I have met Muslims in South East Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and North America. My experience is that most Muslims are gentle and hospitable people. Why is it, then, that they appear so different in the media? Why do so many of the world’s images of Muslims show them to be angry and violent? Actually, this question is fairly easy to answer. It is my second question that troubles me more.
First, the reason for the unfortunate presentation of Muslims in the general media is because normal is not news. The extraordinary is news. Normal Muslims are not like what people generally see in the media just like normal Christians are not like what people generally see in the media. It is the exceptional that becomes noteworthy. Many Muslims I have met in other parts of the world have been pleasantly surprised that I was not what they expected based on the reputation of Christians they received from the media. Actually, many Muslim terrorists are reacting to an inaccurate understanding of Christians and the West. But, that is not the point of this blog.
My second question is more unsettling for me. Why does it appear that even though the majority of Muslims does not directly engage in terrorism, it seems to endorse it. Why doesn’t the Muslim world more strongly denounce acts of terror? Isn’t silence or even a muted response an implicit agreement with these horrendous acts?
Let me suggest a possible answer. Many Muslims I have met live in cultures where power is gained and held by intimidation. People are scared. They know that if they step out of line they will be punished. Even the governments are scared. They don’t want to upset their violent subjects. The majority of the people are caught between authoritative and abusive governments and violent or potentially violent rebels. The best this scenario gets is if there is a balance between these two power centers. They keep each other in check and the people fly low in between, trying to not offend either.
When it comes to acts of terror that captures the attention of the global media, usually the governments and the rebels are on opposite sides. If one side condemns the violence the other side will lash out. So, for example, it takes great courage for the leader of Libya to condemn the murder of the US Ambassador. When he does, he is opening himself to retaliation, possibly assassination by his opponents. Regular people are even more vulnerable. Caught between terrorists and dictators, the voice of the the majority is suppressed.
So, the muted condemnation of terrorism by the Muslim world may not be an indication of support of terror, but a fear of the consequences of speaking up.