Young American men have sanctioned outlets for rage and rebellion their counterparts in conservative Islam do not.
Many commentators in the West, on both the right and the left, have put a lot of effort into explaining the Muslim world’s violent reactions to perceived slights against Islam. Some of the pundits argue that turbulent passions stem from history, and the meddling of Western powers in the Middle East and Central Asia. Others believe Islam is a religion in need of reform, and that calling for the death of blasphemers and non-believers who disparage the faith is a bit extreme.
It would be a mistake to assume that Muslim men (the majority of the protesters are men), hailing from countries as diverse as liberal Jordan and Turkey, increasingly conservative Pakistan, and ultraconservative bastions of Islamic thought like Saudi Arabia (home to the Sunni Salafis) and Yemen, are angry for the same reason. The impetus behind the protests and riots might come from the same source (denouncing the West for various reasons), but the anger being expressed has roots as diverse as the Islamic world itself.
Each man, in his own heart, reacts to conflict in his own way. The motivations behind violence are often multilayered, and it would be difficult to categorize them all here. Even so, I believe a very primal reason exists for much of the Muslim rage on display of late, apart from the ubiquitous (and justifiable) complaints about the hypersensitivity of Islam to criticism.
Undoubtedly there are clerics, jihadist, and mullahs making use of the controversy surrounding the film The Innocence of Muslims, or the provocative cartoons published in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, to advance their goals, but for many young Muslim men, it seems the call to action is simply a socially condoned excuse to work through the rage and rebellion so common to youth.
Yes, there are true believers in the mix, some full of outrage, others with murder and revolution on their minds. Despite this fact, I’d wager that many of the rioters are men merely dealing with raw emotions they might not fully understand, and the hard and overwhelming circumstances of their lives. In many of the poorest and most conservative of Muslim cultures, tearing up an embassy or burning down a shop are some of the only options available for men trying to express their utter lack of hope that social change can ever be effected.
In the West, young men have access to violent sports (football, rugby), alcohol, drugs, fairly open societies when it comes to sexuality, school counselors, support groups, psychologists, and the chance to explore different ideologies and ways of life without risking their lives. Even the Amish, who practice a very conservative form of Christianity, give their children the opportunity to experience a decidedly ‘non-Amish’ kind of life during the Rumspringa, or ‘running around,’ before choosing the Amish way. You can learn more about this unique rite of passage in the documentary film Devil’s Playground.
In quite a few Muslim societies, although not all, many of these formative experiences are denied. When combined with poverty and rigid social hierarchies that make it difficult to change one’s station in life, is it any wonder that some young men take to violence when offered the chance?
Even in the West, despite the social release valves available for disillusioned men and women under increasingly larger amounts of stress, young people still rebel. We have anarchists, Goths, hooligans, punks, vandals and more, not to mention street gangs and children doped up on antianxiety medication and antidepressants. Angry Egyptians and Pakistanis didn’t tear Seattle apart in 1999 during the WTO Ministerial Conference. Angry Americans did that.
If you’ve ever danced your heart out in a club or at a music festival, or experienced a mosh pit during a rock concert, you know how good it feels to thrash about and let go of the energy and frustration pent up inside of you. For many young Muslim men, going berserk on the street when given cause is the closest they’ll ever come to the abandon and release of the mosh pit.
Having participated in and witnessed a few protests myself, I understand the kind of volatile energy that can sweep through a crowd. I also understand that there is often more being expressed than the reasons stated. It’s tragic when lives are lost, and goodwill and property are destroyed, but human beings aren’t always logical when it comes to articulating their frustrations and desires. Sometimes people just need to go wild, regardless of the consequences.
Perhaps there will come a day when this anger can be channeled in more constructive ways, in every society, but I suspect it will always be a part of the human experience.
Image credit: Ted Van Pelt/Flickr