Are Muslims Nuts?

The last time I visited Pakistan was in 2007, soon after I’d started my Ph.D. My topic was Muhammad Iqbal, the philosopher and poet who gave intellectual heft to the Pakistan movement. Not surprisingly, my family was intrigued by my choice of topic. They were however less amused by my choice of residence: I lived at the edge of Columbia campus, near Harlem, an arrangement that elicited respectful horror.

“Isn’t New York so dangerous?” they asked. (A Pakistani was asking me if my city was dangerous?) In their minds, New Yorkers had only to exit their apartments and they would immediately be subjected to random muggings, extortionate kidnappings, spectacularly explosive car chases, or Allah knows what else. Probably their idea of the city had been formed by and remained stuck in Coming to America.

For many Americans, the Muslim world is likewise dangerous. It is a place mired in the thick sludge of the past, peopled by exotic and prickly foreigners who, at any slight however real or perceived, fly off into a mad rage. It is irrationality’s last refuge, a museum shop of medieval horrors that has somehow survived the rest of the planet’s transition to the 21st century.

Recent events might seem to only confirm this assessment. A fair-minded observer might plausibly ask, “Are Muslims nuts?” Although, to be entirely fair-minded, for the thousands who did protest against “The Innocence of Muslims,” well over a billion and a half did not. As Megan Reif’s study notes, our media has dramatically exaggerated the response (with Newsweek’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali piling on with her usual opportunistic silliness).

Still, there were protests, calls for censorship, condemnations of the U.S. government for something it had nothing to do with, and tragic acts of violence, including very early on the death of several American diplomats and staff. Why? We seem to have some trouble applying insights we consume in popular culture—say Malcolm Gladwell’s ideas, or through David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain—to the world outside the West.

Just a week ago, on a drive back from a dinner party, my brother was recalling some of his close college friends, who’d grown up in rural Pennsylvania. I was surprised to learn we almost grew up next door to them. Turns out that, after my father completed his residency, he’d had the choice to pursue his medical practice in Western Massachusetts or central Pennsylvania. I’d never wondered why my father had chosen the Bay State, or where he turned down in the process.

So much of my life was shaped by my childhood in New England. So much of who I am is a product of a decision (indeed, many decisions) I had no say in, let alone consciousness of. Yet how loudly we insist on our own sanity, rationality, and reasonableness, and how quick we are to dismiss others’ experiences. All kinds of influences shape how people across the planet understand themselves and others; these include parents, siblings, schools, government ideologies, sources of news, peers and colleagues, popular culture, religion, and of course personal experiences.

We make sense of the world through narratives: stories that explain who we are, why we’re in the condition we’re in, and what we should do with our lives. These narratives in turn are created by the facts of our lives, but the narratives shape how we understand subsequent experiences. Because there are facts we notice, and facts we ignore, facts we are aware of, and facts we don’t even know we don’t know—channeling Donald Rumsfeld here.

What I mean to say is this: Muslims are not crazier than other people; even the crazier Muslims are not crazier than crazies elsewhere. Nor is it that Muslims are unusually allergic to criticism; responses to “The Innocence of Muslims” and attacks on consulates and embassies must be understood within a much larger context. And this is never to excuse the killing of innocents or the flagrant violations of our sovereignty, but to understand why these things happen, in the interest of preventing such things from happening again.

If you pay attention to responses to criticisms by certain Westerners of Islam, you will immediately note that these responses are hopelessly imbricated in a set of assumptions about what the West is, and what it does to (and for) Muslims. This explains further why even when so few Muslims do resort to violent actions, a good number of their co-religionists are reluctant to entirely dismiss them. Indeed, many more Muslims protested peacefully against “The Innocence of Muslims” than did violently, even though their numbers together were still incredibly small.

In his introduction to Sufism for Non-Sufis?, University of Southern California Professor Sherman Jackson notes that we cannot separate Islam from who most Muslims are: Colonized persons, or their recent descendants. Hence their Islam, and much of Islam today, is the product of a cycle of violence and subjugation. Most Muslims are used to and even expect to be discriminated against; they are not used to being heard. Rather than consider Islam more violent than other religions, let us consider whether we are upset with the violence, or instead in whose name and for what reasons it is justified.

Do we have a problem with the violence itself, or with religious violence? We tend, in the West, to locate ourselves, and justify ourselves, through national identity; in the Muslim-majority world, religion often takes a more prominent role in the articulation of identity, as well as the articulation of responses to real or perceived slights to that identity. Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust’s The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War outlines how America transitioned, in many ways, from the latter to the former, in response to the horrors of the war.

What I mean to say is: We often don’t have problems with violence, as long as it is justified in terms we consider morally appropriate, which is usually a way of saying culturally appropriate. Troublingly, this prevents us from seeing potential for shared values. Instead, extremists presume conflict, and lead us to assume conflict, because they portray Muslims and the West as homogenous and oppositional identities.

Each side is pushed by opportunists and radicals to see the other as dangerous and threatening.

To Each His Other

From the perspective of the average American, to whom the Muslim world might be at best a hazy mystery, there is a free and democratic West, contrasted by a part of the world consumed by violence, dominated by patriarchy, and suffocated by harsh ideology. Most of its societies appear unstable, underdeveloped, poor, and seem to contribute little to the world. What have Muslims contributed? Why are they always so angry? Why do they wear so many clothes, wield so many weapons, and engage in such horrific and disgusting acts of violence—suicide bombing strikes one as unusually depraved and exceptionally brutal. What kind of a religion brings this about?

As such, for the average American, it is easy to selectively link disparate events into a broader narrative of who Muslims are and what Islam is—except, of course, people don’t do this on their own initiative. Since the September 11 attacks, a whole industry has emerged that pushes a certain idea of Islam, a nightmare narrative that reinforces deep anxieties some Americans may feel about their place in the world, and exploits those anxieties for political ends. Muslims are political footballs, understood to be like Latino immigrants, flooding dangerously into a hitherto peaceful United States, bringing alien customs, threats to political hegemony, and, in the case of terrorism (like the war on drugs) outright dangers to the safety and security of everyday life.

So extreme is this sense of alarm and danger that a significant number of Republicans now believe that the president is a secret Muslim, and sits in the Oval Office to enable the realization of Islamic law in the West. One must be seriously and actively disconnected from reality to presume that this could be the case, but there you have it. On a recent drive through northeastern Pennsylvania, I heard a talk radio host make exactly this argument, and he did not seem to be frothing at the mouth. He was serious. He believed this. So why would we assume that politics in Muslim-majority countries will not follow the same patterns? At the end of the day, all humans are human.

For a number of Muslims, it is easy to see how a narrative peddled by opportunistic or angry ideologues can seem compelling. Certain actions of Western societies—unfavorable to Muslims—are foregrounded, and other realities (say, America’s intervention on behalf of Bosnians) are backgrounded or denied altogether. It may also be that they are unknown. In this reading, the Muslim world has been repeatedly menaced, subjugated, or brutally pounded by a malevolent West, which warns, say, of Iranian nuclear menace, even though it was the West that invented nukes, and the democratic and secular United States that used them. On civilian targets. Twice.

But these ideas of the West did not emerge spontaneously, either. They are the product of years of ideology, philosophy, and political activism. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, some of the Muslim world’s leading thinkers tended to portray the West as a deeply schizophrenic or even duplicitous place. In their reading, Western civilization was internally sophisticated, democratic, and progressive; but it was simultaneously a brutal and expanding fortress, which pillaged the darker nations, controlled their resources, and demonized their cultures to justify its hegemony.

Thus the West is rarely, if ever, what it claims to be. Nor was this sentiment exclusive to Muslims; going to Sherman Jackson’s point, it was much more a product of colonialism and imperialism—when asked what he thought of Western civilization, Gandhi replied that he thought it would be a good idea. And this meme of the West as other than what it says it is becomes deeply frustrating to a Muslim world that often feels its grievances are not heard, both internationally—Muslim nations punch far below their weight—and even domestically, as local governments are rarely responsive, let alone relevant.

All of this means that when a solitary American pastor threatens to burn a Qur’an, he is no longer Terry Jones—his hatred of Islam is civilizationally enlightening: it reveals the true Western attitude to Islam, which is otherwise hidden behind positive, democratizing, and civilizing rhetoric. Thus, “The Innocence of Muslims” is not a movie. It represents a truth, symbolic of a broader spectrum of events and institutions, from drone strikes and Abu Ghraib to the Iraq War, which is taken to be evidence of a congenital Western intolerance of Islam.

Certain events are foregrounded, and others are backgrounded. We’ve heard recently a lot about how this film relates to a fatwa on Salman Rushdie; it isn’t an accident the fatwa was released by the dictatorial Khomeini after his revolutionary regime was attacked by a dictatorial Saddam, who we aided and abetted. Why were we okay with the latter as an ally, however instrumentally, and so opposed to the former? What moral difference was there—indeed, Saddam killed far more.

Why Do We Hate Them?

We should be careful not to allow the Ayaan Hirsi Alis of the world suggest their own crude and half-formed narratives, which are selective, and thus as dangerous as the narratives of Muslim radicals, who see the West as one thing and one thing alone. Never forget: Probably as many Middle Easterners wonder, ‘why do they hate us?’ as we have wondered of them. For all the times Americans ask, ‘why don’t Muslims do more to condemn terrorism?’ there are Arabs who wonder, ‘why don’t Americans apologize for ruining Iraq?’ We should not therefore mistake tensions for incompatibilities or inherent opposition.

I know a fair number of African Americans, Hispanics, and Muslims who once voted Republican. They no longer do—not because they disagree with the Republican Party, but because they feel it has no room for them. It seems opposed to their presence in America. A good number in the Muslim-majority world feel the same way about the place of Islam in the world: there is no room for it. It isn’t that these Muslims don’t want democracy, or good relations. It is rather that they feel these things are denied them, locally and globally. They associate contemporary events within a larger narrative that finds little difference between Islamophobia today and active hostility to Islam and Muslims a century ago.

This of course should not be taken to exhaust all the reasons Muslims protest. Of the few who do, there are many who cynically and dangerously exploit real feelings of hurt towards morally disgusting ends. Do we really think, after all, that if Hezbollah were so concerned with Muslim feelings, it would call for rallies against a film but continue to support the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown against fellow Muslims and Arabs? Hurt and mistrust exists among Westerners and those in the Muslim world, and these can be addressed, or used to further cement those feelings in a cycle of violence. Those who called for protests, like those who make mocking movies, know well what they do, and what the consequences could be.

In an age when the opinion of Muslims has begun to matter, and ideas can rocket around the planet within seconds, we must be very careful how we approach “the other.” For there are powerful grievances, and there are those who would turn to violence to achieve and maintain their power (or deprive others of their power). But these grievances can be challenged. Not through war and not through rhetoric, but through actual cultural exchange, a generosity of spirit, and patient exposure to difference. Muslim societies are tremendously variegated, endlessly diverse, and culturally rich; Western societies are profoundly more welcoming than some in the Muslim world portray them to be.

As often as individual Muslims reject extremism, they frequently lack a megaphone to amplify their voice. All the same, there are many who are doing this kind of work, but we ignore them in favor of the minority who seem so compellingly and addictively menacing. Why do these extremists get so much attention? They present dangers, but rarely existential ones. Anyway, there are Muslim societies eager to partner with the West, such as Libya and Tunisia in some respects, and others that are Western institutionally (Turkey in NATO) or simply altogether and undeniably Western (Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo). These should be the basis of future relationships.

We’re willing to pour billions of dollars into the machinery of conflict, but don’t want to sustain exchange programs, educational cooperation, or international visitors programs at nearly the same pace. We have the chance to; most Muslim countries, on the other hand, are too poor to do this. Such efforts will push open the door open for a new narrative to enter, one which doesn’t see the West and Islam as opposites, but as overlapping worlds. There’s nothing inherently impossible about this. When we admit to our own complexity, when we reject attempts to homogenize and essentialize the world, we’ll begin to see that there is a way for sanity to triumph over insanity.