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The Context of Violence
Political Issues
Adnan Zulfiqar

Adnan Zulfiqar is Adjunct Professor of Islam at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA. He is also currently pursuing a JD/PhD. (Islamic Studies) at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.


In 1857, Indian soldiers – predominately Muslim – mutinied against the British over having to use cartridges greased with pig fat. After their complaints were repeatedly ignored, 150,000 soldiers revolted across India. Only a year of massacres allowed the British to regain control. Though not perfectly congruent, the 1857 “Sepoy Mutiny” is instructive for understanding the latest episode surrounding the publication of Muhammad’s cartoons in Europe. As in 1857, Europe has failed to comprehend the rage accompanying cartoons they considered trivial. European newspapers treated the Indian soldier’s anger with the same disdain and dismissal with which they now approach the Muslim world, demonstrating behavior more suited to colonial rule than to a global village. In addition, actions seldom take place in historical vacuums. As Richard Wright notes in Native Son, violence occurs due to “emotions conditioned” on many indignities.

Europe’s immediate reaction was to “shift the blame.” Instead of empathy for Muslim outrage over insulting and provoking cartoons, Europeans complained that they were being victimized. Within days, others rushed to Denmark’s side claiming the superiority of their values and, in the process, dehumanizing those who protested as “irrational” and “uncivilized” actors. Muslims marveled at how Europeans and Americans had the audacity to claim the moral high ground despite 200 years of colonialism and the current horrors of Guantanemo Bay and Abu Gharaib. The alacrity with which the West abandoned its much-vaunted ideals of liberalism and multiculturalism showed how comfortable the old values of colonial hegemony and racism when repackaged as “defending freedom”. Subsequent revelations that the Danish paper had exercised self-censorship with other groups but not with Muslims further stoked these fires.

Not just blame-shifting but fear-mongering dominates this discourse. Random fatwas from unknown and insignificant religious scholars in the Muslim world are touted as top stories to scare us. As Americans, fear-mongering is a familiar part of our history, perpetuated through images of violent black masses on the verge of overrunning white society. These irrational fears now permeate the pages of European newspapers which lament over their cities filling up with migrants from Muslim lands they once exploited. Sadly, Europeans still do not accept that their former subjects are now their neighbors.

In fact, the West has gone so far as to assume the role of master, instructing its former subjects on the “appropriate” way to respond, even suggesting other cartoons more deserving of protest. This response is similar to a white person labeling the riots in Watts as illegitimate while ignoring the racial wounds that ignited them. Instead of focusing on the injury caused, we Westerners have turned our attention to waxing poetic on “non-violence” even as our troops occupy Iraq. Although the Islamic ideal prohibits random violence, context helps explain why real people respond in violent ways. As Frantz Fanon explains: “violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” 

Our intellectual traditions and institutions pride themselves on studying context; the U.S. Supreme Court itself, in Virginia v. Black, encouraged judges to examine “circumstances and historical content of symbols.” Our jurisprudence on hate speech indicates how American society is working to shed a racist past and construct a multi-cultural present. Few can argue that we are better for it. Yet, attempts to understand the Muslim context have been glaringly absent from analysis of this issue. Yes, there has been political manipulation by governments and some clerics, but the real question is: what is the context in which people are being manipulated? 

In fact, the most imminent dangers to global harmony arise not just from the violence we see on the Muslim street but from the assumed moral superiority of the West that makes us blind to the perspective of other peoples. This is particularly true in the realm of the religiously sacred which is far more central to the identity of Muslims than we realize. Add to this, the oppressive socio-economic and political conditions they are subjected to and it is hardly surprising that Muslims feel a growing need to “save” the final refuge of their dignity and pride: their faith.

Europe also has to wake up to the fact that their Muslim minorities are an integral part of a much larger whole, bound together by shared religious threads and a common history of actual and perceived injuries and insults. In a rapidly globalizing world where information travels at the speed of the internet, the impact of these shared threads and experiences will become increasingly potent. Recognizing this reality is central to moving all of us forward from confrontation to dialogue. 



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