Like clockwork, the scene repeats itself every so often. The blissful ignorance that embodies the triumphalist march of Western liberalism to every corner of the world is rudely confronted by mobs of angry Muslims bent on destroying the very freedoms underlying a civilisational project more than two centuries in the making.
According to this narrative, the inevitable rise of societies in which freedom is valued above all else is frequently frustrated in the streets and public squares of Cairo, Kabul and Jakarta. The chronic overreaction by Muslim protesters against a novel, a cartoon, or a crudely shot film is perceived by many in the West as a sign of the hopelessly widening gulf of values between two civilisations.
By examining these protests within a vacuum and focusing exclusively on the domain of culture, a subjective category in which any party can affirm its own superiority, the United States and its European allies hope to absolve themselves of any culpability for the recurring hostility expressed by populations in the Middle East and beyond.
To deny historical experiences and current political realities allows one to miss the point entirely: that the offence caused by the steady flow of anti-Islamic cultural production is quite literally adding insult to injury. And it is much easier for all of those involved to focus on the insult rather than the injury.
Little new in the film
There is little new in the amateurish hate-filled film that emerged out of the bowels of an Islamophobia industry that has picked up considerable steam in the last decade. Aside from trading the physical soapbox for the digital one of YouTube, anti-Islamic screeds have not evolved much since the era of the Crusades, relying primarily on a thoroughly discredited historical narrative of Prophet Muhammad’s life and mission that acted as a kind of medieval war propaganda.
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But the irony seems to be lost on those so eager to condemn the recent overzealous reactions by protesters. The narrative recycled by the Islamophobes of today was originally designed to justify religious violence and continues to act as the cultural lubricant for an imperial project that has exploited, dispossessed, colonised and occupied millions of people.
Anyone seeking to understand the recent upheavals need only contrast the latest response with historical ones. Internal Muslim condemnations against the protests have relied primarily on Muhammad’s example of ignoring insults against his person. But in fact, there is a long tradition of Muslim tolerance for insults against their faith and its founder.
The ninth-century Martyrs Movement in Islamic Spain was notable, not for the deliberate incitements made by Christians seeking to sacrifice themselves to spark a revolt among their co-religionists, but for the considerable lengths they had to go to in order to provoke a response from the Muslim rulers. Their anti-Islamic spectacles in Andalucia’s market places and public squares were largely ignored and state officials repeatedly overlooked the verbal assaults in the hopes of preserving social harmony.
Even by the late 19th century, when European colonialism was in its upward swing, scathing critiques of Islam were often met with thoughtful and measured responses. To French philosopher Ernest Renan’s argument that Islam was inherently opposed to rationality, science and philosophy, the religious reformer Jamal al-Din al-Afghani replied by offering a counter-narrative of early Islamic history, while also arguing that the latest failings of Muslims should be attributed to their own shortcomings and not to their faith.
Aside from demonstrating the historical consistency in the reactions to such insults, this anecdote provides another lesson of relevance to the contemporary era. Namely, that as many critics ponder how it is that a verbal attack on the religion can engender far more outrage than the physical assault on its adherents, it has been shown time and again by these protests that it is far easier to stand up for Islam than it is to stand up for Muslims.
Imbalance of power
This has been particularly true as the power dynamic underwent a marked shift throughout the 20th century, when borders were drawn and states were formed in the interests of colonial powers and not the people who lived within them. After the era of independence, when non-representative regimes were installed and propped up across the Middle East, the power imbalance remained the defining feature of the relationship. The frequent interventions and the curious interactions within them provide damning proof of how the insult takes precedence over the injury.
“The narrative recycled by the Islamophobes of today was originally designed to justify religious violence and continues to act as the cultural lubricant for an imperial project that has exploited, dispossessed, colonised and occupied millions of people.”
The sexual humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison elicited universal outrage but the notion that an illegal occupying power could arrest and detain Iraqi citizens at will was not cause for concern or protest. When it emerged that American military personnel had urinated on the corpses of Afghan citizens, generating protests throughout the country, the US government was quick in its condemnations of this desecration, but few people if any wondered why there were so many dead Afghans in the first place.
The unspoken agreement, it appears, is that the seemingly insurmountable imbalance of power between the sponsors of empire and its victims remains outside the scope of popular discourse in favour of the emphasis on the cultural disparities. And lest it continue to be argued that the cycle of conflict and confrontation is one between the forces of Islamic extremism on the one hand, and the culture of freedom, tolerance and pluralism at the heart of Western values on the other, it is worth recalling the numerous instances of religious zeal expressed by a militant Christianity acting in the name of its own historic sensitivities.
It has been noted in recent years that contingents within the US military have taken to wearing pins bearing the symbol of the Templar Knights. Long before George W Bush invoked the Crusades in one of his first post-9/11 speeches, Henri Gouraud did the same as he led French forces into Syria after World War I.
One of his first destinations was the grave of Salah al-Din, the great Muslim hero who fought European Crusaders eight centuries earlier. Upon approaching the tomb, Gouraud was reported to have declared, “The Crusades have ended now! Awake Saladin, we have returned! My presence here consecrates the victory of the Cross over the Crescent”.
The lesson from all of these expressions, past and present, is that what gives weight to the insult is the injury that precedes it. Until that becomes the focal point of our collective indignation, the cycle will only continue to repeat itself. Like clockwork.
Abdullah Al-Arian is an Assistant Professor of History at Wayne State University, where he specialises in the modern Middle East.