Last week when protests in Libya broke out in response to a film that insulted the Prophet Muhammad, I was asked by a local news media source if I, as a Muslim student, would like to comment on the events. I refused, struggling to find anything of special significance I could say.
I thought that the film was offensive but that it was still within the producers’ First Amendment rights to create it. There was absolutely no justification for the violent response that resulted, and those who committed violence are solely responsible for those actions. These are opinions that most people I know hold, regardless of their religious or ethnic identity. When I saw the most recent cover of Newsweek—which features bearded men, apparently very angry at something, with the title “Muslim Rage”— I finally understood why the reporter was looking for a Muslim student to interview: As a Muslim I could provide insight to this particular emotion that plagues 1.6 billion people worldwide.
Users on Twitter exploded with their own expressions of #MuslimRage at the invitation of Newsweek. Examples include: “Lost nephew at the airport but can’t yell for him because his name is Jihad” or “I’m having such a good hair day. No one even knows.”
Twitter snark aside, there’s actually a serious issue here apart from the all-too-easy task of exposing the shoddy journalism of weekly magazines. It’s not just Newsweek or local media stations that reduce the actions of populations all around the world to their faith. It’s natural to want to comprehend how a privately made and cheaply produced YouTube clip could elicit such a violent response toward an American embassy on another continent. Religion, although not entirely irrelevant, won’t actually tell us much.
To make sense of the tragic events that resulted in the death of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, we first need to appreciate Libyans and the rest of the Muslim world for their full humanity. Even by using the term “Muslim world,” we’ve already reduced the existence of almost two billion people to a primarily religious one. Societies, and the individuals that comprise them, are way too complex to understand by looking at only a single aspect. We could try to view the protests as a result of religious fanaticism and a misunderstanding of freedom of speech, or we could also try to view protestors as political agents reacting to legitimate grievances.
These grievances include the United States’ support of brutal and corrupt regimes for as long as it is convenient (as recently as 2009, Hillary Clinton considered the Mubaraks to be family friends), drone strikes that target “militants” defined by the Obama administration as “all military-age males in a strike zone” and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have led to millions of civilian deaths. The film only served as a reminder—at least to some—of the United States’ violence and hostility.
I am not saying this to justify the violence in reaction to the film. The fact that I even feel the need to clarify this point illustrates how pernicious this totalizing view of Muslims is. Somehow because of my faith, there’s a suspicion that I must support violence and terrorism all around the world. This doesn’t just arise from my own paranoia. Last month, a mosque in Missouri was burned to the ground. Six congregants at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin were killed as a man opened fire during their service. The attacker, an army veteran who had associations with white supremacist groups, couldn’t even differentiate between two major world religions. This spring, it was revealed that the NYPD was spying on Muslim student associations at universities across the Northeast.
These aren’t isolated events. According to the FBI, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes rose 50 percent in 2010. Anti-Muslim sentiment is encouraged by a small but influential group of ideologues that have made a business of spreading hateful and ignorant messages to the American public. This attitude toward Muslims in America is just the newest addition to the long history of oppression of minorities in our country, from the genocide of American Indians in the founding of this nation, to slavery and Jim Crow, Japanese internment during World War II and a justice system heavily weighed against people of color.
All of this isn’t to say that all of the world’s problems can be placed on the shoulders of the United States. For sure, corruption, oppression and ignorant ideologues also exist in places like Egypt. What we haven’t heard much of recently, however, is how the Egyptian people continue to fight for their rights within their own country. For example, university workers and teachers all across Egypt have recently gone on strike demanding fairer wages and contracts. Having said that, our country’s role in perpetuating violence and injustice at home and abroad cannot be ignored. Our energy is best spent with a critical eye on the government that we supposedly have a say in.
How’s this for #MuslimRage: White supremacism and imperialism have caused more violence than I ever could, but I’m the suspicious one.
Ahmad Jitan is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Thursday. You can follow Ahmad on Twitter @AhmadJitan.