s a permissible way to challenge us, giving you a fair chance to win the argument. They way you’re doing this is offensive.” you have a much more powerful argument, a much more effective argument, and an argument that demonstrates your ability to integrate into the western tradition in a way that is neither a betrayal of your own tradition nor any sort of existential threat to western tradition that must be fought.
    That would be a very good place to be but I (and other non-muslims) can’t get us there. Only muslims can.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/dbrutus/ TM Lutas

    My point is that if you say “hey, here’s a permissible way to challenge us, giving you a fair chance to win the argument. The way you’re doing this is offensive.” you have a much more powerful argument, a much more effective argument, and an argument that demonstrates your ability to integrate into the western tradition in a way that is neither a betrayal of your own tradition nor any sort of existential threat to western tradition that must be fought.
    That would be a very good place to be but I (and other non-muslims) can’t get us there. Only muslims can.

  • AnonyMouse

    Excellent post. You nailed it!


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