Small Wars Journal

Why is the Muslim World So Easily Offended?

Why is the Muslim World So Easily Offended? Washington Post Op-Ed by Fouad Ajami.

Modernity requires the willingness to be offended. And as anti-American violence across the Middle East and beyond shows, that willingness is something the Arab world, the heartland of Islam, still lacks...



Mon, 09/17/2012 - 3:27pm

The Arab world has a different worldview and political philosophy than the western world. This stems from fundamental differences in their interpretation of Natural Law and Revealed Law. Beginning with St. Thomas Aquinas, the Christian world has embraced the Natural Law and natural rights arguments of Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas rationalized the connection between pagan human philosophy with Christian Word of God. These Natural rights have been championed by further philosophers such as Burke, Bacon, Paine, etc. and have also been immortalized in the US Declaration of Independence. Freedom of Speech is a natural extension of the Natural rights needed for humanity to exist as a social animal, otherwise, how could the free exchange and advancement of new ideals occur?

The Arab world, however, is influenced by the philosophy of Moses Maimodes and Al-farabi, who connect human interaction and natural law to the Revealed Truth of God and his Prophet(s). Unlike the western world, where human civilization can allow mankind to reach its highest potential, the importance of God and his Prophet(s) in the Arab world is that human civilization can only reach its full potential if led by the prophet-legislator with the Word of God.

This combines with the various autocratic regimes of the Arab world that restrict what versions of media and speech are actually disseminated to the public. It is difficult for the Arab mind to comprehend that a form of speech (in this case a Youtube video), could even be published without direct support and permission given from the state or the religious ruling authority. Therefore, it is interpreted that it is the state, religion, or society as a whole that published and endorsed the hateful speech and rhetoric, and not just the views of a socially isolated minority of extremists.

So something that we can dismiss as just another hot-head extremism is interpreted to be the dominant view of our culuture from those looking in.

I understand that I am speaking in extreme generalities, however this continuing dissonance between the Western and Arab worldviews never ceases to cause problems when the two societies interact with each other on a Macro level.

It is a fundamental difference between cultures that blocks our ability to understand each other. We can easily dismiss extremist speech, while they can only believe that it originated from a national or religious authority figure, and therefore is a reflection of the entire society, not a certain select few.

G Martin

Wed, 09/19/2012 - 9:52am

In reply to by Scott Kinner

<em>We must remember that "reason" is a prisoner of who we are, where we are, and what we are surrounded by.</em>

I'm afraid that, just as those protesters in the M.E. would not be able to "see" this logic, neither can most Americans. We are, for the most part, positivist by nature. But- great points and agree that we should question more the fundamental philosophy behind the assertions we make.

Scott Kinner

Mon, 09/17/2012 - 11:09am

Frankly, the very first sentence contains the seeds of fallacy that put the whole piece into jeopardy.

"Modernity requires the willingness to be offended."

First, a reminder that every writer approaches their subject with prejudice. From the subject they choose to write about, to the language they use, the writer is a creature of the culture, society, and "plausibility structure" from which they come - they may come to understand this bit about themselves, they may even seek to find a new "plausibility structure" - but the existence of prejudice and bias is inherent to them.

Which then leads to the use of the word "modernity" as if it is some universally understood construct that contains a well-known, agreed upon, framework of reference. I would argue that "modernity" as used by the author is no such thing.

Inherent to the author's use of the word is the assumption that the world is therefore divided between those who "get" modernity and those who don't. The other assumption is that "modernity," however the author thinks it is defined, is the default norm and good and those that don't "get" it are in error.

Without going further, I hope I've at least made the point that there is a very dangerous set of assumptions and arrogance just with the choice of that word in the opening statement.

But let's move on to the rest of this statement of "fact" - the willingness to accept offense. At this point I certainly do not have any idea what "modernity" the author speaks of, because the giving and accepting of offense in American culture is so broken, so hateful, so litigious, that I'm at a loss to determine how the author can see it as a pillar of "modernity" and a positive good.

Rather, what the author interprets as "acceptance" of offense is just the continuous struggle to determine who gets to do the offending, and who must endure the insults. It's not that "modernists" accept offense easily - a culture that enshrines the value of the individual is hardly likely to do so - they've just redefined what offense consists of to suit their own purposes.

In the end, what human conflict always comes down to is not pithy cliches of who is modern and who is not (I mean, have we forgotten the Enlightenment, the superiority of the West it enshrined through the application of "reason," and all of the enslavement, colonization, and patronization that resulted?), but a clash of wills - one wants one thing, and one wants another.

We must remember that "reason" is a prisoner of who we are, where we are, and what we are surrounded by. Sending kamikazes forward into battle was an entirely reasonable, rational, and logical solution given the plausibility structure of Japanese culture at the time. The fact that we didn't see it as reasonable, anymore than the use of suicide bombers today, does not necessarily mean that our plausibility structure is superior.

My point is not to drift down the drain of post-modern relativism - we escape that because we do make choices, we do choose "better" based on our own perspective and wants. My point is to underscore and remind us of some of the assumptions and rationalization inherent to statements like "Modernity requires the willingness to be offended" and other semi-truths.

Decent article apart from the headline. It's the fallacy of composition: some elements of group X demonstrate behaviour Y, therefore all members of group X demonstrate behaviour Y. In this case it takes the form of suggesting that the entire 'Muslim world' (supposing such a thing even exists) are universally up in arms (literally) about this film. It's not all that different logically from those who blame all Muslims for the actions of Islamist terrorists or those who blame all Americans for the actions of Blackwater or the CIA (or, indeed those who blame the whole of either of those groups for the actions of those within them). I find it very annoying.

The idea of a united 'Muslim world' is a fantasy of Islamist extremists and lazy writers alike. I bet that a pretty substantial majority of Muslims, while they may or may not be offended by the film, don't believe that violence is a proper response to it. It's just that those who do shout louder than the rest.

Worst of all, no one seems to be asking what, to me, are the most obvious questions: why this film? and why now? It's the Danish cartoons all over again. It turned out that the fuss over those was orchestrated for political purposes, it wasn't a spontaneous outburst, it was planned and deliberate. There must be dozens of films and thousands upon thousands of webpages online containing just as bad if not worse Western Islamophobia than this film. What made THIS film the big deal?

Maybe the violence hasn't been provoked by any one party but it is offensively naive to assume that this has all come spontaneously from the outrage of a single-minded racial-religious 'World' with an inferiority complex.

That said, the Onion got it spot on when they published a cartoon of Moses, Jesus, Ganesha and Buddha all engaged in unspeakable sexual acts with the headline "No one murdered because of this image." There is something to Ajami's argument but it's still failing to ask the most important questions.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 09/15/2012 - 1:58am

The Islamic world inherently needs it's own internal reformation--all the other great religions have had theirs only Islam has not.

We have on the Shia side at least 2 maybe 3 factions and on the Sunni side the Salafi, Whahabi, and Sufi sides.

Then mix in the secular groups from both sides and you get what is now happening over a film---the point is that while both sides needs to move forward economically as a basic desire by both groups which would in fact improve their lives and the lives of their families the riots spark a subtle decision by companies that would do business or create businesses to refrain due the massive uncertainies in the region and it causes the donor countries being attacked to rethink their economic support (many european populations are due to the Euro crsis questioning the massive support their countries provide).

AND it generates in the educated groups the desire to leave their countries causing further degradation of the country.

The far more interesting development is the decoupling of AQ influence and a refocus on the developing and in some aspect more conservative Salafi groups in the various countries.


Sat, 09/15/2012 - 12:23pm

In reply to by kilgore_nobiz

I'm just talking the Salafi flavor that, thankfully, doesn't get much traction in the rest of the world unless there are other issues of poor governance or disenfranchisement that it uses to gain popularity through and spread. Except for a few outliers of protests in Australia, Malasia, etc, we know exactly where all the revolt is happening; the place that needs that internal reform, modernization, and adaptation the most. Nothing wrong with the spread of a peaceful religion; but the fundamentalist version as practiced everywhere Wahhabism has its tentacles is another story.


Sat, 09/15/2012 - 1:02am

Hate to break it to you, but Islam is an ever growing, fast expanding religion. It's foolhardy to believe it's ignorance will be its downfall.


Sat, 09/15/2012 - 12:15am

Although I don't fully subscribe to Huntington's and Lewis' theses in toto, a little bit of each makes a very convincing argument for the stalemate the Middle East flavor of Islam seems to be at with the rest of the world and why they're 'so easily offended.'

I always viewed cultures (I suppose a smaller scale than Huntington's 'civilizations') the same as biological units susceptible to natural selection (please don't confuse this with Social Darwinism). It's not the strongest or the most intelligent that survive; it's the most able to adapt. I think what is painfully and unfortunately obvious is that a whole swath of the globe refuses to adapt and it's having direct consequences for their culture, progress, and future. Not unique to the animal kingdom (but non-adaptability to the environment of animals like the Dodo or light colored English peppered moth are instructive), human cultures have always gone "extinct" when they couldn't adapt, from the Maya to the Karankawa to the outgoing Yanomami.

There's no reason to think that fundamentalist religions won't also naturally select themselves out of existence if they don't/can't adapt to the modernizing world. Although I wouldn't say that there's "nothing" holding the middle east back but themselves, how they choose to govern themselves, restrict themselves, and stagnate themselves is a large part of it. That's why they're so easily offended. Non-adaptability to a world changing around you can be a biyotch.