Why are Muslims upset about the anti-Islam movie? Why are some of them reacting violently?

To expand on another blogger’s example, if I am upset with Tom and he said, “You shouldn’t be upset!” that would only make things worse. If he said, “I wouldn’t be upset if I were in your situation,” that would make things even worse. If he said, “Less than 1% of wives in your situation are upset,” that would make things worse. And if he said, “You have no right to be upset,” I would storm out of the house and slam the door, half-hoping to catch his toe on my way out.

I am upset and that is a fact. One of Tom’s jobs, if he wants to resolve our conflict, is to understand why.

It isn’t helpful to say people shouldn’t be offended. It isn’t helpful to cite examples from America where the cross or a synagogue have been denigrated and to compare the reactions and to stay ‘stop it.’ It certainly can be interesting but as far as trying to gain an understanding and a way to move forward, it isn’t helpful.

I don’t know all of the whys and I won’t pretend to understand them. I’m not a historian or an academic. I’m just a lady from the west living in the Muslim world who has done some reading and thinking and talking and listening. But I think I know one why. It has to do with honor and with shame.


America was built primarily on a guilt/innocence paradigm. We have laws, judges, courts, lawyers, all designed to determine the guilt or innocence of an accused person. Did they commit the crime? Did they break the law? If so, they will be punished. After the punishment has been paid, the person will be ‘forgiven’ and released.

The only person responsible for breaking the law and the only person to receive punishment is the guilty party. And forgiveness is earned because a debt has been paid.

Guilt and innocence are experienced individually.

Many eastern cultures operate on an honor/shame paradigm. In the west, shame is associated with the lack of self-esteem but in the east it is much more than that. Shame is a controlling force that dictates behavior, relationships, and one’s standing within a community.

Shame comes when a person fails to conform, which leads to shame for the wider group. Often, westerners with a high value on individualism fail to understand how passionately Islam, and many eastern cultures (both Muslim and non-Muslim), stress conformity to the point of submission. Public prayer times, a universal month of fasting, the yearly pilgrimage, these are imperative to being a good Muslim and they are highly communal in nature.

Participating in these public events brings honor to an individual and the community. And honor is granted because of a person’s relation to the community.

Shame and honor are experienced corporately.

Shameful deeds are covered up and if that isn’t possible, they are avenged. One of the reasons violence in Somalia has perpetuated for so long is due to this corporate experience of shame and vengeance. If I kill your brother, you can attack someone from my family, not necessarily me. Then this person’s family can attack someone from your family…the cycle could continue forever. Because the shame has touched all, the revenge touches all.

So when a shameful video is shown all over the web and the world, when there is no way to cover up the shame, there is vengeance and it is enacted on those who are presumed to be bearing the corporate responsibility for the one causing that shame.

The way a person responds to shame can cement his place within society, can increase or decrease his honor.

My language tutor told me once that if I was angry with Tom and killed his sister in my passionate rage instead, that makes sense. I shouldn’t kill her but she understands why I did. My response would stem from the need to defend my honor, and this is a positive thing. So, while I am guilty of murder, I have successfully defended my honor and guarded my place in society. In effect, I go to prison but with my head held high.

I am in no way suggesting that violence and murder is a reasonable response or that people are helpless to control themselves against the rising emotions brought on by a crude film. I’m also not suggesting this as an excuse. Murder is murder, violence is violence, and both should be unacceptable. There are better ways to avenge one’s honor and many in the Muslim world, including in Djibouti, are doing just that.

Some mosques here on Friday preached nonviolence, they spoke out against the film but urged people to come to the mosque to pray and to seek God rather than throwing stones and burning flags. They declared that the maker of the film will stand before God one day and that they should let God be his judge. They spoke highly of their prophet and their faith.

They defended honor with honorable deeds, defended against defamatory words with respectful words.

Instead of violently attacking innocent people, no matter their associations, perhaps a more powerful defense would be to create a counter video. One promoting the life of the Prophet as Muslims see it. One focusing on how he stood up for the rights of women, how he defended orphans and saved the lives of baby girls, how he destroyed idols and idol-worship. A movie that promotes his love for Allah. A movie that shows how he respected Moses and Abraham and Jesus and Mary.

Practically, I encourage you to enter into this kind of dialogue. Ask Christian friends and Muslim friends and atheists and Jews and Hindus…why? Why this kind of reaction from some?

Why, in your opinion?

*image via Wikimedia