Yonatan Zunger explains how two traditions, each with deep historical importance, clash when the honor of religion in the Middle East meets the freedom of expression in the West.
On September 11th, protesters marched in the streets of Egypt, demanding that the makers of a YouTube video insulting Islam be put to death. These protests have since spread across the Middle East and even as far as Australia, and in many places turned bloody, leaving dozens dead and hundreds wounded. The people of the Arab world have been quick to condemn the violence; but even as they did so, they quite matter-of-factly repeated the calls for the authors of the film to be brought to swift justice and death, much as Americans would call for a killer’s conviction abroad. And these demands didn’t just come from the man in the street; they came from intelligent, educated people, even heads of state.
To Western ears, such a statement seems unfathomable. And to understand where it comes from, we have to understand the two basic cultural values which are at play: respect for religion, and freedom of expression. (And also to understand that these sentiments are by no means universal in the Islamic world; these riots were tied to a whole host of political and economic issues. But I want to talk about where these sentiments come from where they do exist.)
Respect for religion—for Islam in particular, but for religious beliefs in general—is one of the most important cultural values in Islamic society, and especially in the Arab world. This norm is so deeply rooted that even during wars, armies take great pains to avoid firing on houses of worship; terrorists can hide from governments by taking sanctuary in churches; and groups who violate this rule, as al-Qaeda in Iraq did when it started bombing Shi’ite mosques, quickly find themselves without any friends. (Al-Qaeda found itself having to recruit abroad; Iraqis stopped joining.) To involve a house of worship in a battle is an escalation in the same way that blowing up a school would be in the West.
Historically, a major reason that Islamic governments have taken such a hard line against insults to religion is because of the difficulties in getting tribes to stop killing each other. In fractured and militant societies like the ones where Islam was first a religion and government—think of the Middle East, think of present-day Afghanistan—honor is tremendously important, because if people know the consequences for trampling on your honor, they won’t dream of going further and actually trying to (say) murder and pillage your town. Honor was, and still is, often enforced with blood feuds which could last decades. For a government to convince tribes to lay down their arms and resolve disputes through laws instead of bloodshed, it has to convince them that if they do that, their honor will still be protected. By clearly and forcefully punishing “general insults,” things which impugn a lot of people’s honor, the government can signal that it takes protecting individual groups’ honor seriously. That, in turn, lets people have faith that neither they nor their neighbors need to stockpile arms and form militias, and so it’s become a basic civic duty of the government, like prosecuting murders.
Meanwhile, the notion of freedom of expression, especially around religious matters, is a very powerful European one. The religious wars of the 16th through 18th centuries ravaged the continent. The decision to let everyone hate everyone else’s religion, and simply not make a big deal out of it, was a response to a pressing need to end centuries of sectarian conflict. This became especially significant in the US, of course, since a lot of its first immigrants came specifically to escape this bloodshed. From there, freedom of expression took on great political and cultural significance, and today is one of our most sacred communal values.
Nothing like this happened in the Islamic world; sectarian violence never reached the scales it did in post-Reformation Europe. As a result, “freedom of expression” isn’t part of the cultural lexicon in the same way that it is in the West. That’s not to say that the idea doesn’t have resonance there—in fact, I believe that the more people are exposed to it, the more they are likely to want it for themselves. But for now, to the majority of the populations in the places where these riots have taken place it’s a largely foreign value, something with little influence over their lives.
Neither of these ideas is usually discussed so historically – Muslims don’t talk about how respect for religion ended tribal conflict any more often than Americans talk about the influence of the Thirty Years’ War on the First Amendment. Instead, both cultural values are deeply rooted within the cultures’ respective identities, basic things that you do in order to be a decent human being. So when these protests seem incomprehensible and barbaric, what’s really going on is two very different sets of values talking past one another. Westerners are confused as to why people in the Islamic world are upset at all, and shocked at the suggestion that the film authors should be put to death, while in the Islamic world, people are equally shocked at the suggestion that the authors get away with a major crime against the commonweal, and are confused as to why Western governments are refusing to perform this basic function. It is, quite simply, as bizarre to these eyes as it would be to Americans if a foreign government were to refuse to prosecute terrorists.
So when you see these protests go by, or whatever similar protests happen in the future, the thing to help you understand what’s happening is that, to these protesters, someone just committed a serious and shocking crime; they’re calling on the government for justice in the same way that they would over a murder. The great clash of norms here is that what one side sees, for very solid historical reasons, as a vicious crime is the same thing that the other side sees—for very solid historical reasons—as a core civil right.
For more information, the author recommends this article on Boston.com about protests over depictions of Muhammad.
AP Photo/Sebastiano Tomada