The international groundswell of emotion over a recent demeaning anti-Muslim film has not escaped anyone with media access.
Scenes of fuming Muslim mobs sweeping the streets in cities around the globe seem omnipresent continuations of a too-similar and too-frequent event – the 2005 Danish cartoons, the 2011 Florida pastor’s Qur’an burning, this year’s Qur’an desecration by soldiers in Afghanistan, and now September’s “Innocence of Muslims” film.
Violence spawned by protests over this latest insult to Islam has led to the tragic and unnecessary death of more than 50 people, let alone property and relationship wreckage.
How could an amateur privately made film trigger a response, causing such loss of life, chaos, destruction and irrationality? The lion’s share of blame must be placed squarely within a pervasive “conspiracy theory culture” fuelled by decades of distrust and resentment.
Distrust and Grievances:
Non-Western Muslims carry a significant amount of distrust toward all international and national phenomena attributable to the West and often resort to conspiracy theories to deal with them.
In the Middle East, it is common to trace every problem or catastrophe to Zionist plotting and to question the genuineness of all international and regional actors. Statistics from Egypt suggest that 75% percent of people there believe that Arabs were not behind the 9/11 attacks.
This unfortunate reality is a product of a grim history in which Muslims have felt deceived, misled and incapacitated by governments everywhere.
Western colonization of large parts of the Muslim world and the abolishment of the Caliphate in 1924 created deep-seated cynicism towards the West, Europe in particular. Western endorsement of Israel’s creation in 1948 and its uncritical support of U.S. policies at the expense of Palestinians is the source of much antagonism and hostility to the present day. Add to this the Western-led wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, which have killed scores of thousands, and perpetual support given to the Muslim world’s worst dictators.
Muslims worldwide have more reason than ever to be cynical of their own governments which have sunk to unparalleled depths of authoritarianism, deception, embezzlement, torture and corruption. I recall a Lebanese man once telling me; “At the least the colonizers gave back. They built railroads, but our leaders did nothing.”
The gravest assault has been against the Muslim intellect. Local governments have eroded school systems, particularly religious institutions that were historic centres of education, thought, and dialogue. Instead, they advanced pseudo-pedagogical systems structured to suppress creative and critical thought. Through much of the 20th century, Muslims came to regard government institutions in general as alien mendacious entities. The result was a culture of victimization; people bereft of economic, political and intellectual capacity, overwhelmed by emotions of powerlessness and despair.
Understanding the reaction:
Now we must attempt to understand global reactions to the recent film in light of the historic Muslim context. Most protestors who filled streets in Cairo, Tunis, Sana, Khartoum, Baghdad and other cities have never seen the movie and likely never will. Many believe that it was created and distributed by the American government itself, specifically to insult Muslims and Islam. In their uninformed context, it’s all part of a broader conspiracy to undermine the Islamic world. When Western organizations respond by advancing their own agendas – as did the French magazine that callously ran new vulgar images of the Prophet Muhammad, or the mass re-publications of the Danish cartoons in 2005 – Muslims can only see such actions as confirmation of a deeply-rooted Western conspiracy.
What to do:
Jami Barlette, head of the Violence and Extremism Program at Demos said: “Conspiracy theories are highly corrosive, because they represent the most radical form of distrust.”
Addressing grievances and building trust are among the most difficult undertakings. There is much work needed in order to repair relationships between Muslim citizens and their own governments, and the Muslim public toward Western governments.
Education, openness, and dialogue must be the watchwords for the future of both relationships. Western governments themselves need to address the crux of the Islamic world’s grievances. In the light of our pervasive double standards and history of interference in the Islamic world, the best way to address such grievances is to avoid repeating them.