Some online friends and I were having a discussion on civil society and violence in Libya and elsewhere, in relation to the recent violence in the Middle East (most prominently the murdered Americans) over the "Innocence of Muslims" movie. It got me thinking, and this is my attempt to lay my thoughts out more clearly.
We all agreed that the recent violence is not caused by Islam per se. That is, Muslims may be offended because they are Muslims, but they are not more likely to react violently because they are Muslims. Rather, the explanation lies in the specific situations of the countries where the violence occurred. Good evidence for this is the lack of violent protests in America over the movie -- American Muslims may be (rightly) offended, but they aren't killing people or demanding that a movie be banned.
In general, the issue is that in Libya (and to a lesser extent in other countries) the state does not have the monopoly on legitimate violence. This is not simply because there is a power vacuum with Qaddafi gone, that the alternative to Qaddafi's authoritarianism is anarchy. On the contrary, the arbitrary rule of a despot like Qaddafi relies exclusively upon violence. It is not rooted in law or custom but in force. Despots like Qaddafi do not build up order, but destroy what laws once existed and replace them with the rule of force. When a tyrant like Qaddafi falls, the country is left with no social structure (no laws or customs) to prevent outbreaks of violence, since violence is the only law left.
In such a situation, people will turn back to whatever source of law they knew, which is this case is Sharia. Sharia, for all its manifold injustices and its utter incompatibility with human rights or freedoms, is a system of law that has legitimacy beyond force. It has a sophisticated jurisprudence, a codified set of legal procedures and most importantly its authority does not rest with the guy with the most guns. It seems to hearken back to a time before 'modernizing' tyrants like Qaddafi (or colonialists before them) swept away all law and order. This is probably a myth -- the all-powerful Sharia that Salafists advocate never seems to have been applied in practice -- but it is a powerful myth that speaks to a need for freedom from arbitrary violence.
This is not to say that the triumph of Sharia is imminent or inevitable. On the contrary, it is likely that conservative Islamism's appeal with fade with time, and it is critical to remember that in Libya at least the Salafists do not seem particularly popular. Rather I only want to explain the appeal of Sharia, and to argue that the way to counter this appeal is not by resorting once more to the rule of force by blowing the shit out people. It is not clear to me what we Americans can do; frankly this is something that the people of Libya (and other countries) must figure out for themselves.
I would like to thank the Horde for this post -- these thoughts are theirs as much as mine.