In very private company, a venerable Arab commentator is in the habit of repeating every so often an old maxim of his: "I will know that we [the Arab world] have made it when I rhapsodize to Bach in Mecca.”
At first impact, the man’s pining hits almost every sensitive chord in the politics of our identity. His is a strike out in a bowling alley, hitting Islam and Arabhood, with all the pride and honor and pieties and colonial insults and indigenous humiliations and Western arrogance and nativist chauvinisms that are packed into them.
Were he to sigh this way in public, death would be his wish. And herein lies the heart of the problem: much more than the actual yearning itself, audacious though it may be, it is this mindless intolerance towards any perceived provocation that speaks most poignantly about one of our more confounding regional realities.
In truth, this Arab Muslim’s vision is anything but an affront: a people who are confident enough of who and what we are that we think nothing of welcoming the best of the West—and what could be more sublime than Bach’s cantatas?—to the most sacred place in Islam.
Why not, for that matter, Umm Kulthum, the better to press home the source of the pain and the urgency of, first, an intra-cultural dialogue? Because this attitude that deems diversity--the very essence of humanity—anywhere between a grave offense and blasphemy considers homespun colors even more menacing than the imported variety. In fact, for those who hold dear their grievances and phobias, the West and its modernities are the easiest targets to caricature and slander. But what do you do with the enemy within?
Insist, especially in these times, on sealing yourself clean of the world around you, from the best of its challenges to the worst of its cheap shots, and yours is a life of insupportable hypocrisy and contradictions, not to mention every imaginable infraction.
Ours, of course, is not a unique mistrust of (or even rage against) the Other. Wherever there is life, there is injury, bigotry, hate, along with a lurking mob eagerly waiting to feed off of them. All cultures suffer demagogues. But ours have been climates in which supposedly fringe groups have had a remarkably successful track record in barging into the center, enfeebling serious discourse and dictating agendas. As crowds, egged on by high-ups acting as lowlifes, grow apoplectic about the merest slight to Islam, most of us have a tendency to recoil, as if retreating into our eternal dystopia, ceding precious ground for others to monopolize.
How unbelievable is it that the hilariously dumb Innocence of Muslims and its maker Nakoula Bassely Nakoula—what the hell kind of name is that anyway?--a moronic, meth-cooking, two-bit crook could manage this kind of havoc in our midst? Even if we were sure that the idiot is a sinister conspiracy dressed as a clown, could we not offer a reaction—if any were required at all—that is more befitting of the man and his movie, perhaps a snigger and a yawn?
They say that this mayhem started out as Islamist fury and very quickly morphed into a free for all. But the multiplicity of reasons does not obscure the fundamental fact that this Islamism of ours can’t seem to rise above, let alone outsmart, even the stupidest of taunts. Worse still, that’s the last thing it wants. But since Islamists have long been insisting that theirs is the only answer to an all out Western assault on our identity, surely they can muster a more convincing one than just frothing at the mouth.
True, among the countless provocateurs that get mobs riled up, religion is king. There’s nothing quite like a mob drunk on sanctimony as it storms the streets avenging its victimhood or flaunting its self-righteousness. In that, we are no different from other offenders. But frankly, this pious fury that is always agitating on the surface of our collective existence is but that massive boil that keeps erupting in a body politic that appears utterly lacking in resilience. More than that, a body politic that visibly relishes its sickness, thinking it the proper antidote to all contaminants, homegrown no less than foreign.
If the trashy Innocence of Muslims is the price Liberty pays for its insistence on the vital tenet of freedom of speech, so it goes that the mad frenzy of the last week is the price Islamism is happy to pay for its insistence on the fundamental absence of that same freedom of speech.
This illiberalism does not a citizenship make. When sticking to their guns, as it were, it behooves Islamists (of all strains) to think hard about the lessons of the Arab uprisings. More importantly, it behooves the rest of us to do the same. For a while now, we, in the Middle East, have been witness to conversations on the compatibilities between democracy and Islam. It’s time to jack up the volume.
And should--for some bizarre reason--the West, and specifically the United States, be feeling the need to revisit its policy in the region, the first places to land in and the first friends to talk to are those who have long given sustenance and comfort to the most troubled among Islam’s devout children.