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Islam, Violence, and the West: It’s Not the Video, Stupid

September 19, 2012 1 Comment

Originally posted on the Sept 19, 2012, on the Columbia University Press Blog,   http://www.cupblog.org/?p=7915

Islam, Violence, and the West: It’s not the Video, Stupid
By Jonathan Lyons

It may be tempting to watch the unrest unfolding in parts of the Muslim world and wonder what real harm could there be in a cheesy “desert saga,” replete with glue-on beards, stilted dialogue, and an over-the-top touch of melodrama? Or perhaps to take some refuge in an absolutist notion of free speech.

But to focus on the short clip, posted online, that portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, pedophile, and general sex fiend, is largely to miss the point. The true animating cause behind the protests is power, that is, Western power to define the Islamic world in ways that undermine its values, aspirations, identity, and, ultimately, its autonomy and means of self-determination.

The roots of this power date back to Western propaganda that surrounded the First Crusade, in the late eleventh century. Before that, the European experience of Muslims was a largely one of indifference. Arab raiding parties were mostly a nuisance, something akin to the pagan Magyars or Vikings.

With the coming of the Crusades, and the need to mobilize scarce resources to conquer the Holy Lands, the Muslims were framed as an existential threat to Christendom. Despite the many affinities between these two monotheist faiths, Islam’s values were held up as the mirror opposite of Christian ones. A distinctly antithetical portrait of Islam began to take shape in the Western mind.

Thus, Muslim values were conceived as the opposite of self-evident Christian virtues: where Christianity represents love, Islam stands for violence and cruelty; where Christ means truth, Muhammad and the Quran mean falsehood and deception; where Christians are chaste, Muslims are sexually perverse.

Moreover, this Western idea of Islam was established before there had been any significant European contact with the Muslim world and without any reference to what it is Muslims say, or believe, or actually do. As with other essentialist narratives, they tell us more about the speaker than about the subject.

Remarkably, this anti-Islam discourse has persisted largely intact for a millennium, reinforced by Western thinkers and “Islam experts” from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment and the heyday of colonial domination of Muslim lands. Its central elements are commonplace today in our political arena, on the Internet, on “talk” radio, in the so-called quality press, and, frequently, in the academy. The question is always, “Are Muslims violent?”—a question loaded in the same interrogatory gun that was loaded in the eleventh century.

Later accretions include the popular sentiment that Islam harbors a jealous rage toward the West, its freedoms, and general way of life, and that Muslims are anti-modern and anti-democratic. Here, too, the Muslim East is placed, uncritically, in direct opposition to the Judeo-Christian West. Throughout, it has told use what can – and what cannot – be said and thought about Islam and the Muslims.

This same discourse maintains a profound and corrosive effect on our understanding of the Muslim world and has left us with little more than a fleeting “idea” of Islam in the place of any meaningful engagement. As a result, Western societies today are intellectually and politically unprepared to respond to some of the greatest challenges of our times – the global rise of Islamist political power, as seen with the so-called Arab Spring; the more narrow emergence of religious violence and terrorism; and tensions between established Western social values and multicultural rights on the part of growing Muslim immigrant populations.

Perhaps the single most powerful element of the Western idea of Islam is that of its inherent violence, and of the associated fanaticism of its followers. This in turn has a number of important knock-on effects, including justification of the West’s own use of force in the Muslim world and the effective delegitimization of Muslim resistance. In today’s world, Muslim civilian deaths are “collateral damage” of the West’s legitimate violence, while its enemies’ use of car bombs, suicide attackers, and the so-called improvised explosive devices, lack any such legitimacy.

In the case of the film protests, this phenomenon obscures from view any Muslim claim to specific rational motivation behind the unrest, whether grounded in historical grievance, political opposition, social dissidence or economic dislocation, or specific readings of religious tradition.

Taken together, then, the 1000-year characterization of an intrinsically violent Islam dismisses the goals, motives, and objectives on the part of Muslims and makes negotiated settlement or other nonviolent resolution to East-West tensions virtually impossible.

Politics, von Clausewitz wrote, is war by other means, giving policymakers two tools: war and politics. Our notion of the Muslim world suggests that their faith predisposes them toward war, precluding war by other means—negotiation, discussion, politics, and peace. This, anyhow, is the story we in the West tell ourselves, and have told ourselves for a millennium.

If the anti-Islam discourse were only a prejudice, unrelated to policy choices, it would be merely prejudicial, but as it is, it has consequences for our peace and prosperity. Consider Mitt Romney’s recent remarks to fundraisers, that negotiated settlement or other nonviolent resolution to the Middle East conflict is pointless.

So, he implied, forget about building peace. Fund Israel’s military. Threaten incursions into Iran. Wait for a new dispensation. The implication here—and it is a frightening one—is that only a world with fewer Muslims in it is capable of true peace.

1 Comment for this entry

Don Camp

December 17th, 2014 on 5:55 am

Okay. The West is terribly ignorant of the Muslims. I agree with that. I live in India where I have neighbors and friends who are Muslim. My western friends don’t understand that not all Muslims are terrorists. And yet the premise that Islam is not violent is not demonstrated in the history. The Muslim versus Muslim conflicts, some of which are going on today but which have been a characteristic of Islam since Mohamed, reveal a violent core.

Yes, Christianity has had its own violent eras. But that is not the point. Look at Islam alone. Look at Islam today. I think you are far to kind to Islam.