Pete Souza
Culture + Religion /15 Sep 2012
09.15.12

A Call for Understanding: Observation of the Middle East

In light of the recent horrifying attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, this commentary is intended to help anyone who is struggling to understand what has happened in the Middle East this past week.

A book used in leadership development for U.S. government officials working in international affairs with Muslim countries is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s, What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America. It is the chosen reading of Dr. Kamal Beyoghlow, Professor of National Security Strategy and Middle East and North Africa Studies at the National War College. Dr. Beyoghlow also teaches at the Federal Executive Institute delivering lectures including Understanding and Building Relationships with the Islamic World, as well as teaching U.S. government leaders across defense, intelligence, and other agencies. This book is a place to start for a quick tutorial. Websites are readily available online with maps and statistics of world religions, and these assist in personal study.

We live in a complex world. American style sound bites are insufficient for the level of responsibility we carry as a nation – and frankly for the role that we have taken upon ourselves in the world as a people. We hear politicians throwing current issues around like footballs in their own very partisan ways which will ultimately result in a win-lose scenario.

That is dangerous and irresponsible and it is only going to cause more problems for Americans and others around the world. As in most other parts of life, it’s only education that will help – not vitriolic voices or knee-jerk reactions. All of which we are hearing and watching on TV and which are as alarming as the riots overseas this week, because the cause and effect are not owned or understood.

Ambassador Chris Stevens understood these complexities and was committed to working with the various stakeholders to find ways forward. Most of our trained diplomats in the U.S. State Department, Foreign Service officers and staff of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and now much of our U.S. military who have lived and served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia, also have an understanding of these complex issues. There are many Americans who can help us educate ourselves. Where are their voices in our mass media?

This commentary is an attempt to make a small difference in a huge, multifaceted issue that is going to be an issue for the entire lifetime of all Americans alive today – and for all others living in this increasingly small and very complex world.

We should each be very concerned about what is going on across the Middle East and North Africa as a result of an inflammatory and irresponsible film made in the U.S. and that went viral on YouTube earlier this week. It was presumably made under protections of our 1st Amendment guaranteed Freedom of Speech. The fifteen minute film demeans the Prophet Mohammed and it is the source of the current protests and violence spreading across the Middle East and North Africa. From what we now know, the producers of the film were politically and religiously motivated radicals and knew exactly what they were doing. They even tried covering their tracks through anonymity and by trying to deflect their true identity onto Jewish members of the population which adds another level of complexity. The full truth will soon come out, but the impact and what we’re left with are the same regardless of who unleashed this fury.

The actions of the film makers and those who distributed it were like lighting a match and throwing it on oil-soaked wood in a region already in a period of unrest and rebuilding from the instability following last year’s Arab Spring. As an attorney, I believe those who released this film should be punished by law – as would anyone lighting a match and starting a forest fire, or yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre leading to loss of life or limb. At some point 1st Amendment Rights have to have boundaries – and for me – and my understanding of American jurisprudence – that begins before lives are lost by the willful misuse of those 1st Amendment Rights.

With rights come tremendous responsibilities. One can only hope that those who produced and circulated the film now understand the costs and consequences of their actions and what they have unleashed on their fellow citizens. We often hear the military (rightly) honored for defending our rights, yet we hear little of citizen responsibility for protecting and not abusing these same hard won rights.

Having “the right” doesn’t make doing or saying something right. How has this critical distinction been lost on so many of our citizens?

While the current reactions and riots may seem inconceivable to us in primarily Judeo-Christian societies, it is very understandable with even a basic knowledge of Islam and the economic, social, and political realities of the huge parts of the world – Arab and non-Arab – where Islam is the dominant religion.

First, we must remember that Islam is part of the triad of monotheistic Abrahamic faiths. In other words, it shares The Old Testament with both Judaism and Christianity, and “Allah” in Islam and for Muslims is the same “God” or “Yahweh” in Christianity and Judaism – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The religions separate from that root into Judaism and branches of Christianity (c 30 AD), and Islam (c. 650 AD). Islam also recognizes and teaches about Jesus and his life and message, although as a major prophet, not as the Christ. In other words, Muslims will know far more about Christianity’s roots than most Christians will know about Islam because they are already familiar with Jesus in the way Christians would be familiar with the prophets in the Old Testament of the Bible. Muhammad is also a prophet for Muslims, not the Messiah.

Second, Islam is not a centralized religion, and there is no central leader (unlike the Roman Catholic Pope, for example) or political body. To understand Islam we must understand the primary groupings within Islam – Shiite and Sunni, their origins, central beliefs and practices, and their political realities. For example, the age old tensions in Iraq between Sunni and Shiite – as well as with the Kurdish minority – are the primary reasons for the ongoing tensions and extended war in that country.

Taking the time to understand these two major components of Islam would be no different than a person from another religion studying Orthodox/Conservative/Reformed Jewish groups, or the differences between Eastern Orthodox/Roman Catholic/Protestant Christian groups’ beliefs and governance – and political expressions.

In current issues, we must also begin to learn more about Coptic Christianity (the dominant form of Christianity in North Africa – and a group of Christians that are minorities in the Middle East and North Africa and who are often persecuted by elements of the Muslim majority in those countries). We can see a parallel to this in the widely varying treatment of the Muslim minority in the United States which too frequently includes violence. It appears that the film at the root of the current unrest and made in the U.S. is tied to at least one prominent – though renegade – Coptic Christian or group with political and social motivations. What this person or group is doing in the U.S. under the claimed protection of the 1st Amendment would not be allowed in most other parts of the world because of the tremendous risks. Leaders of the Coptic Christian Church have also condemned the film saying that the supposed producer of the film is not representative of that Church. We must also remember the difference between Arab and Muslim. Significant portions of the Arab world are non-Muslim, and Muslims are significant portions of many non-Arab countries throughout several continents. This distinction helps us understand the internal tensions within countries experiencing unrest.

Third, Muslims, depending on their branch of Islam, are either discouraged from or outright prohibited by their religion from depicting images of the Prophet Muhammad. What many don’t realize is that these same prohibitions extend to others prophets including Moses and Jesus.

Think of “no graven images” from the Old Testament, and the difference between Roman Catholic churches with their statuary and icons, and many Protestant churches where even having a simple cross in the sanctuary is prohibited. This parallel helps us begin to see the common root of this prohibition in Islam which came through early interpretations of the same Old Testament verses that are used by many Protestants (mostly Calvinist tradition Christians) in rejecting the use of any images of God or Jesus – including even a simple cross in their sanctuaries.

Battles have been fought in some denominations over this very specific issue. In Orthodox Judaism (and some Conservative Jewish groups), it is not permitted to say or write the name of G-D or YHWH, and you will often see the Unspeakable name of G-D spelled out with a hyphen or YHWH abbreviated for the missing letters as is shown in this sentence. These parallels in Christian and Jewish practice might help our understanding, though of course modern Jewish and Christian congregations and individuals are generally unlikely to respond by rioting and murder as is happening every time the Prophet Muhammad is depicted in a negative light. This has not always been true in the history of these two religions which have matured over the centuries to what we experience now in 2012. Many Americans do, however, become enraged when our flag is desecrated, or Bibles are burned which would be another parallel to the level of passion and zeal shown by the Muslim demonstrators.

Perhaps most importantly, I believe that we as Americans must do a better job of educating ourselves about the realities of the world beyond our borders…especially since we seem determined – or perhaps even destined – to stay actively involved in regional disputes…not the least of which is the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and multiple military engagements in the Islamic world. We cannot afford to view the world only from our 21st Century Judeo-Christian lens. The world will not change for us.

Our population in the U.S. is reputed around the developed world for our intellectual laziness on global affairs, and perhaps this week’s developments will be a wake-up call to spend more time studying. The issues of terrorism, global unrest, and economic challenge are likely to get considerably worse before they get better. We can change that, but only through education and action…not by anger, power, or weapons used against those who have nothing to lose.

Finally, for context, it is often said that Islam is in its “Middle Ages” of evolution as it is 600 to 700 years younger than Christianity. If that is true, look back to how well behaved Christians were toward Muslims in the Crusades, or to everyone in the Inquisitions, or 600 years of tolerating or endorsing slavery, and many other travesties through the ages and continuing today in the name of Jesus. Also, we must note that the average age of populations in many Islamic countries is around 20, and significant proportions of these youth are under-educated and poor with little or nothing to lose. This makes them vulnerable to outrage based on even seemingly small actions because of the realities of their lives and the paradigms within which they live. It also makes them subject to influence of radical groups including organized terrorism.

Let me restate…we must do a better job of educating ourselves. And we must be educated and responsible in choosing how we exercise our 1st Amendment rights…especially with universally available instantaneously transmitted mass media which as we’ve seen this week can cause immediate injury and death to others around the world including our own citizens living in areas of the world that may not share the same values and rights or understand how a country could tolerate outrageous speech. The stakes are high…higher than most people realize, and the stakes will only get higher over time in our current and future economic and geo-political realities.

If you're interested in writing for International Policy Digest - please send us an email via submissions@intpolicydigest.org