Beyond religion: Getting to the heart of the violence

Smoke billows from the U.S. Embassy in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum during a protest against an amateur film mocking Islam Sept. 14, 2012.
AFP/Getty Images

At first, I could not come to terms with the violence we are witnessing. It just doesn't make sense.

Then there was a moment of clarity. To understand the heinous violence in Libya a popular narrative has been put forward: to insult Muslims was to unleash violent rage. The premise has been that Muslims are more sensitive than any other religion to attacks on the tenets of the religion, specifically on the Prophet. Yet, is that really the heart of the violence? Unfortunately, in the immediate efforts to understand the chaotic violence, a number of false and shallow explanations put forward have gained traction.

The "trailer" depicts a barbaric, violent narrative of Islam and its beloved Prophet. The reaction of some Muslims was to violently storm U.S. Embassies, kill American diplomats, and burn the flag. Not an effective, strategic response, to say the least. If anything this is the best validation of the message the trailer intended to convey.

So riddle me this: If Islam preaches peace and forgiveness - which I know it does - why was this message lost on the masses? If the life of Prophet exemplified generosity, kindness, and humanity - which I know it does - why was his example not upheld? This question was hounding me.

Widespread protests against U.S. over anti-Muslim film
Remains of Libya attack victims return home
Libyan president "determined" to catch attackers

But then I realized something important. In fact, the majority of Muslim countries did remember the message of Islam, and in fact upheld the example of the Prophet. The reality is that only seven out of the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Countries experienced violence. That is only 9 percent. Not to mention the large Muslim populations in non-member states, such as the U.S., UK, and China, also responded with restraint.

And so the original premise of Muslims being violent and barbaric was disproved by looking at the global scale. If all Muslims are prone to violence when Islam has attacked, why have the majority of Muslim countries not experienced such mayhem? Were they not Muslim enough?

Let me be clear. Muslims globally were outraged. Me included. I am not sated by a freedom of speech argument to defend something that promotes hate. I refute the film's message of religious intolerance and hate with the same passion that I refute those who deny the Holocaust.

As someone who works in conflict zones, I want to point out something else. Of that nine percent of countries in which there was a violent response to the film, almost 99 percent of them are environments experiencing the trauma of dictatorships, war, and/or a refugee crisis. Theories of peace and conflict will tell you that countries that are isolated, destabilized and constituted by traumatized society are more prone to violence.

For decades these nations (Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia and Libya) have lived under massive human rights abuses. The most optimistic assessment would say they are in the midst of a transition. Yet even with this positive spin, experience has shown us that change is slow in transitional countries. Painfully slow. The slow process of national-building, coupled with generations of experiences of trauma, have led to an overwhelming sense of vulnerability and increased sensitivity to humiliation.

Recognition of this situation often leads political analysts to assert their beloved pressure cooker analogy. The steam must be released.

In recent days, a loud vocal minority has stepped forward to "release the steam." Instead of diffusing the situation, this loud, vocal and extreme minority antagonized it further. This minority community comprises of many less than noble agendas. The producers of the film, extremists in their own rights, fall into this category. There is no doubt they anticipated, if not orchestrated, a violent reaction from these volatile and vulnerable populations overseas.

Moreover, it is clear that the violent extremists saw an opportunity to exploit the people on the streets. Without the proper institutions or experiences in place, the majority did not have the means to respond forcefully and immediately to the film. These extremists manipulated a genuine anger that people felt at a wrong that had been done to their religion, and they distorted it to fit their own agendas.

Rather than turning to political analysts or conflict resolution specialists who can speak to the dynamics - political and psychological - in transitional countries that have faced trauma, interview after interview has been with Islamic scholars. Despite the fact that I am the only international invited to join the Libya Stabilization team, representing a U.S.-based institute, few journalists have asked me questions about current events in Libya. Instead, the questions centered on what Islam has to say about violence.

The solution to this situation does not lie in reminding the Muslim world, or worse yet, trying to convince the Western world, that Islam is a religion of peace. We need to step back from the rhetoric of the inevitability of any attack on the religion of Islam leading to violence.

Manal Omar is the director of Iraq, Iran, and North Africa programs for the Center for Conflict Management at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.