Once again our (wider, cultural) political response to violence in the Middle East is to ignore its source, overstate its implications, and to generalize our way towards hatred. This isn’t limited to a certain mindset or political party, either. Sneering atheists point to this violence as an inherent problem with all religion. Smarmy traditionalist Christians complain about the “religion of hatred” this entails. Even the uninvested assume simply that this is an Islamic attack following Muslim ideals. None of these approaches are concerned with the Truth.
Islam is no more inherently violent than any of the other thousands of religions and worldviews that have existed over the years. Properly practiced, all three Abrahamic religions entail a certain amount of xenophobia and cultural purity as a requisite of belief. This is a factor of cultural belief as a whole, which is necessarily ethnocentric (believes itself to be better than all others) as a component of maintaining its own existence. Without an ingrained belief in the correctitude of one’s own culture, culture becomes an incredibly fluid and unstable whim based phenomenon. Human beings do not do well with instability. When we wake up in the mornings, we generally prefer life to function similarly to how it functioned the day before.
What we’re seeing here in the Middle East, what has been the driving force between much anti-American sentiment in the region for the last 50-odd years, is a form of ethnocentrism that is dealing with a crisis in cultural change. What I mean by this is that the Middle East is dealing with the implications of globalization and addressing a U.S. cultural domination of the world. Middle Easterners feel their cultural identity being destroyed and replaced with a pervasive westernness. They feel much the same way that U.S. fundamentalist Christians feel about cultural changes in attitudes towards homosexuality, religion, abortion, the place of women, and so on. Just as fundies feel they’re losing the utopian ideal that the 1950s represented, Muslims in the Middle East feel they’re losing the way they lived, which is being replaced by obsessive consumerism and secularism. And they are, indisputably; just as fundies are inevitably losing the battle for their nostalgic concept of U.S. society.
“But Jake,” you say, “why do the ragheads keep bombing stuff and generally being so violent. Fundies don’t bomb stuff!” Good question, invisible person. In the U.S. we have a strong example of a violent movement to preserve a culture. It killed more Americans than any other conflict we’ve ever been involved in and has left an indeliable mark on both the structure of the country and on a vast swath of the country. We call it the Civil War, where wealthy southerners organized a secession in order to preserve their social and economic systems. The north invaded and asserted the right of the federal government (or essentially the republicans) to legislate the entire country. We have since labored under an extremely powerful federal government largely to the detriment of state and local governments. We legally enforce some level of cultural homogeneity, though for the 150 years since the South has done a magnificent job of maintaining de facto confederate values.
I believe earnestly that if it weren’t for the thorough demonstration of federal power (and the military paradigms that have since developed that mean that the military is perpetually better equipped to fight a war than any militia would be. In the face of military might, terrorism is an annoyance) we would absolutely have another civil war. If you pay any modicum of attention to the sort of rhetoric that came out of the Tea Party and the involved conservative pundits, you’ll quickly notice a trend towards secessionist language.
But still, why are Middle Easterners so violent? To answer that question, you’d need to reframe the situation from their point of view. From their point of view, the U.S. (and U.S. corporations) is an invading power with an installed military base in the form of the Nation of Israel and vested interest in importing oil from their nations. We have thoroughly demonstrated that we’re unafraid to meddle with their politics, deposing or installing leaders as we see fit, even orchestrating a major war to decimate an existing regime on the flimsiest of suspicions. We’re unafraid to literally occupy their lands with our troops, as we have done for the last decade. We’re definitely not afraid to criticize them, as we did recently via a documentary movie about how awful they are. Even the most “tolerant” and “Liberal” among us spend quite a lot of breath on the way they treat women and how they’re simply culturally terrible (several predominant atheists are guilty of this particular brand of ethnocentrism).
So how can it be terribly surprising that any Middle Easterner would react violently to this cultural abuse? This is an occupying empire taking any number of liberties with your population and your freedom and then turning around and telling you that you deserve it because your ways are barbaric. Does this sound familiar? I hope it does, because it’s essentially the same way we treated and destroyed the Native American populations in the U.S. No one blames the Lakota for fighting against Custer today, but back then Indians were considered horrible backwards savages who stubbornly refused to bend to god and the U.S. government.
Why is this so similar? Simply put, this is how one culture manages to rationalize the destruction of another culture. Throughout thousands of years of history when one culture decided for whatever reason to invade and subsume another, the culture goes through a process of Othering that culture (making it seem stranger, more foreign, different from us) as a necessary process to wash away potential doubts to the legitimacy of making war against a set of people who are fundamentally the same as ourselves (we all eat, breathe, feel, dream, and die) by convincing ourselves that we’re not actually fighting real people. We’re fighting sinners or people who don’t know better or abominations before god or a people who need the gift of our culture in order to become better. We’re not fighting our brothers or sisters, we’re fighting tyrants or the insane or fanatics or brutes.
To be certain, no group is innocent of this sort of rationalization. To the Middle Easterners, they’re fighting a faceless, godless, soulless destroyer, as vast as it is rapacious. To Middle Easterners, every slight or criticism is an attempt to crush their people under the heel of a larger nation. Because this is a nation of deviant, godless people, attacking them violently is a perfectly acceptable way to express your outrage.
Now is the part where we have to back up and qualify terms. Not all Americans think Middle Easterners are savage terrorists, but many do. Not all Middle Easterners think Americans are rapacious monsters, but many do. The people orchestrating violence in the Middle East are a minority of those who feel this way about Americans. They’re extremists; just as the Americans who burn Korans and make smear films are a minority of the Americans with a negative view of Middle Easterners. The best way to understand it is as a gradient of attitudes that eventually descends into people who are so fanatically devoted to cultural stability that they feel the need to commit to action to stop it. The majority of Middle Eastern leaders denounce this attack just as the majority of American leaders denounce the regular hate crimes that occur here.
So, in summary, the American embassy attack in Libya was orchestrated by a few fanatics whose actions were mediated by cultural conflict in the context of globalization and western economic and social domination of the world. The people of the Middle East view themselves as resisting the monoculture, of resisting the homogenizing hegemony centered on western consumer culture. That’s why they hate us.
Are they right? Are we wrong to demolish or criticize or denigrate their culture? Are our military actions just? Are their methods too violent, too reactionary? Is it really a minority viewpoint or do all Middle Easterners harbor an internal hatred of us and support extremist actions internally even if they don’t commit them? That really depends on your point of view. What’s out and out wrong is painting Middle Easterners as crazed religious fanatics with nothing but pure insanity guiding their actions or suggesting that they hate our way of life or freedoms or especially suggesting the absurdity that if we’re not fighting them in Baghdad, we’ll be fighting them on the streets of Smalltown, U.S.A.