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.

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