When chaos erupts, the conversation always returns to why. In July 2012, clips of a film entitled “The Innocence of Muslims” were uploaded to YouTube, mocking the Prophet Mohammed as a vicious, philandering child abuser. Allegedly, the film was made by 55-year-old Coptic Christian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-American living in California. It is certainly not representative of the views of most Americans regarding Islam. And yet, Muslims from Morocco to Pakistan have loudly protested in front of the embassies of the United States and its allies. They have burned American flags and American fast food franchises. And they have killed four diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. Why?
It is quite the logical jump from one intolerant filmmaker to the entirety of the U.S. and even the entirety of the “Western” world. The assumption that one man represents the viewpoint of an entire country is simplistic at best and destructive at worst. But before we point fingers at Muslims, perhaps we should take a long, hard look at ourselves and our attitudes towards a region and a religion few of us understand. The recent rash of protests across the Muslim world affords us an opportunity to not only be outraged, but to examine why this misrepresentation of “Westerners” exists in the first place.
When confronted with something foreign and frightening, our first instinct is to be frightened. That fear can quickly turn into anger, and anger can be blinding. Anger makes us forget that support for radical Islam is decreasing, not increasing; that out of 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, not even one half of one percent committed acts of terrorism in 2009; that while some Muslims dislike the United States, many more choose to come here voluntarily for the relative prosperity our country affords. Anger leads to gross stereotyping of other groups, projecting an image to the rest of the world of people who judge before they think. Anger makes us ugly.
Yes, those Muslims who rightfully demand better understanding of their religion should also take a look at their interpretation of American culture and consider that Americans, too, may not be a summary of their worst parts. But they need education in order to do this. They need access to information from a variety of sources. They need legal, independent channels through which to express their views and hear others’. As countries in the Middle East progress in developing open government and a free press, this will be more viable — in some areas, it already is. One other thing is viable too: our power to change how we are perceived.
This is not to be apologetic for those who have attacked innocents in response to “The Innocence of Muslims.” Independent channels or not, killing will never be an acceptable expression of anger and those responsible for the deaths in Benghazi should face consequences for their crimes. But let us be mindful of the resources available in our country. Let us not let fear dictate our impressions of those different from ourselves.
Whenever we encounter a culture, a religion or a political group that we do not understand, let us attempt to do so. Let us mirror the open discourse permitted in our country with open minds. Why? Because, while there will always be intolerant individuals, we are ultimately responsible for our own image at home and abroad. This is something all people — American, Libyan, Muslim, Christian — would do well to keep in mind.