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October 2, 2012

The deadly myth of a clash of civilizations

Isaac Friesen

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Today is a relatively normal day in Beni Suef. The sun is shining, the streets are lined with fresh vegetables and fruit, and motorbikes and microbuses whiz by in all directions. Muslims, Christians, Egyptians young and old, move about the Egyptian city as usual.

But beneath the surface, a tension hangs over much of the country. It is on the tip of everyone’s tongues, and in the back of everyone’s minds. And each time I turn on the news, I see that this bad dream carries on.

So where did it all begin? A tape? A ridiculous amateur documentary on the wickedness of Islam? A video that deserves about as much publicity as the narcissistic perpetrator of the Norway massacre? Apparently so.

But why the big reaction in the Arab world over such a small, albeit incredibly offensive, video?

While I have grown tired of generalizations about Islam, I think I can make one in saying that the Prophet Muhammad is very special to Muslims.

There is no Egyptian South Park or Family Guy where Muhammad is ridiculed like just another cartoon character. In Egypt, the cultural limits are very different than those in the West, especially when it comes to religion. As a good Muslim friend told me this week, “We really love our prophet.” But it is not like my friend is grabbing a Molotov cocktail and heading to Garden City to join in the Cairo protests.

The Egyptians I know see the video for the ridiculous piece of propaganda that it is, and that there is no need to smash or kill over it. Unfortunately, like any other place in the world, the Middle East has violent reactionary elements in the population. Reluctantly tied to the video, Egypt’s Copts wait nervously in fear that they will have to foot the bill for the stupidity of a few Americans. And now look what an angry Muslim minority has done in the region’s diplomatic quarters.

Most western newspapers seem to have figured out the whole story quite nicely. America is now facing the brunt of Muslim rage, they proclaim. “Muslim mobs target U.S. embassies,” the headlines cry. Highly rated comments on the CBC News website tell of how there needs to be a complete disengagement between the West and the barbaric Muslim world. And so we dance to the pied pipers of hatred and the masters of war.

Of course most Muslims have better things to do than hate America. They work, they pray, they go to the gym. But a Muslim family sitting down to the dinner table does not make as good a cover photo as a screaming Salafi. And much as George W. Bush and the torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib came to symbolize the West for some Arabs, Osama bin Laden and the Libyan embassy violence have become the faces of Islam in the West.

Whether this is simply human nature to hate the other, or part of a larger “plan,” all these generalizations perpetuate the incredibly harmful myth of a clash of civilizations.

Islam, like the West, is not monolithic. There are so many sides to anything in life. So why focus on the negative extremes, giving voice to a violent minority?

The future depends on those with broader minds and clearer heads to step forward and articulate a more positive vision of our natural differences. Only compassion and understanding from all sides can save us.

But until now, we are forced to hear about senseless responses to an even more senseless video. What a waste.

Isaac Friesen, of Waterloo, is currently serving with the Mennonite Central Committee in Beni Suef, Egypt. He has a master's degree in Middle Eastern history from the Tri-University Graduate Program.

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