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Taking the bait

September 17, 2012


The death of the US ambassador to Libya is a troubling and tragic reminder that the pursuit of reform within Muslim countries will not only be challenging, but can easily be derailed by insignificant individuals. Some are already reminding us that the intervention by Nato was a failure. Others are speculating that the project to bring reform to Muslim societies is doomed. Whatever the merits of these claims, there is one argument that cannot be overlooked. While reforming state institutions and the economy is important, such reform must go hand in hand with endogenous social efforts to challenge the sticky, myopic attitudes held by some segments of society as to what merits significant protest.

That is, there must be some questioning of the assumptions held by some people that a) violence is a legitimate form of protest when religious symbols (and that too, only ones own religious symbols) are insulted and b) insults focused on religious symbols are a greater “injustice” in the hierarchy of wrongs than actual physical brutality carried out against fellow man or even fellow co-religionists.

Thus, those serious about promoting democratic reform and tolerance within Muslim countries would do well then to focus their reform efforts on persuading norm producers – religious scholars, elders and community leaders who set much of the agenda for segments of Muslim society – that these assumptions are not watertight and deserve some rethinking.

Let us ask: what precisely was it that resulted in charged mobs in Libya, Egypt and other Muslim states engaging in violence?

Not the grievous injustices of this decade that have often been carried out with state complicity and complacency such as the systematic killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the daily persecution carried out by the Indian army against Kashmiris, the Sudanese sponsored Janjaweed brutality against the people of Darfur or the continued detention of individuals at Guantanamo.

On the other hand, what tends to almost always be worth co-operating over violently, time and again, is when some not-until-then-famous person makes a distasteful video or engages in some action offensive to religious sentiment, publicises it and makes sure at least parts of it are broadcast to a few hundred Muslims in some far off land – far enough so that he is safe from retaliation.

To be sure, Muslims are fully within their rights to protest peacefully when hurt or offense is caused by material that is intended for that purpose – such as the sloppy, inaccurate and insulting video that has set off the current cascade of violence. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated, “The film is malicious and deliberately provocative and portrays a disgracefully distorted image of Muslims …  I fully understand why people wish to protest strongly against it, and it is their right to do so peacefully.”

But surely there is great need for introspection when there is willingness to engage in or at least be sympathetic of unrestrained violence against persons and property when some insignificant person, somewhere, writes provocative and slanderous things about Islam but we don’t see such magnitudes of protest when much greater injustices against Muslims and others are being perpetrated on a daily basis globally or when incitements to violence are made against vulnerable religious minorities at home, such as against Ahmadis in Pakistan or the Bahais in Iran and Egypt.

If we seriously want to demonstrate that Islam is a religion of peace with historically egalitarian roots, is it not sensible and more important to focus our passions towards reacting against these major injustices carried out against humanity (as the Prophet’s example demonstrates) instead of being provoked into engaging in self-righteous and violent displays of religious fervor because offense has been caused to our sense of religious worth?

To put it simply, the Libyan or Egyptian government can double security outside diplomatic presences. They can offer sincere apologies and assurances that it will not happen again. They can pass numerous laws prohibiting violence against diplomatic personnel. But, unless serious efforts are undertaken to arrest these disturbing social norms that legitimate such vigilantism, displays of violence may sadly continue to occur.


Dawood Ahmed has previously practiced as a solicitor in England and is currently pursuing a doctorate in international law at UChicago.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.