Since colonialism brought Western and Islamic societies crashing together over a century ago, the former has struggled to understand the rage it seems to provoke in the latter.
A protester rests on a barricade near the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt. (Reuters)
In August 1857, a century before the United Nations would declare the Israeli state in what had been Palestine, before British and French diplomats would formally carve up the Middle East, before the U.S. would back a coup in Iran, before political Islamism would emerge, and before the U.S. would arm unmanned airplanes to kill Islamism's most violent and radical adherents, the British empire found itself besieged by Muslim protesters.
Officers at Fort William, in the Indian city of Calcutta, were the first to require colonial troops to grease their rifles with a compound that included cow and pig fat, a mixture guaranteed to offend both Hindus and Muslims. Many of the troops, known as sepoys, protested. The protests spread and turned violent, growing into an uprising that affected much of the British Raj at a time long before it was unified by roads or telephones, much less cell phones or the Internet. To give a sense of scale, the Raj covered about 4 million square kilometers; the countries of today's European Union make up 4.3 million.
Looking back, the cause-and-effect between the animal grease and the protests might seem obvious today, but it shocked British overseers at the time, and historians still dispute the larger causes, which seem to go well beyond just the pig fat offense. "Muslim activists called the mutiny a jihad, and their well-organized assaults suggested that the bullet-grease issue had merely been the spark," Tamim Ansary wrote in his book, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. The suddenness and vociferousness of 1857's Muslim protests, in what was then the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, as well as the West's struggle to either foresee or understand their anger, have their echoes in this past week's demonstrations against the U.S. over the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims.
As the Western world once again endeavors to understand the roots of apparently anti-Western rage that have again surfaced in large parts of the Muslim world, it's worth remembering the history of offense and backlash that has been a recurring theme of their intersections. Ansary's history of the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion cited "the cultural gulf between the British officers and their [Indian] foot soldiers, a gulf that had not existed before Europeans arrived." Then, as now, Western observers looked for causes political and cultural, particular to this uprising in this moment and general to the region and its history. They've found plenty: economic disenfranchisement among certain classes, conversion anxieties, political manipulation, local factors, and of course foreign domination, among many others. Islam and its followers came under special scrutiny, also like today, although the fact that so many Hindus participated suggests that the particularities of this one religion were not a good lens for understanding the rebellion.
It's entirely possible, even likely, that there is truth to a number of these theories, just as with the sometimes similar and sometimes different theories of "Muslim Rage," to borrow from a 1990 Atlanticcover story, that Westerns have explored so many times before. We've had many opportunities to theorize: the 2010 Florida Koran burning protests, the 2005 Muhammad cartoon protests, the wide 1990 demonstrations in support of Saddam Hussein that shocked the West, the near-global violence over Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, and the deadly 1979 U.S. embassy attacks in Iran, Libya, and Pakistan. Protests and anger marked much of the colonial era as well, from the 1936 Arab Uprising in then-Palestine to the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion to the 1879 Urabi Revolt in Egypt.
It's worth considering the extent to which these movements have been connected by themes that can both encompass and be larger than the particularities of each. Many in the Middle East and South Asia are in fact furious with the U.S. for its drone program, but their anger and suspicion look awfully similar to those propelling the demonstrations in, for example, 1979 or 1988 or 1990 or 2005, during most of which drones did not exist. To say that Muslims are protesting because they're angry about drones is true in a similar way that, for example, San Francisco Democrats are likely to vote against Mitt Romney in November because they dislike his stance on gay marriage, or that people in China are protesting Japan because they disagree with Tokyo's claim over some disputed islands.
There is probably no simple, single explanation for something as old, complicated, and variegated as the anger in parts of the Muslim world against the West. Not even colonialism, perhaps the single most significant interaction between the Western and Muslim worlds since the Renaissance, is a satisfactory explanation: why, then, do the harshly colonized societies of sub-Saharan Africa report some of the highest approval ratings for American leadership in the world? (Before you answer "because oil" or "because Islam," keep in mind the Angola and Nigeria are enormous oil exporters to the U.S., and that much of Africa is Muslim.)
Perhaps the single most consistent theme in the anti-Western protests and incidents that we so often term "Muslim rage" is our perennial struggle to understand them. "Why do they hate us?" is a question we've been asking for a long time. Judging by some of the protest signs dotting Africa and Asia last week, demanding Western respect for Islam and its adherents, it might be a question that many Muslims ask of us, too. None of this is to advance a specific theory for last week's protests or the anger behind them, but rather to place them within the much longer history of offense and outrage between the Western and Muslim worlds, a generations-old mutual misapprehension that has long defied the sorts of easy answers that we might be tempted to reach for today.
Despite warnings, Trump gazed directly at the eclipse.
During the solar eclipse today, President Donald Trump stepped onto the White House balcony with his wife and his son Barron, and he looked up at the sun.
According to White House reporters, an aide shouted a warning that he should not look at the sun. Nevertheless, he persisted.
There were parts of the United States, along path of totality, that allowed people to look directly at the eclipse. But Washington, D.C., was not among them.
How much damage can a person do by staring at the sun for a few seconds?
As many children are warned, there is indeed no “safe” amount of time to stare directly at the sun. Note that no ophthalmologists recommend any amount of glancing or squinting at the eclipse. Against the energy of the sun, human eyelids are like a dam built of tissue paper.
The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and an act of sacrilege.
Taboo and sacredness are among the most important words needed to understand Charlottesville and its aftermath. Taboo refers to things that are forbidden for religious or supernatural reasons. All traditional societies have such prohibitions—things you must not do, touch, or eat, not because they are bad for you directly, but because doing so is an abomination, which may bring divine retribution. But every society also makes some things sacred, rallying around a few deeply revered values, people, or places, which bind all members together and make them willing to sacrifice for the common good. The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and saw President Trump commit an act of sacrilege by violating one of our society’s strongest taboos.
A tour of the solar eclipse’s path reveals a nation that fought to maintain a different sort of totality.
Totality is everything, say those who chase solar eclipses. When the moon fully obscures the sun and casts its shadow on Earth, the result is like nothing you’ve seen before—not even a partial eclipse. A merely partial eclipse does not flip day to night, because the sun is bright enough to light our fields of vision with only a tiny fraction of its power. But when the sun and moon align just so, a little piece of Earth goes dark in the middle of the day. In this path of totality, night comes suddenly and one can see the shape of the moon as a circle darker than black, marked by the faint backlight of the sun’s corona. Astronomers and eclipse chasers chart carefully to be sure that they can watch from exactly the right place at the right time. They know that you cannot compromise with the sun. For a dark sky, the sun must be banished altogether.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Beyond the Wall,” the sixth episode of the seventh season.
Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”
Ever since it was first published in 1982, readers—including this one—have thrilled to “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard’s masterpiece of literary nonfiction, which describes her personal experience of a solar eclipse in Washington State. It first appeared in Dillard’s landmark collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and was recently republished in The Abundance, a new anthology of her work. The Atlantic is pleased to offer the essay in full, here, until the day after the ‘Great American Eclipse’ on August 21.
It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering. We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place—a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima. The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early in the next morning.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
On Monday night, Trump offered a new plan for Afghanistan, combing a military strategy with one that puts Pakistan on notice for supporting militants, and saying while the U.S. wanted the Afghan government to succeed, U.S. support was not a “blank check.” Trump also moved decisively away from the Bush-era policy of the U.S. as a force to spread democracy overseas.
The cartoonist defended the president in a podcast debate with Sam Harris. The portrait he painted of Trump supporters was not flattering.
Sam Harris, the atheist philosopher and neuroscientist, has recently been using his popular Waking Up podcast to discuss Donald Trump, whom he abhors, with an ideologically diverse series of guests, all of whom believe that the president is a vile huckster.
This began to wear on some of his listeners. Wasn’t Harris always warning against echo chambers? Didn’t he believe in rigorous debate with a position’s strongest proponents? At their urging, he extended an invitation to a person that many of those listeners regard as President Trump’s most formidable defender: Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, who believes that Trump is “a master persuader.”
Their conversation was posted online late last month. It is one of the most peculiar debates about a president I have ever encountered. And it left me marveling that parts of Trump’s base think well of Adams when his views imply such negative things about them.
“Medicare for all” is a popular idea, but for Americans, transitioning to such a system would be difficult, to say the least.
French women supposedly don’t get fat, and in the minds of many Americans, they also don’t get stuck with très gros medical bills. There’s long been a dream among some American progressives to truly live as the “Europeans1” do and have single-payer health care.
Republicans’ failure—so far—to repeal and replace Obamacare has breathed new life into the single-payer dream. In June, the majority of Americans told Pew that the government has the responsibility to ensure health coverage for everyone, and 33 percent say this should take the form of a single government program. The majority of Democrats, in that poll, supported single payer. A June poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation even found that a slim majority of all Americans favor single payer.