Marching for Allah (1): what should we say about the Muslim protests?

Last week I awoke to the news of an Islamic protest march through the centre of Sydney. It wasn’t an entirely peaceful protest. I am Australian, but I live in Africa where this kind of thing is common, and often worse. Earlier this year, one of my students from Nigeria was unable to attend the first two weeks of term because his town was literally under siege by Muslim insurgents who were burning churches and the homes of Christians. No doubt the Christians were doing their own share of insurgency also. Nevertheless, it was still shocking for me to see pictures of Muslim protestors marching through Hyde Park to uphold the honour of their prophet Muhammad. One photograph showed a child holding a banner that read, “Behead all those who insult the prophet!” How should Christians respond?

There is no doubt that their prophet was being insulted. They were protesting a new movie being made in the United States, apparently depicting Muhammad as a womanizer and child molester. Subsequent media attention has, unsurprisingly, focused on reassuring us that Muslims are not generally violent people, that Islam is a religion of peace, and that these minority factions exist within many religions. We have nothing to fear from Islam, apparently. My Nigerian student might disagree.

But whether this is true or not, the western media has once again largely missed the bigger picture of what is going on here. The protests weren’t about violence in the name of religion, and the relevant point isn’t whether this is a minority sect within a largely peaceful Islamic sub-culture. The protests were about honour. It is completely nonsensical to me, and to many in the west I suspect, that a group of people would march through Sydney protesting the production of a film in the United States. What did they expect the Australian government to do? What could have they possibly hoped to achieve? But they did achieve something. Muhammad had been publicly disgraced; shame had been brought upon the Islamic religion. The protestors sent a clear message that that isn’t OK with them. We’ve seen this plenty of times in recent events, from the cartoons of Muhammad in the Danish press, to the trial in Melbourne of Pastor Danni Nalliah for vilification. The protests weren’t about policy, they were aiming to restore honour.

To be sure, Muslims will disagree on how best to honour their prophet and their god. The founder of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, Keyser Trad, was quick to respond that the protest “[did] nothing to uphold the prophet’s honour as they claim.”1 But the issue isn’t violence or whether Islam is inherently violent or not. Whatever method they advocate to do it, something every Muslim will hold dear is that Allah, Muhammad and the Islamic religion be seen to be honoured. Islam is an inherently honour based religion. Allah must be seen to win.

If you are scratching your head at this point, and wondering why honour is so important to Muslims, why a bunch of people thought what happened yesterday was honouring anyone, and why common sense didn’t prevail (because protesting in Sydney could accomplish very little in California), then you need to stop and consider that perhaps what you call common sense isn’t actually all that common. Perhaps what is sensible, what you call rational, is in part determined by culture.

For a very long time, Christian missionaries have been noticing that cultural differences run far deeper than just food, clothes and customs.  People from different cultures actually think differently. They rationalize differently. I’m not talking about the kind of rationality you use to do mathematics. I’m talking about the thoughts you think in order to motivate action: the thoughts you have to determine what kinds of activities are morally acceptable, practical, useful, wise and ethical.

Over the next few days I’d like to think through this idea with you. My plan is firstly to explore the idea of culturally determined rationality, then to draw out some implications for commending the gospel, and then finally think about how we western Christians might respond when we see Muslims doing things like the protest march that happened last week.

More on this tomorrow—until then, what kinds of things would you put in the category of “rational thought”? Coming up with how you define rationality will be useful for what follows.

  1. Ilya Gridneff. ‘Police Gas Sydney Protestors‘. Syndey Morning Herald. 15 September, 2012.

16 thoughts on “Marching for Allah (1): what should we say about the Muslim protests?

  1. We Westerners don’t understand honour cultures because our culture has been reformed by Christianity.

    Christianity breaks down the logic of honour cultures because Jesus was stripped of honour on the cross. Christians follow a leader who was humiliated. A leader who insists that Christians should themselves “take up their cross”, joining him in his humiliation.

    Indeed, one of the Muslim creeds is that it is unthinkable Jesus was crucified, as Allah would not let that happen to his Prophet.

    • That’s very true! I remember learning about the Anglo-Saxons, and how if someone in a family/tribe was killed, their kinsman was expected to do something about it…usually something violent.

      I suppose the fact that believing and non-believing Westerners are baffled by the protests might be a sign of God’s grace in our lives. Because we could be much, much worse.

      Berserkers come to mind. ; )

    • I don’t think that honour/shame based cultures are inherently sinful or that guilt based cultures are better. The many Christians of Asian cultures do not attempt to reform them, as far as I know. Shame cultures are just different. The Bible speaks to both, and though we westerners often focus on Jesus saving us from our guilt, it also says he saves us from shame.

      I think Nathan’s point is that these protests are not just revealing an honour based culture, but a religion where the people feel they must uphold their god’s honour, whatever the cost.

    • Thanks Ken and Dannii. Both were insightful comments.

      I think between the two of you you’ve managed to raise two of the central issues that I’m hoping to think about in this series. Certainly Ken, I agree, that Christianity does something to culture, and I’ll be exploring a little bit the value of our western heritage as this series progresses. But I also agree with Dannii that honour cultures are not somehow intrinsically less Christian. It is interesting though, as I pointed out in today’s post, that cultures identified as honour cultures roughly correspond to the areas of the world least reached by the gospel. Perhaps there is a connection to be explored? What do you think Dannii?

      • I don’t really know. I think Japan’s shame culture is definitely part of its resistance to the gospel. I met people there who knew the gospel and even accepted its truth, but would not accept Jesus. It was the first time that I realised that believe and confess (Romans 10:9) are two things not one.

        But there are huge numbers of Chinese and Korean Christians, and their cultures are too dissimilar to Japan’s. Obviously more is going on.

        Another factor is between individual vs group emphasising cultures, which might broadly correspond to guilt vs shame cultures. I’m hypothesising on the spot here, but maybe some high profile Chinese and Korean people became Christians and brought their families to Jesus, which hasn’t happened in Japan? Or maybe the difference is between Buddhism alone and Buddhism + Shinto?

        That’s all East Asian cultures though. I don’t really know much about Islamic cultures.

        • Yes, I suspect that the difference between Asian honour-cultures and Islamic ones is monotheism. I know from experience that living with Indonesian Muslims was culturally more like living with Middle-eastern people than it was like living with Asians.

          I wouldn’t like to speculate on what has made Korea different from Japan with respect to the reception of the gospel though. It would be a fascinating study!

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  3. Doesn’t the definition of honour vary from one culture to another? From my western perspective, if I am insulted then the honourable response is not to sink down to the level of my insulter by retaliating or throwing a tantrum or committing violence. Rather I consider it honourable to ignore the insult and to respond with love & graciousness to my persecutor, thereby heaping burning coals on his head. There are times when I think it is legitimate to express anger (such as when God’s laws are violated or when God is dishonoured) but I don’t think it is honourable for such outburts to include arson, vandalism, and murder. From my western perspective, the way some Muslims have rioted seems childish and immature. It seems to me they are behaving like brute beasts driven by their carnal, visceral instincts rather than directing their behaviour with self-control and a noble spirit. Isn’t there a proverb in the Bible that says a man who can keep his anger in check is mightier than a warrior who can capture a city?
    Also, I am not sure whether the rioting Muslims are concerned to defend the honour of Allah so much as to defend their own personal honour? Are they driven by reverence for their god or by personal pique? Would they be content to be personally humiliated just so long as in the process Allah and Mohammed were exalted? “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

    • Hi Phil,

      Thanks for your reply. I’m fascinated by it actually, because it seems to be a pretty good example of exactly what I’m trying to illustrate in this series. Have a look at the next few parts (there have been 2 more posted so far) and see if you agree.

      Let me give you an example. Whatever else, I think we will probably agree that from *their* perspective, the Muslim protestors were not behaving in a “childish and immature” way. I’m suggesting that their own eyes, what they were doing was perfectly rational. Since to you it was “visceral instincts,” and to them it was rational, then the only solution is that you and they disagree on what constitutes rationality.

      Furthermore, I would suggest that in their eyes, the things you describe as “honourable” — ignoring the insult, responding with goodness — probably come across as cowardice and degrading. So yes, you disagree on the definition of honour. But we have to use one word or another to describe the difference, and an honour-based/guilt-based works pretty well.

      As Christians, we can respond in a couple of ways. We can just assume that they are being childish, as you suggest. But if we do this then we are actually failing to love them according to our own standard of love: we are assuming the worst about them, and we are making no attempt to understand them on their own terms. As you described the event above, you even suggested that it wasn’t really about them honouring Allah, but themselves. Do you think they see it like that? “He must increase but I must decrease” is a totally foreign concept in Islam. Allah is glorified through the victory of his people.

      The reason I wrote this series is to perhaps help us see a way past that impasse. I’m suggesting that whatever else we do, we shouldn’t see their actions as irrational. Neither should we see them as the media suggests: the result of a violent fundamentalist splinter group. We should look deeper than both of those knee-jerk reactions, and see if we can get to what’s really going on.

      Anyway, have a look at the rest of the series, and see if you agree by the end.

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  5. Hi Nathan,
    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I take your point that westerners and easterners differ in how they define honourable behaviour, and I am sure you are right that Mohammedans regard turning the other cheek as cowardice. But I don’t think this difference is a simple case of 2 opposing and equally valid opinions, like I like my steak rare while you prefer yours well done. God’s standards are absolute and he has revealed his righteous ways to us, supremely through the life of his Son. When Jesus was reviled, he did not revile in return. He taught us to do good to our enemies. When he expressed zeal for his Father’s honour, he did not resort to arson or murder, unlike the Mohammedans in Libya and elsewhere. (I have no objection to Mohammedans staging peaceful rallies and marches to express their outrage but I do object to violent mobs destroying other people’s lives and property in fits of uncontrolled aggression.) So I believe the traditional eastern emphasis on upholding honour by asserting oneself and demanding to be honoured in public is wrong and the western perspective is right, because God has endorsed the latter.
    I will read your follow-up articles in this series and I look forward to being further challenged. Thank you for this conversation.

    • Thanks Phil. I’ll be happy to continue the conversation.

      Just for the record – I didn’t say that they were equal but different opinions, and cultures certainly aren’t morally neutral. (Actually, each culture is just as fallen and broken as the next in different ways. After all, everyone is a sinner in need of grace.) I think all I was trying to imply was that we should understand first, and then evaluate. We’ll get to some evaluation in the articles that will come next week.

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