September 13, 2012

An Ambassodor Murdered: Understanding the Muslim Mind

America woke up to the tragic and shocking news that one of our ambassadors, Christopher Stevens, and 4 other Americans, had been killed in mob violence in Libya.  Mob violence supposedly triggered by outrage over a video made in America which portrayed the prophet Muhammad in a disrespectful, insulting manner in the eyes of Muslims.

As Americans, we are completely appalled at this type of response to an admittedly offensive video (if you are a practicing Muslim).  Christians endure no small amount of ridicule and demeaning speech aimed at denigrating or diminishing the Christian faith, right here at home.  However, no one in America would consider this kind of murderous response to be justified in any way.   Ambassador Stevens was killed and his body carried through the streets.  We are all confused, outraged and simply at a loss to understand how Muslims could behave this way in response to a video, offensive to their religion as it might have been.
Muslim rioters carry Stevens dead body through streets

 But understanding this reaction is I think actually really important.  So what's going on here? Responses to the incident from people in Libya are interesting.  Many people, when asked by NPR news reporters what they thought of what happened, asked first "why didn't the US government not suppress this video?" and then indicated that they did not condone this response.  Why didn't the US government suppress this they ask? That's instructive. Remember, this population in Libya has only recently been released from life under a dictator who routinely suppressed speech for decades.  They don't have a civil tradition of free speech as we have known and practiced it for 400 years.  As a citizenry, they lack the coping skills to tolerate  free speech which is offensive, coping skills which we as American take entirely for granted.  The civil societies in places like Libya and Egypt don't know how to do it.  And their response pretty much tells you that they think the US government does or should suppress speech, at least this kind of speech which offends them.

There is another element at play here as well in terms of the generally uneducated, illiterate and poor characteristics of those involved in the attack.  No tv, no internet. The video which is supposed to have incited this violence was probably not seen by the majority of people in the attack.  In Egypt, where riots ostensibly spurred by the video are underway also, protesters who were asked if they had seen the video said no they had not, they had merely been told about it. It's all been word of mouth which was accelerated when Arab extremist media across the middle east began giving this video airplay, a video that most Americans didn't even know existed.

We think to ourselves "how can they hold the US government responsible for a video made by some bigot?", but they do hold our government responsible because their dominant experience of government for decades has been one speech suppressing dictatorship after another.  That's what they think governments do.  And so for these Arab Spring countries, transitioning to real, functional democracies which respect and protect free speech, especially speech they don't like will take a substantial amount of time while they learn to deal with it.

 A population of people poorly educated and with little access to alternative info sources is fertile ground for manipulation by extremists.  If you're an extremist, its not hard at all to aim angry people at the US. Don't forget that we supported for decades some of the dictators that Muslims have only recently overthrown in places like the Middle east, in the name of stability.    The evidence appears to be mounting that the consulate attack in Libya was coordinated and planned, with the stirred up protests used as tactical cover. In Egypt and other middle east states, embassy attacks occurring appear to have a definite aspect of coordination and planning too. Protests On 9/11, all in response to a video that most people, inside and outside of the Arab world, knew nothing about until recently?  Doesn't pass the smell test.

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