It is not the first time in recent years that major riots have erupted in countries with majority Muslim populations enraged by apparently sacrilegious acts of the West. Whether it is a movie, a cartoon, a book or an act of desecration of the Koran, the result seems predictably to be fierce protests, attacks on Western Embassies and other installations, attacks on public buildings and threats, sometimes actually carried out, against specific individuals. Underlying all this seems to be a mob ruling that condemns to death all those even remotely connected to the perceived as sacrilegious acts.
The West is often caught by surprise in the face of such anger and destruction. More so it seems after the “Arab Spring” that it nurtured and thought that would bring at least the Arab Muslims closer to its sphere of influence. Instead, the forces unleashed by the Spring seem to be still dark and raw, with unfathomed discontent on the verge of exploding.
One can see the deeper societal issues that at least partly underlie such expressions of rage. Unemployed young people who feel deprived of a decent future and subjugated to political and market forces that they cannot comprehend, far less influence or control. An apparent lack of external respect, from abroad and from within their own societies, undermines their own self-respect. Under such conditions, only a spark is needed to generate lethal assertions of why one should be respected, at least for being able to wreak havoc and death, including one’s own self-destructive death.
These are issues that have to be dealt with, first of all by the governments of the countries whose citizens are revolting, but also by those outside powers that continue to play political and economic games at great risk. Things cannot improve overnight, but there has to be at least a glimmer of hope, a road to a better future, and that is the responsibility primarily of national and regional leaders to offer. External powers can for once try to be consistent, matching their actions to their rhetoric of democracy and equality, rather than to strategic and economic interests alone or the influence of powerful lobbies. Hypocrisy and double standards are not lost on the masses, even if they do not discern the details of elaborate geopolitical games.
On the proclaimed reasons for the protests, the theological arguments, does it really make sense for the faithful to take upon themselves the defence of the divide, of God or the Prophet in the case of Islam? One would expect these all-powerful beings to be able to defend themselves more decisively and forcefully than any human, individually or collectively could. Moreover, there is broad agreement in theory that the divine element operates at a different scale of space and time than humans, with a more holistic picture of what each person deserves for the long-term, in paradise or hell. Taking upon ourselves, as humans, such judgements we basically usurp the prerogatives of God and God’s Prophets, and proclaim ourselves the ultimate judges, which could be seen as a sacrilegious act by itself.
More modesty by the faithful, and more self-restraint would seem like a better way to go. In any case, many of the defamatory actions addressed against holy figures of one or the other religion are usually of bad taste and laughable by themselves. One who is assured of the value of one’s beliefs should not give in to such cheap provocation. Rather one should be inspired by the norms of behaviour promoted by most if not all religious traditions. Among them prominently figures “the golden rule”, which stipulates that one should treat others as one expects others to treat oneself.
A few final thoughts: In case one believes that sacrilegious acts are aimed primarily at Islam, one should reconsider. Christ has been the subject of books, theatrical plays, movies, etc. many of which the official churches would never accept. In the past the church had the temporal power to punish, even burn or otherwise eliminate, those considered blasphemous. It is rightly considered a sign of progress in the West that this is no longer the case. Separation of church and state, freedom of religious and other beliefs, and tolerance is the way to go for stable nations and for a stable world.
The US can be accused of many things but at least internally it sticks to such principles and respects religious freedom and identity. That should be recognized, along with the measured as of now at least response of the US government to the violence against its diplomatic missions. Ambassadors and other emissaries have been respected from time immemorial, and should continue to be so. Even if they are messengers of bad or unpleasant news, it has long ago been recognized that such messengers are important for keeping the communications going even between enemies. Because dialogue can eventually lead to solutions, otherwise irrational violence and destruction prevail on all sides.
Ixelles, 15 September 2012