The Recent Protests In The Muslim World Are Really About Cultural Differences

benghazi libyaA protester reacts as the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the United States September 11, 2012.

Photo: Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters

The New York Times ran an article this morning that echoes the title of Samuel Huntington’s seminal book, The Clash of Civilizations. “Cultural Clash Fuels Muslims Raging at Film“. The article is really worth reading in full. Some interesting excerpts:When the protests against an American-made online video mocking the Prophet Muhammad exploded in about 20 countries, the source of the rage was more than just religious sensitivity, political demagogy or resentment of Washington, protesters and their sympathizers here said. It was also a demand that many of them described with the word “freedom,” although in a context very different from the term’s use in the individualistic West: the right of a community, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, to be free from grave insult to its identity and values.


“We want these countries to understand that they need to take into consideration the people, and not just the governments,” said Ismail Mohamed, 42, a religious scholar who once was an imam in Germany. “We don’t think that depictions of the prophets are freedom of expression. We think it is an offence against our rights,” he said, adding, “The West has to understand the ideology of the people.”

The point here is one we made in this weekend’s essay. The Clash of Civilizations thesis is not that there is something inherent in, say, Christianity or Islam that ensures conflict will arise between the two cultures. However, there is definitely a fault line between many of the cultures historically rooted in Christianity and those historically rooted in Islam that makes conflict between them more likely. Just witness the seemingly irreconcilable conceptions of “freedom” and “rights” in the two passages above.

The core dynamic is that many (not all, but many) people in different civilisation areas interpret the same events differently. The YouTube film strikes most people in Christian cultures as a trivial piece of bad film making that is deplorable in every way but is perhaps unfortunately but inevitably protected by the right to free expression. They see the riots and protests around the Islamic world, however as a rabid expression of barbarian stupidity and hatred, confirming many (again, not all) in the belief that there is something inherently wrong and inferior about Islam and the cultures it creates.

In the world of Islam, the film is often seen as a direct and intentional act of blasphemy and evil, part of a larger, concerted effort to humiliate, weaken and destroy Islam. The defence of the ‘right to free expression’ comes across as hypocritical and self serving. The wave of revulsion in the west against what are seen as crazed violent bigots is neither fully understood nor respected.

At the highest level of sophistication and education, there are people in both civilizations who can see past the immediate emotional responses on both sides. In less democratic and populist eras, these leaders could control the news flow and control public reaction to events that might otherwise set off dangerous contentions. But that power is diminishing every day, while the rise of global communications networks and social media transmits less censored and filtered information more rapidly than ever before.

You do not have to be an Islamophobe or an anti-American Muslim extremist to perceive the differences between the way the two cultures respond to political and cultural developments around the world. And you do not have to be a historical determinist to see how these predispositions — on both sides of the divide, not on one only — contribute to the possibility not only of misunderstandings, but of actual conflict.

The world is a dangerous place, and it is not getting safer. That the New York Times, which in the past has, like a lot of careful news outlets on both sides of the divide, downplayed the theme of a clash of civilizations out of the fear that dwelling on this possibility might help bring it about, now finds it useful to put the concept in a headline is one sign among many that the unthinkable is morphing into the unavoidable.

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