Essentialism Goes Both Ways: More on Islam and the West

I received an interesting comment on my last post about the recent protests in the Islamic world. Instead of commenting there, I wanted to expand my response into a brief follow-up post because the comment brings up some points that are essential to understanding my argument.

It’s true that we shouldn’t support people who are using this film as a pretext to inflame sentiments against Muslims, or the US. But in your post, why haven’t you considered the reasons WHY so many ordinary people could be easily mobilized by such messages? (I’m going to leave out the US side of things, because deploring extremists on both sides without considering the massive imbalance of power is a little silly). We shouldn’t ignore the sordid history of US intervention, war, and destructive policies in the region which very clearly contribute to resentment against the US.

This is not an anti-US policy screed, but rather the reasonable idea that we should take seriously the reasons large masses of people feel massive anger and resentment toward the US, and not write them off as the misguided masses exploited by political opportunists. As far as I can tell, this post was about how Bad Extremists Are and how we’re all the same – ok fine, but don’t you think you could consider the context a little bit more? Otherwise those are just empty platitudes.

The commenter’s point, as I understand it, is that my post was slightly vacuous in the sense that it “merely” deplored the existence of extremists, be they Islamic or Western. This is a fair criticism. What I wish to highlight in response also answers the commenter’s initial question. Political entrepreneurs on both sides of the world take advantage of publics by promoting false, often unnecessarily provocative narratives for the sake of political support. My argument in last week’s post emphasized this point.

On the other hand, one could argue that circumstances make publics in the Islamic world more susceptible to feel resentment toward the West and, by extension, more susceptible to be taken advantage of by political entrepreneurs. Moreover, one could argue that this resentment is legitimate and can be traced directly to actions of the United States over the past half-century or so. This would be the equivalent to the commenter’s recommendation not to “write off” the reasons behind these protest. However, arguments about legitimacy and blame miss the point.

Actions cannot be justified by motives that trace guilt to a generalization. This was the error of the attacks of September 11th, this was the error of the invasion of Iraq. My argument is that the type of thinking that leads to violent action occurs in both worlds and needs to stop. To address this, we need to realize that the problem is fundamentally the same for both sets of people. Contextualizing Islamic violence, while understandable and fair normatively, does little to further the cause of peaceful resolution.

It is, of course, wholly unfair to blame the entire Islamic world for isolated events in the Western world. This is essentialism at its worst. But essentialism goes both ways. It is similarly unfair to blame all Westerners for fostering the conditions that have made so many Muslims angry at “the West.”

When the Ayatollah Khomeini first issued a fatwa against Salman Rashdie, Suzannah Lessard wrote in the New Yorker about the effect of the threat on the Western socio-cultural zeitgeist:

The terror we feel when we put ourselves in Salman Rushdie’s shoes is a new kind. As far as we know, never before has an international lynch mob of millions called for the blood of someone like him—someone who is not a leader or an official, someone who until now was probably unknown to most of the people calling for his death and of whom they still know little…

20 years later, this is no longer a “new” kind of terror. It’s a familiar one. Terror, anger, resentment, protest, and violence for reasons false or unknown to the actors involved. Even worse, we in the West now have extremists hoping to incite violence of our own. Instead of responding to extremism as Salman Rushdie did–with a puzzled distance–we have seen many Western leaders respond with opportunistic rhetoric that has only made matters worse.

If we wish to move past this “clash of civilizations”-type of thinking, we need to recognize the danger of political entrepreneurs who continue to antagonize for political benefit. Surrounding conditions will change but political entrepreneurs will remain, ready to take advantage of those who may be susceptible. The only remedy is to stop the type of sweeping generalizations that led to the “Innocence of Muslims” video and the protests that followed.

For more on this clash of civilizations, follow William on Twitter.