WHEN AMBASSADOR Chris Stevens and other embassy staff were killed in Benghazi in September, it struck close to home for us at Sojourners. The last time a U.S. ambassador was slain was in 1979, when Adolph Dubs, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, was kidnapped by Islamic extremists and later killed. His daughter, Lindsay Dubs, was Sojourners’ managing editor. The degrees of separation between world events and the home front are often slim.
Some attributed last month’s violence in the Middle East to “fanaticism,” a “blind and tragic barbarism” by “imbeciles.” Others used words such as “beyond pathetic,” “fringe,” and “extremists.”
Those descriptions were applied to both those who created the anti-Islam video that provided the spark, and those who used the hateful video as a reason, or excuse, to engage in violent protests against the United States and the “West,” including Israel.
The media repeatedly summarized the cause of the violence as resting in the intentionally offensive video, and said that Muslims, angered by the blasphemous depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, rioted in a blind and uncontrollable rage. Moustafa Bayoumi, writing for the Middle East Research and Information Project, described the process: “Islamophobes provoke. Too many Muslims respond. Non-Muslims believe Muslims are crazy. Muslims are told the West hates them, and the Islamophobic right sleeps well at night with their cozy dreams of a mission accomplished.”
At heart, extremists on both sides thrive on the same thing: Hatred of the other. As Bayoumi put it, “The Islamophobes in the United States and the ultra-religious right in Muslim-majority countries need each other to survive. ... To the Islamophobes, all Muslims are extremists. ... To the Muslim Far Right, all Westerners harbor a deep-seated anti-Islamic sentiment ...” As Nabeel Jabbour, author of The Crescent Through the Eyes of The Cross, put it, “It is not a clash of civilizations. It is a clash of fanaticisms among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.”
WHILE THERE IS truth in this analysis, the mutually reinforcing cycle of violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The slanderous video served as the match, as its creators intended, but the powder keg was readied by events years and even decades in the making.
Muslims have long deplored the presence of U.S. troops in what many see as wars of occupation, especially in Iraq but also in Afghanistan and in other countries that host U.S. military bases. The drone attacks of the past few years—especially in Pakistan and Yemen—have resulted in the deaths of many civilians and have increased an-ti-American sentiment. Several recent incidents—including the burning of Qurans by U.S. military members in Afghanistan—fueled the perception of Western disrespect for Islam. And what is seen in much of the world as one-sided U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine continues to be one of the sharpest thorns in the side for many Muslims. The list of these root causes of anti-American anger among some Muslims isn’t a new one, but if we choose to ignore them, we’re fated to endure many more outbreaks of violence, at home and abroad.
In the wake of the tragic violence last month, Christians of all stripes issued clear denunciations of both the defamatory video and the violent responses. But if we ever want to break down the barriers that divide our world into armed camps, we’ll have to move deeper than the action-reaction cycle. We’ll need to address the root causes of hostility—and stand up to the extremists, especially those on “our side,” who will do their best to scuttle any efforts at reconciliation and bridge-building—remembering that peace never comes without a lot of hard, intentional work. Loving our neighbors, next door and around the world, has never been more important.
Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners.
Image: Pray-info text graphic, Fifian Iromi  / Shutterstock.com