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The psychology of the Muslim rioter

Muslims are frustrated with themselves. By directing anger towards the West, they are providing a distraction

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An American flag is burned in Peshawar
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Ghaffar Hussain
On 18 September 2012 10:21

As violent protests and riots targeting western embassies in Muslim-majority states continue to spread, many neutral observers are left scratching their heads and thinking “what is wrong with these people?” How could a dodgy, low-budget movie shot in someone’s backyard in California cause so much chaos?

From the Satanic Verses, an impenetrable work of fiction filled with incomprehensible magic surrealism, to a series of unwitty and rather vulgar cartoons published in Denmark – why do Muslims repeatedly react to offensive images and words in such disproportionate ways? Or, as a Portuguese friend asked me recently – How do Muslims manage to put on such epic displays of rage without alcohol?

Answers to these questions are not easy to find.

Before we seek to address such questions we must bear in mind that violent protestors in places such as Yemen and Egypt represent a small minority. The vast majority of Muslims do not seek to torch foreign embassies whenever they feel their religious sensibilities have been offended.

Secondly, street protests against a wide range of issues are almost routine in many of these countries; other forms of protest and campaigning have yet to catch on.

And thirdly, some can often be intimidated into joining such protests since appearing to disagree with an angry mob is not good for your life prospects.

Excuses aside, many Muslim political commentators have been seeking to find answers to these vexatious questions this week.

According to Ed Husain, writing for CNN:

These are people who were born and raised in dictatorships. They are accustomed to thinking that a government controls its citizens – that a film or documentary cannot be produced without government approval. For decades, this has been the reality of their lives, and they strongly believe that the Western world and its citizens have a similarly controlling relationship between individuals and government.

In light of this assumption, they hold the U.S. government responsible for the tacky and distasteful film produced by a right-wing Muslimphobe.”

Husain is right about the nature of Arab societies in general and their views towards free speech. I would add that many also adopt a paranoid grand-narrative in which the US and Israel are forever hatching sinister plots targeting Islam and Muslims. This induces self-pity and self-righteousness in equal proportion and creates a festering sense of frustration that demands raucous expression.

Many are simply waiting for an opportunity to say “look at us, we are angry, take us seriously”.

I also think free speech is generally viewed with scorn in most highly religious societies since it inevitably leads to dissent, scepticism, and heresy. This is especially the case when Abrahamic monotheism is concerned since it can often be absolutist in nature, as opposed to the pantheism of many Far-Eastern societies, and it also explains why Christians and Jews in Europe would perhaps have responded to such provocations in a similar manner 400-500 years ago.

In many Muslim-majority societies, dominated by tribalism, authoritarianism, and fear, free speech is severely curtailed in almost all walks of life. These are societies that value conformity and tradition rather than innovation and creativity. Reputation and the fear of “shame” guides public behaviour and stifles the expression of ideas that go against the grain.

Fouad Ajami, writing in the Washington Post, opines:

“There is an Arab pain and a volatility in the face of judgment by outsiders that stem from a deep and enduring sense of humiliation. A vast chasm separates the poor standing of Arabs in the world today from their history of greatness. In this context, their injured pride is easy to understand.”

I think Ajami does have a point, especially concerning Arab pride and a sense of humiliation owing to recent history, however, he fails to consider the fact that many of the more vigorous and violent protests often take place outside the Arab world and in places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia. Analysing the Arab psyche is not going to give us a comprehensive explanation.

That said, the cognitive dissonance, to which he points, is all pervasive. I interpret much of what I see taking place in Muslim-majority societies as a reaction to this cognitive dissonance which emerges when Muslims consider the status of Islam and Muslims in the world today.

Politics aside, when Muslims compare their image of themselves, as God’s chosen people with the one true faith, with their abject position in the modern world they are forced to confront an ugly truth.

Decisions they have made and exits they have taken have led them to occupying a position in the modern world in which so little progress in any field can be attributed to them. This realisation undermines their self-worth and stands in stark contrast to their self-perception.

Muslims are frustrated with themselves, first and foremost. By directing their anger towards the West, they are not only lashing out at a perceived enemy responsible for their malaise, they are also providing a distraction for themselves.

Regressive societies that lack intellectual plurality and emotional maturity can only progress when honest and reflective introspection is undertaken.

In the absence of this, immature outbursts directed at the wrong targets will continue.

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @GhaffarH

Read more on: Ghaffar Hussain, Ed Husain, CNN, Innocence of Muslims, US Ambassador to Libya killed by protesters, Muslim protests over the Innocence of Muslims, Arab societies, free speech, Islam's paranoia over the West and Israel, Israel, Fouad Ajami, Pakistan, Afghanistan, indonesia, God's chosen people, and Islam
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