What’s wrong with the Muslim world?

What’s wrong with the Muslim world? What kind of religion teaches its adherents that vitriol and violence is the appropriate response to blasphemy? And why does the United States continue to maintain its active presence in the Middle East, let alone to work hard to win the respect of Muslims around the world?

As The Economist puts it,

FOR many Americans the killing of Christopher Stevens, their ambassador to Libya, this week crystallised everything they have come to expect from the Arab world. In a country where the West only last year helped depose a murderous tyrant, a Salafist mob attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, killing Mr Stevens and three colleagues. The trigger for this murder, the riots in neighbouring Egypt and the storming of the American embassy in Yemen? A tacky amateur video about the Prophet Muhammad that the Obama administration had already condemned.

But of course, this is not the complete picture. While a number of extremist Muslims were involved in violence or in exciting violence, many others worked hard to prevent it. A piece in Slate points out,

Hillary Clinton reported this morning, in her most eloquent news conference as secretary of state, that Libyan citizens and security forces had tried to fight off the small mob of militants who set fire to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and that, afterward, they’d sheltered many survivors and carried the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, to a nearby hospital….

Similarly, Clinton said, Egyptian security forces helped American guards stave off those who stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo before much damage was done. Though she didn’t mention it, the new president, Mohamed Morsi, must know that his country’s fortunes, and thus his own political prospects, depend on foreign aid and investment….

[W]hat we’re seeing is, potentially, a conflict not only between the West and radical Islam but also between elements within Islam… [I]n the long run, it’s important for President Morsi, Libya’s leaders, and at least a few other prominent Muslim spokesmen throughout the region to denounce the most violent of these protesters—and to denounce the very tactic of assaulting embassies and killing diplomats as an antiquated practice that violates their principles and has no place in contemporary Middle Eastern politics.

In another piece The Economist reminds suspicious westerners that the violence they are witnessing in the Middle East is not simply spontaneous, Islamic-inspired practice. Rather, it is carefully orchestrated by extremist Islamists who represent only a minority of Muslims but who are working hard to grow that minority.

Muslims’ resentment at slights to their religion is readily aroused by reports of desecration of the Koran or books, films and pictures that include a blasphemous (ie, any) depiction of the Prophet Muhammad or of God. Yet outbursts of rage can also be stirred by political grandstanding and mischievous politicians preying on an ill-informed and aggrieved populace.

It is certainly odd, for example, that the latest film suddenly began attracting attention in the run-up to September 11th, an anniversary almost as politically charged in the Muslim world as it is in the West. It was energetically publicised (albeit in caustic terms) by two Salafist (hardline Islamist) television channels.

Most outbursts of Muslim rage bring political dividends to someone. The Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, reaped the benefits of his fatwa demanding the death sentence on Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses”, published in 1988. Pakistani politicians gain from whipping up sentiment against Christians—and against politicians seen as soft on them.

But why is it so easy for these demagogues to turn ordinary Muslims against the West? Isn’t that simply the result of Islam? Certainly there are aspects of Islam that render it subject to manipulation and abuse, and the religion cannot be whitewashed of those parts of its history that prominently featured conquest, violence, and intolerance. Muslim scholars need to continue to wrestle with how the Islamic faith can be faithfully practiced in a democratic and pluralistic world. But Islam is no more reducible to violence and intolerance than is any other human religion, and there is much more that makes Muslims vulnerable to manipulation than religious orthodoxy.

Ignorance of the way the West works in many Muslim countries makes rabble-rousing easy. Protesters at the American embassy in Cairo on September 11th erroneously believed the offensive film to have been shown on “American state television”: in a place with a weak tradition of independent broadcasting, that claim is not as absurd as it might be elsewhere….

A reluctance among many Muslims to accept that America could be a blundering victim of atrocities rather than a wily perpetrator meant that the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers were widely reported from the outset as an inside job, facilitated by Israel’s intelligence service, to stoke up Western hatred of Islam. Three-quarters of Egyptians now believe that conspiracy theory.

There is a lot of miscommunication going on, and Americans need to appreciate that fact. The average Arab in the Middle East does not understand America the way my Muslim neighbors down the street do. And just as America has successfully won over millions of Muslims in this country to the values of democracy and pluralism, the same may yet occur in the Middle East. Yes there are countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. But there are also examples of tremendous progress like Turkey. Yes there are Muslims like Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But there are also Muslims like my neighbors down the street who have warmly welcomed my family into their homes, attended my children’s birthday parties, and even babysat for us.

Like most Americans and like most Muslims living in the Middle East, what these people aspire to is a life of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Amid all the furor and the violence, when all the attention is on demagogues, terrorists, and extremists, we should not forget them.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on September 14, 2012, in International Affairs, Islam and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on What’s wrong with the Muslim world?.

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