“Hurtful and harmful stereotypes do not exist in a vacuum. Continuously repeated, they denigrate peoples, narrow our vision and blur reality.” — Jack Shaheen, Author, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People; Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture
“Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated.”
— Coretta Scott King
Across much of the “Muslim world,” thousands of people have joined violent demonstrations following the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad – a person who, according to Islamic tradition, is never to be seen. In response, Al-Jazeera reports that Western nations “have stepped up pressure on Arab and Muslim countries to bring under control increasingly violent protests,” and some Western journalists are chiding the protestors for their lack of tolerance and “self restraint.”
Many Europeans and Americans are bewildered by this seeming overreaction to a few drawings. Most of us have grown accustomed to seeing our “sacred cows” tipped by the news media, artists and popular entertainers. Yes, some conservative Christians were outraged by the television show The Book of Daniel, but none of them hurled Molotov cocktails at NBC headquarters to register their displeasure. They wrote letters. They pressured network affiliates to drop the program.
Despite their different tactics (and religions), the Christian right and the Islamic radicals do share something in common. Their regular outrage over “insults” – real or perceived – stems from the mindset: “He who dares comment on my religion will be punished, provided I disagree with the comments.”
Ways in which the two groups differ has more to do with history, culture and geography than anything else. But these differences are significant, because they provide essential context for the demonstrations.
Until the mid-20th century, many Arabs were the unwilling subjects of Europe’s imperial powers. (By contrast, no Western European had bowed to an Arab overlord since 1492, and Eastern Europeans were freed from Ottoman rule by the mid-1800s.) During decades of occupation, the British dictated forms of government, borders, and often cultural behavior. While drawing the boundaries of the Middle East and Asia Minor, few “locals” were asked for their opinions.
Western support for Israel’s formation, and more than 50 years of subsequent strife, has only escalated tensions between two civilizations. In addition, consecutive U.S. administrations have propped up brutal, corrupt regimes throughout the Muslim world, ignoring the mistreatment of ordinary citizens. From Kashmir to Chechnya to the Chinese province of Xinjiang, America’s political and economic leaders have paid lip service to democracy, while supporting repressive tyrants.
Most recently, the American occupation of Iraq has added fuel to the fires of resentment. Because of its history, the Arab world is extremely sensitive to foreign occupation. Having forced the French and British to abandon their empires, they are now turning their sites on the Americans. Regardless of whether the U.S. invasion was justified by WMD, the presence of foreign terrorists or the need to spread democracy, it has supplied more fodder for the region’s anti-Western propaganda machines.
By applying military force against the region’s population, instead of offering “honey to attract liberty loving bees,” the U.S. loses legitimacy and respect. At this point, the average Arab citizen would probably vote for freedom from oppression, death and foreign humiliation instead of the freedom to build democratic societies.
Make no mistake: I’m not taking sides with Arabs vs. Westerners or Christians vs. Muslims. I’m simply arguing that we must become more aware of Muslim and Arab points of view. Ignorance of their religion, cultures and histories will only contribute to future demonstrations and wars.
It is not our responsibility to judge, to decide what “they” must do, but to acquire an understanding of why – why, within the context of the current global situation – does a cartoon produce such a violent reaction?
Thousands of people have taken to the streets because they feel terribly wronged – not just because someone printed a cartoon. The cartoon is merely the symbolic excuse to express anger over the historic wrongs perpetrated by outside cultures, just as Rodney King was the symbolic excuse to launch the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
On February 6, it was announced that U.S. military budget will continue to increase, prompted by the “global terror threat.” Defense spending will rise by more than 7% – to $439.3 billion (not including a $70 billion supplemental spending request for Iraq and Afghanistan). Only $3 billion of this money will be used to promote democracy.
For Iraqis and Afghanis trying to rebuild their countries, Lebanese struggling to remove the Syrian yoke, Saudis taking steps to implement reforms, and Egyptians battling for free and fair elections, $3 billion will not go very far. And neither will additional helicopter gun ships and “smart” bombs.
Fidel Castro once said, “A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past.” This struggle does not have to be literal. It can be a struggle for awareness. Awareness influences action, and only positive action will help others embrace human rights and democracy. Negative action – e.g., a good military drubbing – has never produced permanent and positive results in the Middle East. Why should we expect it to work this time?