Thoughts on the Embassy Attacks
As many of you know, I am a big advocate of peace and religious tolerance in the world. Ever since the 10th grade when I watched the news of 9/11 in French class at my high school, I have made it a significant part of my life’s journey to identify the factors that contribute to religious violence and hatred, and try to promote the positive aspects of religion. Instead of holding some naive view of Islam informed only by Wikipedia and hate-chain-emails I get from others, I decided to attach an Islamic Studies minor to my undergraduate degree. I wanted to know why someone would love Islam, not from an outsider’s point of view, but, to the best of my ability, from a Muslim’s point of view.
On this blog, on my Facebook page, in my conversations with others, and in my personal life I try to defend Islam against what I see are unwarranted attacks and bigotry. I sometimes worry that perhaps I give off the impression that I hold a naive overestimation of the peaceful aspects of Islam, but I do this because I think it provides a modicum of balance in the discourse.
So when something like this happens, perhaps my readership or even my friends might get the idea that I don’t have the same indignant, angry response at this kind of violence that they do. That for some reason, my theologically liberal tendencies prevent me from the same tribalistic anger that occurs within most other people when their countrymen are murdered by angry mobs over something as miniscule as a dumb YouTube video created by a guy that basically nobody in the United States knows about.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course I get mad.
And of course, at first, that anger is directed right at Islam. If I could have a conversation with Islam as an anthropomorphic entity this morning, I might have said something like this: ”Islam, I try so hard to defend you. I try to tell people that the majority of Muslims are peaceful, and don’t support violence. I try to give you the same charity that I give all religious groups in America. I have spent so long sticking up for you, and then you go and keep doing things like this. Someone creates a ridiculous – and blasphemous, but ridiculous – YouTube video, and you use that as an excuse to whip up an angry mob and commit murder against an honorable government employee who took a dangerous assignment because he believes in what he was doing. He didn’t make the video, and he certainly wasn’t even aware of it. Yet now he’s dead, because you can’t even take a little criticism against your religion. Don’t you know how this looks from the outside? Don’t you know this is really, really bad for everyone in the long run?”
I am going to guess that I’m not the only one out there with that reaction.
In fact, I constantly have to analyze violent acts all over the world and through history. This is just violence against Americans, but religious violence of some sort happens every day in some part of the world, and some of this involves Muslims (and sometimes Sikhs, atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, Protestants, Christians, Mormons, etc.). But let me tell you a little something about studying psychology. The great thing about psychology is that studying it causes one to gain insights into the way people think. It means that you’re constantly on guard, making sure your thoughts and emotions bear some kind of affinity to rationality, and you are very much aware of all the systematic ways that human brains malfunction. When I see headlines like the one above, and they make me angry, I have to stop, step back from my own thoughts, and really think about the causes of my anger, and even the causes of the violence in the Middle East. Libyans and Egyptians are not a different species from Americans. Their brains basically work the same way. They are human beings. They are not categorically evil, good, or neutral. They are just as varied and diverse and awesome and horrible as we are.
The violence that happened there is the result of many factors. Some of those factors are certainly religious, but is “Islam” really the culprit here, or is it an interaction between Islam, a history of dictatorship and class struggles, poverty, an incredible amount of civil unrest in Egypt and Libya, and a group of people who really feel like their way of life is being destroyed? If I was born in Libya into a lower class, would I have reacted the same way? Is my personal, angry reaction a result of stereotyping, prejudice, generalizing, not knowing the whole picture, and scapegoating?
Am I justified in being upset? Absolutely, I believe I am.
But am I justified in letting that anger control how I feel about all Muslims? Does this violence change what I know about Muhammad, Islam, Rumi, Al-Ghazali, the Qur’an, or the Sufis? Am I justified in letting that anger spill out onto my relationships with Muslims in my city? Am I justified in thinking that the solution is to carpet bomb the entire Middle East, or invade Libya or Egypt, or committing subtle acts of relational violence towards anyone wearing a hijab or even a Sikh around me? No. These are weak, small-minded, and short-sighted reactions that don’t really provide the best solutions over time. If what we want is peace, then we need to work at creating peace. Peace is not achieved through dehumanization, otherizing, and reactionary bloodshed. We should take the high road, not to prove that we’re better than anyone else, but because we truly believe the high road is the best way to get what we want in the end – a harmonious world where people can disagree without hurting each other.
I’m not suggesting or advocating any particular response to the violence that has occurred overseas. I’m not advocating any political party, nor am I advocating a candidate for president. What I’m advocating is a sincere and informed analysis of our own reactionary feelings to outrageous, violent, horrible acts against Americans.
I know this is incredibly hard, because I have to do it on a regular basis.