- Reflections on "Muslim Anger"
In contemporary society a substantial literature abounds, mostly in popular journals and in the media but also in some scholarly publications, that seeks to explain the sources of "Muslim" grievances and even hostility to the West in general and the United States in particular. The writers concerned frame this issue in terms of descriptions of Muslims' emotional and psychological states, and therefore can hardly be said to be neutral observers of the current complex of global tensions that explain what moves many people, Muslim or otherwise, to become involved in conflicts at either the political or intellectual level. One may indeed argue that by consistently framing the debate in this narrowly conceived way, such writers put the entire focus on the supposed shortcomings of Muslims as such rather than on any "normal" political grievances that any particular group of people is very likely to have under given conditions.
This current tendency in debate was triggered by an article by Bernard Lewis titled "The Roots of Muslim Rage: Why So Many Muslims Deeply Resent the West, and Why Their Bitterness Will Not Easily Be Mollified."1 Subsequently, Samuel P. Huntington contributed an article along similar lines titled "The Clash of Civilizations," in which he drew on Lewis's thesis to paint a stark picture of impending global conflagration in which "Islam" would play a particularly unsavory role.2
My intention in this essay is not to visit yet again the manner in which the issue has been framed by these two well-known works. Rather, I intend to offer a more "in-worldly" explanation for the current predicaments of many Muslim societies and the relation of these crises to the West. In doing so, however, I make reference to a more recent article titled "The Roots of Muslim Anger," by Patrick J. Ryan, to establish the context for my own argument.3
The endeavor to analyze contemporary expressions of political anger in terms of an investigation of deeply buried historical "roots" came into considerable vogue in Western scholarship with the emergence of radical Islamist politics in the second half of the twentieth century. This genre of popular analytical writing, though frequently erudite in its excavations of historical events, takes for granted several uncertain and underlying assumptions that cast doubt on the veracity of its conclusions. First, it has a tendency to analyze political events in Islamic societies as though Islam were a coherent and closed system capable, in terms purely of itself, of explaining the thoughts, motivations, and behaviors of social activists and mass movements through a "system" of internal cultural and historical references. In other words, Islam is [End Page 497] conceived as monolithic and insular and driven by a uniform logic. Second, these analyses link factual, historical events to a posited and largely imagined "historical memory" that on a collective level in the societies under examination supposedly ruminates over injustices that are at considerable historical remove from the present and its concerns and indeed fundamentally guides all thoughts and attitudes concerning the realities of the present. The problem with this scholarly and imaginative construction of a collective memory is that, among other points, it reveals far more the scholarly preoccupations of the writer and the prevailing political paranoia complexes within Western societies than it does the plurality of real tendencies among Muslims of diverse backgrounds to remember and reflect on events in history, to the extent that remote history provides a preoccupation for the average person in the first place.
Ryan's article "The Roots of Muslim Anger" falls somewhat into this genre, though without pushing the underlying framework to some of the more extravagant conclusions that one reads in similarly based works by Lewis, Huntington, and others. Ryan's piece shows scholarly restraint and certainly lacks the open hostility to Islamic religion and culture that appears so prominently elsewhere. Indeed, he makes a point of reckoning with the diversity of Islamic traditions. The framework of his article is based on several clear premises. Ryan begins with a comparison with Germany in which he argues, with reasonable plausibility, that when people and cultures are defeated and humiliated throughout several historical periods, they...