Danish Cartoons, Seven Years on: On Hyper-Assabiya and Islamic Insecurities

In keeping with Daniel Pipes’ suggestion of a Muhammad Cartoon a day, I’m reposting the entries I wrote about the controversy when it broke. This is the first item I wrote about it.

Islamic Insecurities: On the Nature of Hyper-Asabiyya

Augean Stables, January 29, 2006

Solomonia has an interesting post on the Danish cartoon scandal with some pertinent comments about the insecurity it reveals about “a shockingly weak and fragile religion of over a billion people.”

This is a broad generalization, but bear with me. A lot of us here in the US, and I think it’s something sort of particular to the northeast, have this way of dealing with…testing…newcomers. We needle them. We apply a lit put-down humor. Just to see how they react. If they can take it, if they can even be a little self-effacing in return, or maybe give it back in good humor, then they’re in. If not, if they flip out and show their delicate ego and that hanging with them is going to be like walking on egg shells, then that’s it, it’s gonna take a lot to get them “in.”

Well if you didn’t already know it, the Muslim world is showing they just can’t take it, and in fact they can’t take even the smallest things…even a few lame cartoons in a paper no one in the world reads published in a country no one ever heard of before this happened (slight exageration — no offense).

And not only are they offended, and obviously annoyed, but they’re flipping out. How weak must these peoples’ psyches be to melt down this completely?

There’s a lot to this speculation, and it relates to the question of honor-shame cultures and their response to humiliation. Part of the problem is not merely seeing oneself in an unpleasant light, but also relates to one’s own self image. The more exceptional one feels one should be, the more painful the failure to live up to such expectations. In a chapter on Arab Self Image in his important survey of Arab Attitudes towards Israel Yehoshefat Harkabi notes that the Arabs have an exceptionally high sense of themselves which makes their defeats at the hands of the Jews so much the more painful. As a parallel, he quotes a line from Charles De Gaulle about the French (page 355):

France is not herself except when she is in the front rank… France cannot be France without her grandeur…” War Memoirs, French edition, part I, p.1.

Similarly, we find just these sentiments from a spokesman for al Qaeda:

How can [the Muslim] possibly accept humiliation and inferiority when he knows that his nation was created to stand at the center of leadership, at the center of hegemony and rule, at the center of ability and sacrifice? How can [he] possibly [acccep;t humiliation and inferiority] when he knows that the [divine] rule is that the entire earth must be subject to the religion of Allah — not to the East, not to the West — to no ideology and to no path except for the path of Allah? As long as the Muslim knows and believes in these facts, he will not– even for a single moment — stop striving to chieve it, even if it costs him his soul…”
Sulaiman abu Ghaith, “Why We Fight America” in The al Qaeda Connection, p. 16f.

In his book Islam under Siege, Akbar Ahmed writes about hyper-asabiyya, or the abreaction of masculine honor under conditions of uncontrollable loss of collective honor, the excessive group loyalty that people who feel under collective siege are driven to express. The Muslim world does indeed feel like it’s under siege by modernity, and its reaction is not only to want to destroy what it feels besieges it, but take the place of the West as the driving and dominating force in globalization. The question that faces us is, how do we deal with this?

PS. I do think the quote about the French explains why they sympathize so with the Arabs: Both people were once the leading civilization, both have had to live with history gone wrong, both deeply resent those who surpass them by the new rules of modernity.

2 Responses to Danish Cartoons, Seven Years on: On Hyper-Assabiya and Islamic Insecurities

  1. Cynic says:

    From the following
    A Cape Town professor is being detained at the Abu Dhabi

    Twelve years ago Karabus worked as a locum at the Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and operated on a seven-year-old cancer patient who later died of leukaemia.

    In his absence he was tried and found guilty of manslaughter. Bagraim said no attempt was made to contact Karabus and he was never given an opportunity to defend himself in court.

    I see it showing the great difference between the lands of the Free and the lands of the Fearful, between East and West, the tolerant and the intolerant, a stubborn few Europeans and a shockingly weak and fragile religion of over a billion people.

  2. AnneKavkaz says:

    A couple of days ago a Pakistani woman came to argue–not rant–at an anti-Jihad blog. She asked me, “How would you like Muslims to make a movie mocking Christianity?”

    I answered that they could make any movie they wanted and I would simply ignore it.

    “But it should make you angry! You should want to defend your religion!”

    She was angry with me because I would not get angry. There is a cultural divide here, honor-shame, perhaps?

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