The roots of Muslin fury

By Derek Boothby

The eruption of violence that has occurred in the Middle East and elsewhere following the trailer of the movie "Innocence of Muslims" released through YouTube is something that any US Administration - whether Democrat or Republican - needs like a hole in the head. Out of curiosity and to find out what the fuss was about, I watched the trailer a couple of days ago. It is truly offensive. If it had been produced as "Innocence of Christians" and had Jesus instead of Mohammed, there is no doubt in my mind that many churchgoing people in USA would have been outraged.

The release of such inflammatory material on to the already glowing embers of passion and discontent present in the Middle East is like throwing gasoline on to a fire: an explosion is inevitable. To those of us in the West, while condemning the content of the video there can be no justification for the murder of Ambassador Stevens and his three colleagues in Benghazi. But to some - by no means all - in the Islamic world, it was a grave insult to their prophet and way of life, and yet another sign of foreign interference.

The wide extent and depth of Muslim fury indicates that there are other factors at work beyond the video itself, and in that regard it is useful to read again Professor Bernard Lewis's book "What Went Wrong? - The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East."

The content of the book started as three public lectures given by Bernard Lewis in Vienna in 1999 and was later developed and extended to describe how, compared with its millennial rival, Christendom, the world of Islam had become poor, weak and ignorant. Clews drew the picture of an Islam that for many centuries was in the forefront of human civilization and achievement. A thousand years ago Islamic scholars and scientists made important contributions in the arts and sciences and medieval Europe lagged seriously behind in culture and civilization. As Lewis said, by the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, "The remoter lands of Europe were seen in much the same light as the remoter lands of Africa - as an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief from which there was nothing to learn and little even to be imported, except slaves and raw materials."

But by the mid-15th century things were already beginning to change in Europe. The Plague of the 1350s that had killed off almost one third of the population had resulted in a massive social upheaval which was later followed by the Renaissance in art and culture.

Europe experienced advances in science and experiment, and then came the upheaval of the Reformation. The technological and social revolution of these two major developments passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam, "where they were still inclined to dismiss the denizens of the lands beyond the Western frontier as benighted barbarians."

The 18th and 19th centuries saw an ever-expanding Europe of exploration, trade and colonization overseas, whereas to a great extent Islam remained undeveloped and locked in a military and political tussle between the Ottoman Empire and Persia. In the 1800s the Ottoman Empire steadily atrophied, and as far as Europeans were concerned there was little of value to be found in the Middle East; instead their interests went further afield to Africa, India, the East Indies, and China. Afloat, sail changed to steam, and coal-fired propulsion turned to oil - and then at the turn of the 20th century oil in large quantities was found in the Middle East and Europe became intensely interested in its development. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, at the end of World War I, Britain and France carved up the Middle East, creating new and sometimes artificial countries such as Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

Foreign political and commercial interests brought outside influences and interference in the world of Islam that laid the seeds of resentment and offended pride.

The Balfour Declaration of 1917, by which Britain gave support for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people proved to be another foreign thorn. After all, to Arabs, who were the British to be giving away the living rights of a part of the Middle East? As the 20th century unfolded, British and French influence was replaced by American power, bringing with it political support for autocratic leaders and governments willing to support American interests and American diplomatic and military presence in the region. Foreign forces were given basing facilities in the land of Mecca and Medina. Frustration and resentment grew.

Fast forward to 1998 and the proclamation by Osama bin Laden of jihad and his call "to kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military ." Although this was the extremist view of only a small number of militants, in essence the basic message fell on the fertile soil of resentment and discontent. Then came two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet greater foreign presence in the region.

Aside from these external factors, there are internal aspects that underline the extent to which much of the Arab world has been left behind by modernity. According to the UN Development Programme's publication "Arab Human Development Report 2003," although Arabs constituted 5 percent of world population, the number of books published in the Arab world did not exceed 1.1 percent of world production and religious books accounted for 17 percent of that total. Translation of foreign works was similarly limited in that on average only 4.4 translated books per million people were published in the first five years of the 1980s (less than one book per million people per year), while the corresponding rate for Hungary was 519 books per one million people and in Spain 920 books.

More recently, the surge of the internet in the past decade and the increased opportunities for social communication have coincided with a high birth rate, high unemployment rates, and large numbers of young people - particularly males - who feel that life has little to offer them. Thus there is a volatile mix of discontent, frustration, resentment and latent anger that can only too easily be aroused and stirred up by militant voices.

Again to Lewis: "More important than any of these specific issues is the widespread feeling that all these conflicts are manifestations of one overarching problem - the Western dominance over the whole Islamic world, which has been growing for centuries and which reached its peak in the twentieth century."

There is, of course, much more than can be described in a short summary. For example, we should recognize that Islam is not just a religion - it is a way of life prescribed by the Quran and by centuries of custom, some of it quite stifling and resistant to modernity as we see it in the West. None of this excuses the level of violence in evidence in the past two weeks, but it is well that we should try to understand some of the reasons why the release of a video produced by a bigot in California should trigger such a dramatic and at first sight mindless reaction.

Derek Boothby lives in Manchester. He is a former UN arms control specialist.


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