What is responsible for the outbreak of anti-American violence in the Muslim world? The obvious first answer is the reprehensible video. But, behind the video there are several theories being floated. Among them are: 1) The protesters are a street minority who do not reflect majority feelings. The distinction between populism and democracy is relevant here; 2) Democracy takes time. It is unreasonable to expect democratic values such as freedom of expression to be assimilated in such a short period of time; 3) A cultural clash is most evident. Western countries are attuned to criticizing and even mocking religious figures that are held sacred and beyond mockery by other cultures and religions; 4) The United States is associated with imperialism, often aligned with Israel. The violent outbreaks are a manifestation of a rejection of foreign intervention.
Animosity leading to violence is a form of protest. But protest against what? The high level of violence is in contradiction to increased global interdependence. With greater and greater technology, people should be moving closer and closer together. The more we know about people, the more we travel to different locations, the more cosmopolitan we should become. This is the idea behind twinned cities after World War II and innumerable student exchange programs like Erasmus in Europe. See the world, experience other cultures, and we should all become more tolerant.
Could it be that the opposite is taking place? Could it be that globalization and complex interdependence are leading to more and more animosity? The burning of the American flag by protesters against the Vietnam War was directed against a specific foreign policy. The current outbreak, beyond the video, is more generalized and diffused. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt.
My recent trip to India has impressed me with the many levels of differences between religious groups, ethnic minorities and economic classes. To be impressed by the IT development in Bangalore is not to forget the poor street people or horrendous education and sanitary conditions for a large part of the population. Nor is it to forget the violent deaths associated with the creation of Pakistan.
The fundamental question is how to incorporate elements of modernity while preserving local customs. Is freedom of speech as enshrined in the U.S. First Amendment a fundamental right appropriate in all countries? Does economic development necessarily challenge local cultures?
The Arab Spring was hailed as a fundamental change, a reawakening which would allow countries in the Muslim world to move closer and closer to Western values of democracy and democratic culture. The recent violent protests may be a temporary backlash, but they raise deep and troubling questions about how profound differences can be reconciled non-violently and the extent to which globalization has actually created a flat world.