Your Muslim Neighbor

There are about 1 billion Muslims and they are probably here to stay. Historically, Muslims cared little about others and kept to themselves. Christians and Jews were strange sects that were deserving of a certain amount of condescending respect as people of the book and part of the Abrahamic religious tradition, but were assumed to be misguided and lost. Even as transportation and new technology made the world smaller, and Islam fell behind on measures of progress, Muslims stayed within the confines of their religion and allowed themselves to become subjects of European rulers.

Muslims are now our neighbors both locally and globally and, like it or not, we are required to live with them. But the relationship is not very neighborly. Our Muslim neighbors have formed a block party in which they regularly claim they are disrespected. The easiest way to do this is to assert that Mohammed and their holy book have been insulted. That’s why the silly and amateurish film “The Innocence of Muslims” was so easily effective. Neighborhood watch leaders have to do little more than claim disrespect in order to stoke the fires that burn in their followers. We Western neighbors are particular targets and have always been the subject of Muslim criticism. The defining leaders of modern Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood such as al-Banna and Qutb saw America as the palatial neighborhood whorehouse that was libidinous and unkempt.

Our new global neighbors have obliterated boundaries so there are unclear distinctions between groups and each believes in its own foundational truths. We in the western portion of the neighborhood have “free speech” and “democratic rights” and our Muslim friends hold dear to the belief that Allah is the God of everyone. Therefore both neighborhood groups feel authorized and permitted to force their values on the other. The distasteful Internet video was insensitive but still protected by freedom of expression according to the Western neighbors; on the other hand, our Muslim friends in the East hold the same foundational belief about insulting Islam – it’s not protected symbolic expression. The clash of these “universal” values is powerful and the streets are aflame in riots and protests.

Egyptians have a difficult future ahead of them as more extreme fundamentalists fight pragmatic politicians. Difficult as it may be to understand, and as conservative as the Muslim Brotherhood might be, they are no match for the Salafists and their desire to purge Islam and Muslim lands of all Western influences. The Salafist leaders, if they get their way, will destroy tourism because they do not want to see people in bathing suits; they will stunt the growth of business and the economy by refusing to conduct transactions with certain cultures; half of the population (women) will be denied basic human rights and prevented from contributing productively to the economy.

During the Egyptian “revolution” when Mubarak was removed there was a glimmer of hope that the key political and intellectual battle would be between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s secular nationalists and developing liberals. But it looks like the closer relationship (Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist) will contend for the soul of Egypt. And as events play out in the news the same might be true of Libya and Syria. So the neighborhood is reorganizing itself such that more difficult groups will be contending for leadership. This does not bode well for future problems with respect to weapons accumulation. It’s likely that proud and conservative governments, with traditions of demands for dignity and respect, like the one emerging in Egypt may want to follow in the footsteps of Iran and amass weapons thereby consolidating their demands for respect but making the neighborhood an even more dangerous place to live.

Trouble with my neighbor can be handled in one of two ways – arm and isolate my household to protect myself, or carry over fresh baked goods and chat. Neither alternative will do all by itself but we should stand firm on our demands that our neighbors learn from us and trust us. And, of course, we have to engage them. Yes, protected symbolic expression is important and one does not behave violently or riotously just because they were insulted. But it’s also true that “holding one’s tongue” and cultural adaptability remain part of the democratic governance we want to encourage.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on September 30, 2012, in Democracy, Political Conflict and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Your Muslim Neighbor.

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