Religious Entitlement and the Protests in the Middle East

Religious Entitlement

It is with sadness and distress that I view the violent protests that have broken out in the Muslim world over a video that apparently was designed to be insulting toward Mohammad. While I disapprove of denigrating the religion of others, I regard it as utterly inexcusable to respond with actions that lead to death and destruction.  Any attempt to defend the honor of a faith tradition by violent means does the very opposite.

No doubt many factors have contributed to the turmoil that is currently taking place in over a dozen nations. Misunderstandings regarding the nature of freedom of expression in the West, seething resentment over American military action in Islamic countries, as well as the fact that a certain element in every society never misses an opportunity to act out in destructive ways all play a role.

For some people the violence and disruption is another piece of evidence that the Islamic faith is intrinsically intolerant and vicious. “Where do we see Christians acting like this?” is a question I’ve heard voiced. Though many Christian critics of Muslims will concede that Christians have been destructive at a number of points in history, some imagine we must look to the Middle Ages or at least prior to the 20th century to find the kind of barbarism they attribute to Muslims.

Conveniently forgotten is the 1982 massacre of 800 Palestinian Muslims in refugee camps in Lebanon by a militia linked to the Maronite Christians. The role of Orthodox Christians who had been blessed and encouraged by their priests as they engaged in the genocide of Bosnian Muslims is also ignored by those who claim that the political violence in the Middle East is an outgrowth characteristic of the Islamic faith.

I would suggest that among the factors at play in the Muslim world in the response to the offending video is a sense of religious entitlement. Because theirs is the majority faith in their region of the world, some among Muslim leaders and adherents believe they have a right to dictate how others respond to their beliefs. There seems to be an assumption that non-Muslims have an obligation to defer and refrain from doing anything that could be seen as lessening the dignity or diminishing the role of Islam in their society.

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I believe that this sense of entitlement is not unique to Muslims. We find it in many American Christians. Though Jesus said nothing that would suggest that his followers would be anything but a beleaguered minority (Luke 6:22-23; John 15:18-21) some Christian leaders believe Christians should act as a dominate majority. Not content to influence the culture as “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16), some Christians believe they should control it. The insistence that America is a “Christian nation,” the overblown concern about keeping the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on coins or posting the Ten Commandments in public building or even considering it an “act of hostility” when a President doesn’t host a National Day of Prayer event in the White House and much more all points to a sense of religious entitlement. However things might seem from inside one’s faith community, from the outside religious self-assertion always looks like an ugly thing.

I do not intend to suggest that the problem of religious entitlement in America is equivalent to what we see in Arab nations. But I do question efforts to insure an official place for God by any definition, whether in Muslim terms or in Christian terms. It is not by laws or intimidation or unquestionable tradition or public protest that God gains honor. Indeed, it is far better to endure religious insult than to demand a place of religious privilege. By so doing one is much more likely to truly honor God and be seen as honorable in the eyes of others.

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Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”

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