What our reaction to the Arab protests tells us about ourselves

Many of us are surprised by the vitriolic response by some Muslims to viewing The Innocence of Muslims, a film that appears to be so facile that many Westerners have difficulty taking it seriously. Circulation of the video in the Arab world has caused (with a little help from some bad actors aiming to use the unrest to further their own ends) protests in several countries. In Libya, the unrest allowed an insurgent group to launch an attack on the U.S. mission there, which resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and several other foreign service personnel.


What’s the big deal? We might be tempted to consider this whole event as analogous to fundamentalist Christians rioting on the streets of London after the release of a movie like, say, The Life of Brian. Released in 1979, the movie (written and performed by Monty Python) chronicled the life of one Brian Cohen. Brian was born on the original Christmas Day, literally in the next stable to Jesus. He proceeds to spend the rest of his life being mistaken for the Christ–even as he is crucified.

Since I was four at the time of the film’s release, I have no firsthand recollection of responses to it’s release thirty-three years ago. However, some very brief research (via the internet) shows that responses were quite critical, especially by the religious establishment. In fact, the English town of Torbay only dropped it’s ban on showing the movie in 2008! Several countries (including Norway) banned the movie totally. To my knowledge, there were no violent protests, although the movie was picketed by Rabbis and Nuns when it was screened in London.

Our confused reaction to the Arab protests tells us a great deal about ourselves. More than anything else, our reaction shows how profoundly unfamiliar we are with anything other than secular societies.

“The secular” is a space in society where religious considerations are not permitted to be taken into account. In this realm or sphere we believe that secular reason becomes a common language (or authority) to which we can commonly appeal in making decisions.

Those of us living in the United States intuitively know, for example, that it is somehow not permissible to apply religious or theological litmus tests to creative works, government policy, or business practices.

Dan Cathy’s contention that gay marriage is inappropriate and his endorsement of tradition heterosexual marriage resulted in a lot of negative publicity and for his company, Chick-fil-A.

In discussing abortion in the 2008 election cycle President Obama made it clear that religious arguments for the sanctity of human life (even human life in utero) ought not to be considered in deciding policy.

No less a figure than Salman Rushdie has recently commented that in secular civil society no belief or tenet is off-limits to art on NPR.

So, art is created and disseminated in the realm of the secular as is policy. Business is conducted in the realm of the secular. To the extent that religious arguments or beliefs influence decisions it is not because those arguments (or considerations) are authoritative in themselves. Instead their influence is utilitarian. For example, when Howard Schultz decided to back out of appearing at Willow Creek’s leadership conference several years ago it was a utilitarian decision. The religious argument was: evangelical Christians discriminate against gays and lesbians therefore evangelical Christianity is, at best, discriminatory and, at worst, a hate group.

It’s likely that had Schultz thought this in the first instance, he would not have accepted the invitation. Instead, his decision to back out appealed to secular reason in the form of making a “business decision” because pressure from GLBT groups could have had an adverse effect on the Starbucks brand. This is not an explicitly theological rationale, it is a utilitarian rationale.

We are profoundly familiar with religious and theological considerations being marginalized in order for our highly pluralistic, capitalist society to function. Our secularism is enshrined in our First Amendment. Free speech can only exist where there is (intellectual) space in which that speech can take place–the secular. Americans find it intuitively ridiculous that, say, LifeWay Christian Stores should refuse to carry a book because the word “vagina” is printed therein. Why? Because we believe that the vast majority of our existence takes place in secular space, a marketplace of ideas and opinion with only secular reason as an arbiter of rival claims.

Our secularism does not permit us to conceive of a society in which all intellectual space is sacred. Or perhaps, more accurately, we have a hard time conceiving of a sacredness that could permeate our entire existence, individually and corporately. Until we’re able to do this, at least as a mental experiment, the fact that many parts of the world are offended by this film or do not particularly wish to be democracies, will always mystify us.

2 Replies to “What our reaction to the Arab protests tells us about ourselves”

  1. Jeff, I wonder if there is another way of looking at it: all culture is in some sense “religious”; that is, based on fundamental presuppositions about what reality is. The misunderstanding here is a religious one. In the East, where Islam has dictated culture– including government– there is no freedom of religion as against the state. Blasphemy laws are but one minor example. On the other hand, in the West, dominated by the amalgam of Christianity and classical culture, freedom of religion is the rule. Freedom of religion in the first amendment sense– that the government is incompetent to dictate religious worship– is a Christian idea rooted in the nature of worship and the nature of his requirements of human beings, among other things.

    “Secular” society is only possible as a result of a Christian view of the state.


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