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Responding to Recent Global Incidents: Interview w/ Dr. Warren Larson

2971309249_e7e31b0850_zWhy so much rage?

I’m not sure I fully grasp why there is so much violence and rage in the Muslim world that is directed toward America, but I understand some of where it’s coming from.  The major reason is that the United States is seen as an aggressor, interested in pursuing her own interests, and pushing her own agenda.  “Case in point,” say the Muslims: “President Bush went in to Iraq under false pretence and felt God was on ‘our side.’” Most Muslims think oil and influence in the Middle East were major concerns. I don’t think this is completely fair but everything we do is not necessarily right and noble.  When some Muslims lash out at such a time as this, they are striking out in blind rage because they feel helpless, oppressed and victimized.  It is true; they have been oppressed, in many cases by self-serving dictators who have not allowed freedom of expression.  Most have absolutely no concept of the First Amendment.

Was this a revenge attack for the killing of Osama bin Laden?

I don’t believe it was a revenge attack for the killing of bin Laden, because many Muslims came to see through bin Laden as cruel, selfish and violent.  PEW studies show most in the Muslim world had already turned away from al-Qaeda and bin Laden knew it.   Pakistanis were upset by what the Navy Seals did because they were revealed to be weak, inefficient and incapable of maintaining law and order on their own soil.  They were dishonored and shamed by their own weaknesses.

Given the fact that this movie came out last July was this a coordinated operation?

There might have been some planning by extremists in Libya (and Egypt); because no doubt extremists want to stir up trouble, but I don’t think it was coordinated.  Having lived through an attack on November 20, 1979, when a false rumor had it that the United States and Israel had taken over the Ka’aba in Mecca, my sense is this was the same.  It was spontaneous, perpetrated by the Ayatollah Khomeini, taken at face value, and we were the objects of their rage.  At that time, the United States Embassy in Islamabad was burned to the ground, and the lives of two Pakistani guards were lost.  In Benghazi, Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans were killed because insecurity was not enough to protect them.  It is very, very sad that lives were lost and I grieve for the families of these victims.

Isn’t freedom of expression an American value?

Yes, it is an American value, and it’s worth fighting for, but the fledgling democracies we see in much of the Muslim world have little or no concept of the freedom we cherish.  I suspect it will take decades for some Muslim societies to get to where we are today.  At the moment, religious sentiments trump freedom to say what you want, when you want, and how you want.  When things don’t happen overnight, we say the Arab Spring is dead.  Muslims see a Reverend Terry Jones burning copies of the Qur’an, and endorsing the film “Innocence of Muslims,” which he apparently did.  Unfortunately, truth is mixed with lies in what they hear.  To them, it is a conspiracy to defame Islam and denigrate Muhammad.  They don’t understand us and we don’t understand them, and I believe this divide will stay with us for years.

Is it pandering when the Obama Administration condemns the film?

I don’t think so.  Reluctantly, I watched the 14-minute trailer, and understand why it would inflame Muslims.  There is undoubtedly some truth in it, but also certain unproven theories and historical errors about the life of Muhammad.  He is portrayed as a homosexual and as pedophile.  He was not a homosexual, and though he did marry an underage girl, and consummated the marriage when she was nine years old, he does not fit the pedophile profile.  A pedophile is one who gets sexual fulfillment from children.  Other than A’isha, his wives were adults, and many were war widows.  The film mixes truth with fiction in order to taunt Muslims into violence.  It was created with sinister motives.

Aren’t Muslims inconsistent?

There is no question that Muslims are inconsistent, but I am heartened by the fact that some in Libya took out processions saying they condemned the killing in Benghazi.  From a Christian standpoint, the killing was done by those “whose feet are swift to shed blood” (Romans 3:15).  Is this excusable?  No.  It is reprehensible, cruel and wicked, but what can we expect?  These are people who do not know the Lord.  They have never experienced the new birth, and they are not filled with the love of God.  I am angered by the action in Benghazi, Cairo and recently in Islamabad, where a little Christian girl was accused of blasphemy.  But I’m also angered by those who seek political gain from this incident.  It is not true that President Obama is a Muslim and soft on terrorists.  It is not fair, nor is it accurate, to say that all this happened because of Obama.  It is simplistic to say that respect for the United States is falling in the Muslim world because of this Administration’s policies.  I would have expected a presidential candidate to think first, do his research, and then speak in measured tones.

How should we then respond?

To be honest, I have struggled with this myself, and I can only speak of what I think is the Christian reaction.  We do not hate Muslims and do not even hate Islam.  The Christian response should be to love truth, but not to stir up religious hatred, animosity and violence.  We should not want Muslims to perish; rather we should want them to come to the knowledge of the truth (II Peter 3:9).  We expose falsehood, injustice and cruelty, however the impression I have from some Americans, including some Christian Americans, is that they couldn’t care less what happens to Muslims.  I’m not saying ‘Sam Bacile’ (the man behind this infamous movie), or Steve Klein who pushed it, are Christians.  I am angry at how the Muslims have reacted but also at the producers and endorsers of this film.

Larson, WarrenDr. Warren Larson
Professor of Muslim Studies, Columbia International University