On Islamic Extremism and the Death of our Ambassador to Libya

Columnist Cal Thomas, in a recent article, echoes some strands of argument from my recent blog post in a manner I find most interesting. Here is part of his commentary:

How could this happen?” asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others.

The rioting by Muslims supposedly “inflamed” by a cheaply produced YouTube film about the Prophet Muhammad was cited as the reason, but we have learned the attacks may have been planned in advance, some to coincide with the anniversary of Sept. 11. What doesn’t Secretary Clinton get? The actions and statements of Islamic extremists have been visible for some time.

In his latest obsequious gesture to the Islamic world, President Obama wants to offer $1 billion in “debt relief” to the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt. The president apparently hopes Egypt’s leadership can be bought off and will then start behaving like us.

The president appears to ignore Egypt’s crackdown on political opposition, its sending tanks into the Sinai, in violation of its 33-year peace treaty with Israel, and the persecution of Coptic Christians who are fleeing the country in droves. This is what America got in Iran, Egypt and now Libya when we helped topple dictators who were then replaced by radicals.

That these and many other provocations against America, Israel and the rest of the West bring no credible response from the United States encourages and enables extremists to ramp up their violent behavior. “Paper tiger” is the term Mao Zedong used to describe “American imperialism” in 1956. “Spineless amoeba” might characterize this administration’s response to outrages performed in the name of Islam.

Just as the amateurish video was not the cause of the violent attacks, neither was Mitt Romney’s critique of them.

The Obama administration’s foreign policy has failed dramatically. A recent Wall Street Journal headline had it right: “U.S. Policy in Mideast Challenged by Assaults.” Coddling, understanding, bowing and submitting to extremists only leads to more violence. History has shown and common sense tells us they only respect and fear power and consistency. (Find the entire article here).

There are two comments that come to mind from this article which bear mentioning in the flow of communications that have been occurring on this blog.  First a comment by way of disagreement with Mr. Thomas.

It is very easy for Americans, and it seems especially those on the Right, to simply get inflamed and outraged by Muslim behavior, and by President Obama’s alleged kow-towing to the Muslim world. While I myself have my problems with Mr. Obama, I also have problems with cultural naiveté which seems pervasive in America today. At the root of American naiveté is the assumption that, when all is said and done, all people, including Muslims, are just like us, or at least should be. This is both naive and false. It is a wishful carryover from post-Enlightenment and post Renaissance thinking which treats equality as axiomatic, joining it with sameness. While we may rightly say that “all men are created equal” this should not be taken to mean that all people, and all cultures, are the same. To assume this to be true flies in the face of the facts, and leads to cavernous naiveté, boorishness, or both.

Anyone with any cross cultural experience, intelligence, and sensitivity realizes that different people groups have different culture patterns. For those of you who doubt what I am saying, or for whom an explanation would prove helpful, consider Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant emphasis on the theme of honor in the Godfather trilogy.

You may remember how the first movie opens up with a man named Bonasera whose daughter has been dishonored by two young men who beat her up in order to take advantage of her.  Bonasera comes to Don Vito Corelone (played by Marlon Brando), the Godfather, for revenge.  The dialogue, the very first in the movie, which sets the theme for Sicilian and Mafia culture, is all about honor.

In describing his daughter, Bonasera tells Don Corleone, “I gave her freedom, but — I taught her never to dishonor her family.”  But things turned out terribly bad for her in her relationship with a boy who, with his friend, dishonored her, raping her, beating her up, even breaking her jaw.  Don Corleone, introducing the theme of honor from his side says,

“Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first? . . . We’ve known each other many years, but this is the first time you came to me for counsel, or help. I can’t remember the last time that you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee, even though my wife is godmother to your only child. But let’s be frank here: you never wanted my friendship. And uh, you were afraid to be in my debt. . .  You found paradise in America, had a good trade, made a good living. The police protected you; and there were courts of law. And you didn’t need a friend of me. But uh, now you come to me and you say — ‘Don Corleone give me justice.’ — But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me Godfather. . . . Bonasera… Bonasera… What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? Had you come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And that by chance if an honest man such as yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.

Later in the scene, Bonasera calls Corleone “Godfather” and kisses his hand. Corleone says,  “Good,” and consents to do what Bonasera asks, to have the young men killed . . . and why? Because Bonasera has shown honor to him, and in order to restore honor to Bonasera’s family.

Elsewhere in the film, the theme of honor comes up again, when Michael Corleone, cooling his heels in Sicily, sees a beautiful girl, whom he wants to have as his own.  His henchmen think that he should simply go and take what he wants, but Michael is more savvy than this. He goes through an elaborate social ritual of honoring the girl’s family in order to win their consent that he marry her.

One would certainly be a fool to imagine that one could navigate Sicilian, and especially, Mafia culture without regard to honor. In the scene with Bonasera, Vito Corleone, the Godfather (Brando) argues just this point, that Bonasera can only get what he wants if he plays by the rules of honor. But when he has not shown proper respect, he can expect nothing and is entitled to nothing.  Michael clearly understands that he is dealing with a highly traditional, honor-based culture, and that he must show proper deference if he is to get anywhere.

The point then, whether dealing with the Mafia, or with your other-culture neighbors and business people, or with international relations with other nations and people groups, is to take the trouble to know and to respect their cultural themes, their rituals of relationship. Anyone who cannot be bothered to do so is either naive, lazy, arrogant, stupid, or to put it most charitably, unaware.

Whether we like it or not, we must accept that Muslim/Arab culture is no less an honor culture than is Francis Ford Coppola’s Sicilian landscape.  And American politicians and governmental agents who refuse to learn the honor-courtship rituals of Muslim culture can expect as little progress in dealing with Muslims as Bonasera could expect from Don Corleone. Some people may not like this, and many do not. Some may feel it demeaning to play by someone else’s rules. But they are wrong. It is like courting a girl: do you take her to the kinds of movies and restaurants she likes, or do you just say, “She’ll have to accept whatever I decide.” People who take the latter approach have short relationships! And governments that despise or ignore cultural factors are fools.

It is a point of high honor for religious Muslims that others show respect for their religion, their holy book, and their prophet, all of which they believe are God-given. Anyone who cannot bother to keep these matters in mind should expect no progress, and much explosive reaction from offended Muslims. For them to ignore the offense is for them to themselves dishonor their faith, their holy book, and their prophet, which is out of the question.

Therefore, Cal Thomas is wrong if he imagines that the alleged disrespect shown to Muhammad had nothing to do with the recent riots.  It had everything to do with them.

Yet. there was something else at work, and in this, I find myself agreeing with Thomas’ critique. That something else is the intentional use of riots and mayhem as an instrument of political coercion in the Middle East. As I pointed out in my previous posting (see here), political entities in the Arab world have long used these seemingly, but only seemingly, spontaneous riots as a means of political power and coercion.  One need only think about the Palestinian Intifadas, and how Yassir Arafat orchestrated them as instruments of coercion, to get the point.

So on the one hand, let’s not be proud: for too long the United States has demonstrated too much cultural boorishness, pride and stupidity in its dealings with cultures different from our own. But on the other hand, let’s not be stupid: these riots are not simply spontaneous demonstrations by an offended populace. They are also cunning and manipulative tools in the hands of cynical power brokers.

We need to be wise as serpents without becoming snakes, and harmless as doves without becoming pigeons.

Be careful out there.

About Stuart Dauermann

The blog of Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann, teacher, mentor, radio talk show host, denizen of Los Angeles, and a visionary with a long career in Messianic Jewish activism. You can hear Rabbi Dauermann as he hosts Shalom Talk, a weekly radio show, and even listen online at ShalomTalk.com. Rabbi Dauermann spends time traveling nationally and internationally, and throughout the year is in Israel as a Scholar in Residence at the MJTI Jerusalem Center. He has plenty to say about Jewish-Christian relations, the need for shalom in the world, and the agenda of Messiah, the Son of David.
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8 Responses to On Islamic Extremism and the Death of our Ambassador to Libya

  1. I had a Muslim tell friend tell me that “Prophet Muhammad would not have reacted with violence to being insulted”, that the whole thing was “silly” and that the media portrayed the great world-wide Muslim indignation to the “movie” or the “caricatures” when in reality “not even 0.001% of muslims around the globe” participated in demonstrations or riots.

    Something else we must keep in mind – the “movie” was created by an Egyptian Copt, i.e. someone who was supposed to understand the sensitivity of the subject, and not some ignorant American who hasn’t been over he border of his state.

    • Gene, I believe your friend to be mistaken, and here is why. The theme of honor and the bestowal of respect has been deeply engrained in Middle Eastern social ritual since millennia prior to Mohammed. One need only look at Genesis 23, and carefully parse the social rituals being followed by Abraham as he negotiates with the Hittites over purchasing the Cave of Machpelah. Notice the indirect manner in which price is discussed, and the exchange of mutual compliments. This is all about honoring and preserving honor. Look also at Exodus 18 and the honor exchange that takes place between Moses and his Midianite father in law, and later, the covenant meal the elders of Israel share with this Jethro, a sign of accepting him into the covenant community, another extending of honor to a former outsider. There is a fellow named Jerome H. Neyrey, Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, who has written extensively on these honor and shame issues in blblical texts. Another is Edward Malina, and a third is David A deSliva, also writing about honor/shame issues in biblical cultures. Again, this is axiomatic in these cultures, and no Ahmed come lately Muslim frill.

      As for the number of Muslims who participated in the riots, the riots were orchestrated, so numbers were limited. But they could not have been orchestrated if the issue of offense to the honor of the Prophet and of Islam were a non-issue. It is absolutely because the issue is a real one that the demonstraters were so enraged and the issue so focussed! They could not have had a demonstration of similar emotional valence about an issue of cultural indifference!

      As for the Egyptian Copt who generated the film, he is an irresponsible fool who should in no manner be considered a yardstick of appropriate social analysis or behavior. After all, he should have realized that when and if his identity came out in connection with this film, this would mean the murder and pillage of multitudes of other Copts in Egypt, where they are a persecuted minority with unstable rights. Yet this fool jeopardizes his own people for the sake of his silly film. The man is at best an idiot.

  2. Rabbi, I agree that my Muslim’s friend optimistic assessment may not have matched the reality on the ground and I also agree that needless provocation should be avoided. However, I also think that we must look beyond the West-East differences bound in integrity-guilt vs. honor-shame cultures as the cause for the current brouhaha. I think it’s overly simplistic and also dangerous, as it tries to rationalize violence and focuses on symptoms and not on the true causes of the conflict.

    The true causes of the modern conflict is that fact that ever since the glory of the Ottoman Empire faded from the scene, the Muslim world has been smarting from the realization that Islam not only no longer dominates but is relegated to the Third World status. This is the true cause of Islamic rage. Islam, as a militaristic religion of conquest, believes that it will one day rule the world and submit all to its precepts. That’s not something that they even hide. Appeasement will not work, and neither will bending over backwards to police free speech out of respect Islam and project it as “religion of peace” as the West is currently doing.

    When Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler-mocking movie The Great Dictator was being produced, Britain announced that it would ban its showing. Britain, which at the time, as you know, was in full appeasement mode, did not want to enrage the Nazis who have already eaten up Czechoslovakia. In doing so, they were hoping to prevent attack against itself. That, of course, failed miserably.

    About the movie. Yes, the movie is stupid. However, there are thousands upon thousand of video clips, articles, blog posts, forum comments, sermons all over the web mocking Muhammad, Islam and the Muslim world. In other words, the Islamists like Al Qaeda and their sympathizers will never run out of excuses for violence. This being the case, it is wrong for the West to focus on this one video that came out half a year ago and was used as an excuse for murder.

    Those Westerners who try to understand the current Muslim reaction in terms of dynamics of “honor-shame” must remember that there are also thousands upon thousands of video clips, articles, blog posts, forum comments, sermons made by Islamists mocking Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism (as well as other religion) as idolatrous, corrupt and evil. Islamists, who as you noted crave for honor for themselves and react to perceived dishonor, but they themselves actively use “shame” as a tool against their enemies.

    • Gene,

      You have done an excellent job here making a point I also make, that Islam is a religion of world conquest that at first had much momentum, controlling much of the known world, including Spain which Muslims controlled for 800 years, and that they were humiliated by the recovery of the West which succeeded in driving them back. Not only that, the Muslim world looks upon any incursion by Western values or evidence of Western strength as further humiliation, which they cannot fully absorb because their religion teaches that Allah has willed the universal triumph of Islam. I agree entirely and have said so in previous blog postings in this series. We do not disagree at all on this matter.

      Nor do I say or hold that respecting honor/shame rituals and sensitivities or the lack of such respect is the entire key to current or past explosions of violence in the Islamic world! I indicate as much in the very blog posting you are critiquing (in the final paragraphs), and in earlier blog postings. What I AM saying, which I do not retract, is that those who ignore dealing appropriately with people from an honor/shame culture like Islam are naive and self-defeating. I say more than once that this is NOT the entire explanation for what we are seeing in the Islamic world. But I also say, and repeat here, that it is a factor that ought not to be ignored.

      • Rabbi, I think we are pretty much on the same page then. As I’ve already indicated, I too do not believe in provocation for provocation sake, and like you I also believe that we must know those who are dealing with. I have made Muslim friends precisely because I’ve shown the type of respect their culture expects AND I because I am sensitive to their current issues. In turn, they were able to open up to me, even though they know I am a Jew, including on issues plaguing the Arab and Islamic worlds. What’s more, as a Jew, I can approach Arabs as their “brother”, something that Westerners can’t do.

        Here’s my conversation with an Muslim Arab friend that I posted on my blog over a year go: http://dailyminyan.com/2011/04/22/my-amazing-conversation-with-my-muslim-arab-friend/

        [Note: my comment to which you’ve responded did not show up – I believe it’s being held up in moderation].

        • Hi Gene,

          I got that excellent comment of yours out of moderation. And I will look at your conversation with your Muslim friend. By the way, you are uncommonly intelligent and articulate . . . and to think that English is not your first language! Intimidating!

        • Thank you, Rabbi. I’m glad that, because of your semi-retirement, you finally have some time to dedicate to writing. What you have to say, with your learning, experience and wisdom, makes for a great contribution to the Messianic Jewish world and beyond.

          • Thanks you, but I have a BIG correction. I am in no sense semi, demi, hemi, or quarto retired. I am working as hard now as at any time in my life and intend to keep it that way. Now as for cash flow, well, there we have a discussion 🙂

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