Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The wider context of the violence sparked by an anti-Islamic film

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Update from AIJAC

Sept. 20, 2012
Number 09/12 #04

It has been a week of often violent protests worldwide (including some in Australia's region  as well as in Australia), leaving dead at least 30 demonstrators and the four American diplomatic staff in Libya,  and sparked, ostensibly, by an amateurish and offensive trailer for a movie about the prophet Muhammed posted on YouTube. This Update looks at the wider context of such reactions to an ugly and bigoted but insignificant movie clip.

First up is Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who emphasises that the anger and violence now being exhibited in these demonstrations is actually of a piece with the wider "Arab Spring" movement which has dominated events in the wider region since the beginning of last year. He notes that the "deep-seated political and economic grievances that had been decades in the making" that led to the uprisings have certainly not been resolved, and there is, as a result, both an inclination to look for others to blame and many parties manoeuvring for power looking for any opportunity to exploit such inclinations. He warns in particular against two Western reactions to the unrest - seeing these events as the harbinger of some sort of "epic civilization-level conflict" between the Muslim world and the West, and the temptation to disengage from the Middle East in frustration. For his explanation in more detail, CLICK HERE. More pieces on why this should not be seen primarily as an issue related to an offensive movie clip from foreign policy analyst Adam Garfinkle, New York Times columnist Ross Douhat, and author Lee Smith.

Next up is American foreign policy pundit Walter Russell Mead, who focuses mainly on the local politics behind these demonstrations, reminding everyone that this is not primarily about us (meaning the West). He focuses on the fact that radicals, such as the Salafists in Egypt, love this sort of issue, because it allows them to paint anyone more moderate as soft appeasers who take the side of America against their own people and religion. He warns that the next major point of explosion could be attacks on religious minorities, especially Egypt's Coptic Christians, given the alleged involvement of Coptic Christians in the production of the movie which sparked the unrest. Mead has a lot more to say that's of interest, and to read it all, CLICK HERE. Another very good look at the local and regional politics behind the reaction to this video comes from Barry Rubin.

Finally, noted academic scholar of the Middle East Fouad Ajami looks at the history of these campaigns of outrage at purported insults to Islam - from the Rushdie affair, to the murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh, to the Danish cartoons - and asks why the Arab World has proven so easily and violently offended. He finds his answer in a deep feeling of humiliation in the face of the Arab world's relative decline compared to its glittering achievements in the Middle Ages, and problematic encounter with a modern Western world which represents "an encircling civilisation they can neither master nor reject." He concludes that "the ambivalence toward modernity that torments Muslims is unlikely to abate", similar episodes will likely keep occurring, and there is very little Western policymakers can do about it. For more of these insights from an important and penetrating scholar, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, noted legal academic Alan Dershowitz examines the danger that violent reactions to provocations like the film can be used to impose censorship on the grounds of "incitement."

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IT'S NOT JUST THE SPARKS THAT CAUSED THIS FIRE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

By Michael Singh

Foreign Policy, September 18, 2012

The United States must avoid the temptation of misapprehending the current spurt of violence in the region or rashly disengaging in frustration over longstanding problems.


Precisely eleven years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the question of U.S. relations with Islamic countries and communities is once again at the top of the foreign policy agenda. As violent anti-American protests rage around the world, the Obama administration has focused on safeguarding U.S. citizens and installations on one hand, and seeking to dampen the fury of the protests on the other by pointing out that the U.S. government had nothing to do with the anti-Islamic video that ignited this burst of anger.

While this immediate focus on quelling the crisis is prudent, the U.S. response cannot stop there. While the video in question may have catalyzed these protests, it cannot accurately be described as the cause of them. In any event, any effort to quash future provocations of this sort is bound to be futile -- given the ease by which such media can now be produced and distributed -- as well as profoundly contrary to the American belief in the right to free expression.

The current unrest is not in fact a result of a single offensive video, but is rather a continuation and outgrowth of the Arab uprisings of 2011. Those revolutions were the result of deep-seated political and economic grievances that had been decades in the making: the absence of economic prosperity or the hope of individual advancement, paired with the inability to do anything about it as a result of the simultaneous absence of political rights.

But while the Arab uprisings resulted from those grievances, they did not by any means resolve them. Indeed, economies like Egypt's and Libya's are worse off now than they were at the beginning of 2011, as unrest and political uncertainty have driven away tourism and investment and politicians have as frequently sought to settle old scores instead of taking their countries forward. Political participation has increased, but it has not brought results sufficient to meet the (unrealistic) expectations of the people in these countries.

In such circumstances, it is not unusual for people to look for others to blame. As much as the recent anti-American protests and attacks on U.S. embassies have conjured an image of a U.S.-Islamic conflict, the United States is in fact just one of many parties upon whom blame for the Middle East's woes has been cast. The former regimes, religious minorities, wealthy businessmen, Israel, and liberals are among those who have been targeted in these Arab uprisings.

Just as there is no shortage of parties to blame, there have been an abundance of parties both within and without these countries ready to stoke these hatreds to advance their own agendas. Radical Islamists have perhaps been the most pervasive and vocal of these, but certainly not the only ones. In many Middle Eastern states, secular politicians have been as vocally anti-American as their Islamist counterparts. Whatever their ideology, the angry voices have drowned out the introspective ones, and those preaching simple fixes have too often prevailed over those offering sensible albeit difficult paths forward. In highly-charged environments where security and political institutions are either absent or non-functioning, it is a small step from rhetorical attacks on such perceived foes to physical attacks.

At such a pivotal moment, it is important that we correctly understand what is happening and why, and mount the appropriate policy response. We must in particular avoid the temptation of misapprehending the current spurt of violence as the harbinger of some sort of epic civilization-level conflict between the West and Islam, or the urge to disengage with the Middle East in frustration over the persistence of anti-Americanism and chaos there. The Middle East remains a region which is vital to U.S. interests, and we cannot afford either to ignore it or to act in a rash or naive manner there.

Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the Obama administration has adopted a passive, hesitant approach to events, conveying the sense that America is increasingly disengaged, indifferent, or both when it comes to the Middle East. This can be seen in the disconnect between rhetoric and action on Syria, diffidence in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, "leading from behind" in Libya, and even in the talk of a "pivot" to Asia in our foreign policy. The result has been a diminution rather than an enhancement in both U.S. influence and -- despite strenuous efforts to avoid disputes with new governments in the region -- our popularity.

Going forward, the United States should not lose our hope for a positive future in the Middle East or confidence in our own ability to shape outcomes there. However, we should be clear-eyed about the challenges that we face and the long timetable which lies before us to accomplish what we set out to achieve. Foreign policy has three fundamental objectives - to promote American security and prosperity and to advance U.S. values. This should be the starting point for successful policy in the region - firmly and unapologetically advocate our interests, help governments to reform politically and economically, and support and work with parties within and without the region who share our interests and values.

Any spark can start a fire, but a sustained conflagration requires fuel and oxygen to sustain itself. There is little US policymakers can do to prevent future sparks of the sort that triggered the violence convulsing the Middle East today. But through a clear understanding of the region's challenges and a principled and realistic response to them, we and our allies can hope to prevent them from becoming infernos which engulf our interests and those of the region's citizens.

Michael Singh is managing director of The Washington Institute.

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The Middle East Mess Part One: Over There

Walter Russell Mead

The American Interest "Via Media" blog, Sept. 18

Coming in the middle of the American campaign season and timed to coincide with eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the violence now shaking the Middle East has inevitably turned into a US domestic issue. I’ll write about that as the situation unfolds, but at the moment it seems most important to think about what is happening over there — and then to think about what this might mean for US policy or politics.

This is not a subject I can write about dispassionately. Many of the places now appearing in the headlines are places I’ve been: from the consulate in Chennai, where I attended an iftar event with a group of American diplomats and some leaders from the Islamic community in that storied and beautiful city last month to embassies in Cairo, Khartoum, Tunis and elsewhere that I’ve visited over the years. Many of the diplomats there are people I know, and in all these places I’ve gotten to know religious, intellectual and cultural figures and had the chance to talk to students and others about their concerns. Violence that takes place somewhere when you know people on both sides of the barricades is always painful to think about.

With images on TV of smoke billowing from US embassies and angry crowds assembled outside, more than ever, I am grateful all the time for the service of the brave people who voluntarily represent the United States in places where at any moment their lives can come under grave threat.

If Americans are going to understand what’s going on and process it effectively, the first thing we’ve got to realize is that this isn’t all about us. The riots in Cairo are basically part of a local power struggle. Radical Salafists are in a power struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood; attacking the US embassy forces President Morsi (as the radical strategists presumably expected) to side with the US, however slowly or reluctantly. That’s a win for the radicals, who want to tar the Muslim Brotherhood as soft appeasers who side with the Americans against their own outraged people.

Striking at the embassy pushes Egyptian politics in a more radical direction short term, and over the medium term it weakens the Muslim Brotherhood and strengthens the more radical groups. After these last attacks, you are not going to see many tourists or foreign investors traipsing to Egypt anytime soon. The already struggling Egyptian economy has taken a hit that will cut employment. That’s going to hurt, and it’s going to reduce the popularity of the government, much to the benefit of the radicals who hope to replace it.

In many other places, from the West Bank and Gaza to Yemen and Tunisia, the protest movements are also more important for what they mean in local politics than about global policy. Radical movements and imams who work with them seized eagerly on the Youtube film to generate popular outrage and use mob anger to make a public statement. Moderates who speak against violence or try to cool matters look like American puppets; this is the kind of issue the radicals love, and we can expect them to milk it for all it is worth.

It’s hard at this point to assess how much of this was at least quasi-spontaneous public reaction and how much reactions were stimulated and even shaped by organized radical groups. In Cairo, there seems to have been a mix of angry street protesters demonstrating more or less at random and organized activists with a much more definite agenda, but we will not really know the answers for some time — if ever. However, not all that many Middle Eastern Muslims are in the habit of trolling Youtube for blasphemous videos. That the protests came when they did and that in at least two cases (Egypt and Libya) well organized cadres used those protests to make more dramatic actions strongly suggests that something more than simple spontaneous outrage was at work.

Libya looks even more like a planned operation.  There, radicals apparently allied to Al-Qaeda in some vague way and possibly cooperating with Qaddafi loyalists made what appears at this point to be a well planned, coordinated military strike against the consulate in Benghazi. Here the timing seemed clearly less about the film than about the 9/11 anniversary, and it looks more like a message from hard core radicals rather than explosion of popular rage.

Again, we will know more as the smoke clears and at this point we are talking about possibilities rather than conclusions, but ruling out some kind of planning in at least some of the incidents on the basis of what we now see is naive.

In any case, the biggest worry now may not be further attacks on US embassies and consulates in the region; security is very tight at those facilities now and unless something very unusual happens, crowds may gather outside the walls, but perimeters will not be breached. There are no guarantees, but the US has been thinking hard about these issues since well before 9/11.

The biggest bomb in the region right now, and let us hope and pray that it doesn’t go off, involves the relations between Coptic Christians and Islamic radicals (and the mobs they can command) in Egypt. The news is only slowly getting to Egypt that the film — one of the stupidest pieces of hack work I myself have seen — was made by a Coptic Christian in the US. When and if the film is actually viewed in its 14 minutes of amateurism and low production values, its intention to vent the rage and frustration some Copts feel about their treatment in Egypt will be clear. It is an angry, embittered and perhaps not very spiritual Copt’s view of the way Islam treats his community — and a cry of anger and frustration.

This is the kind of provocation — even though by a marginal member of the community and disavowed by the leaders — that can light firestorms of communal violence and cleansing. That is what Egypt must watch out for right now, and if you don’t like watching crowds marching against the US embassy, imagine what could happen if angry mobs with clubs, axes and guns head into the Christian neighborhoods of Cairo.

Episodes of mass violence and killing of religious minorities throughout the former territories of the Ottoman Empire — from the Danube to the Euphrates and the Nile — have been all too common in the last 150 years. Sometimes the victims have been Muslims (most recently in Srebenica but between 1850 and the aftermath of World War One there were plenty of expulsions and massacres of Muslims as Ottoman power retreated from Europe); on an even larger scale in the modern Middle East they have been Christians and, sometimes, Jews and adherents to variant forms of Islam. If anybody wants to think about worst case scenarios in Egypt, this is the one to look at. Armenians, Chaldean Christians, most recently the Christians in Iraq: it has happened before and though one very much wants to discount the possibility, things like this could well happen again.

The person who comes out of all this looking smartest is Samuel Huntington. His book on the “clash of civilizations” was widely and unfairly trashed as predicting an inevitable conflict between Islam and the west, and he was also accused of ‘demonizing’ Islam. That’s not what I get from his book. As I understand it, Huntington’s core thesis was that while good relations between countries and people with roots in different civilizations are possible and ought to be promoted, civilizational fault lines often lead to misunderstandings and tensions that can (not must, but can) lead to violence and when conflicts do occur, civilizational differences can make those conflicts worse.

The last few days are a textbook example of the forces he warned about.

The Islamic value — and it a worthy one on its own terms and would certainly have been understandable to our western predecessors who punished blasphemy very severely — of prohibiting insults to the Prophet of Islam clashes directly with the modern western value of free expression. To the western eye (and it’s a perspective I share), a murderous riot in the name of a religion is a worse sin and deeper, uglier form of blasphemy than any film could ever hope to be. To kill someone created in the image of God because you don’t like the way God or one of his servants has been depicted in an artistic performance strikes westerners as an obscene perversion of religion — something that only a hate-filled fanatic or an ignorant fool could do.

When acts like this take place all over the Islamic world, the message to many non-Muslims is that the Islamophobes are right: Islam as a religion promotes hatred, bigotry and ignorance. This will be held by many people to be a revelation of the “true” face of a violent religion. Or, alternatively, some will say that while Islam might be a good enough religion taken alone, Middle Easterners are savage and ignorant haters who cannot be trusted and whose culture (rather than their religion) is one that blends intemperance and stupidity into an ugly stew of hate.

At Via Meadia we don’t think either Islam or Middle Eastern culture can be so simply categorized; that’s not my point. My point is that the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims has grown wider; the reaction of the western world and the Islamic world to these recent events drives us farther apart. The gulf of suspicion between the worlds has grown deeper. Europeans will worry more and be less welcoming to Muslim immigrants. Many Americans will draw closer to Israel, be more concerned about any signs of increase in the US Islamic population and have a harder time trusting the Muslims in our midst.

Those reactions in turn will make Muslims in Europe, North America and the Islamic-majority parts of the world feel more suspicious, more threatened and more alienated.

These are some of the chains of causation Huntington was thinking of when he warned that the world faced the possibility for this kind of clash. The Obama administration has worked very hard to reduce the chance of this kind of division, but it seems clear at this point that a few hours can undermine the efforts of many years.

Unfortunately, Islamic radicals are deliberately hoping to promote a clash of civilizations in the belief that a climate of polarization will strengthen their political power in the world of Islam. Attacking the embassy in Cairo is an effort to push Egyptian opinion in a more radical direction, but the radicals hope that this is part of a larger push that will bring them to power across the Islamic world. Like Boko Haram in Nigeria, which hopes to provoke a religious war with the Christians partly in order to achieve power in the Muslim North, radicals use the prospect of a clash of civilizations to further their own cause throughout the troubled Islamic world.

The US and more generally the west (including Russia, so perhaps I should say the “Christian world” instead) has tried several approaches to this situation and so far we haven’t been happy with the results. Confrontation, reconciliation, cooperation: there are good arguments to be made for them all, but in practice none of them seem to make the problem go away.

I’ll return to this topic in the next few days, but one thing should be absolutely clear to Americans. Since 9/11, we’ve had two presidents who attempted to deal with our problems in the Middle East. Both presidents notched up some achievements — but neither president got the job done.

The gap between American opinion and opinion in much of the Islamic world is as wide now as it was when President Obama flew to Cairo; things are not getting better.

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Why is the Arab world so easily offended?

By Fouad Ajami

Washington Post, Sept. 14

Modernity requires the willingness to be offended. And as anti-American violence across the Middle East and beyond shows, that willingness is something the Arab world, the heartland of Islam, still lacks.

Time and again in recent years, as the outside world has battered the walls of Muslim lands and as Muslims have left their places of birth in search of greater opportunities in the Western world, modernity — with its sometimes distasteful but ultimately benign criticism of Islam — has sparked fatal protests. To understand why violence keeps erupting and to seek to prevent it, we must discern what fuels this sense of grievance.

There is an Arab pain and a volatility in the face of judgment by outsiders that stem from a deep and enduring sense of humiliation. A vast chasm separates the poor standing of Arabs in the world today from their history of greatness. In this context, their injured pride is easy to understand.

In the narrative of history transmitted to schoolchildren throughout the Arab world and reinforced by the media, religious scholars and laymen alike, Arabs were favored by divine providence. They had come out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century, carrying Islam from Morocco to faraway Indonesia. In the process, they overran the Byzantine and Persian empires, then crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to Iberia, and there they fashioned a brilliant civilization that stood as a rebuke to the intolerance of the European states to the north. Cordoba and Granada were adorned and exalted in the Arab imagination. Andalusia brought together all that the Arabs favored — poetry, glamorous courts, philosophers who debated the great issues of the day.

If Islam’s rise was spectacular, its fall was swift and unsparing. This is the world that the great historian Bernard Lewis explored in his 2002 book “What Went Wrong?” The blessing of God, seen at work in the ascent of the Muslims, now appeared to desert them. The ruling caliphate, with its base in Baghdad, was torn asunder by a Mongol invasion in the 13th century. Soldiers of fortune from the Turkic Steppes sacked cities and left a legacy of military seizures of power that is still the bane of the Arabs. Little remained of their philosophy and literature, and after the Ottoman Turks overran Arab countries to their south in the 16th century, the Arabs seemed to exit history; they were now subjects of others.

The coming of the West to their world brought superior military, administrative and intellectual achievement into their midst — and the outsiders were unsparing in their judgments. They belittled the military prowess of the Arabs, and they were scandalized by the traditional treatment of women and the separation of the sexes that crippled Arab society.

Even as Arabs insist that their defects were inflicted on them by outsiders, they know their weaknesses. Younger Arabs today can be brittle and proud about their culture, yet deeply ashamed of what they see around them. They know that more than 300 million Arabs have fallen to economic stagnation and cultural decline. They know that the standing of Arab states along the measures that matter — political freedom, status of women, economic growth — is low. In the privacy of their own language, in daily chatter on the street, on blogs and in the media, and in works of art and fiction, they probe endlessly what befell them.

But woe to the outsider who ventures onto that explosive terrain. The assumption is that Westerners bear Arabs malice, that Western judgments are always slanted and cruel.

In the past half-century, Arabs, as well as Muslims in non-Arab lands, have felt the threat of an encircling civilization they can neither master nor reject. Migrants have left the burning grounds of Karachi, Cairo and Casablanca but have taken the fire of their faith with them. “Dish cities” have sprouted in the Muslim diasporas of Western Europe and North America. You can live in Stockholm and be sustained by a diet of al-Jazeera television.

We know the celebrated cases when modernity has agitated the pious. A little more than two decades ago, it was a writer of Muslim and Indian birth, Salman Rushdie, whose irreverent work of fiction, “The Satanic Verses,” offended believers with its portrayal of Islam. That crisis began with book-burnings in Britain, later saw protests in Pakistan and culminated in Iran’s ruling cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issuing a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death in 1989. The protesters were not necessarily critics of fiction; all it took to offend was that Islam, the prophet Muhammad and his wives had become a writer’s material. The confrontation laid bare the unease of Islam in the modern world.

The floodgates had opened. The clashes that followed defined the new terms of encounters between a politicized version of Islam — awakened to both power and vulnerability — and the West’s culture of protecting and nurturing free speech. In 2004, a Moroccan Dutchman in his mid-20s, Mohammed Bouyeri, murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh on a busy Amsterdam street after van Gogh and a Somali-born politician made a short film about the abuse of women in Islamic culture.

Shortly afterward, trouble came to Denmark when a newspaper there published a dozen cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad; in one he wears a bomb-shaped turban, and another shows him as an assassin. The newspaper’s culture editor had thought the exercise would merely draw attention to the restrictions on cultural freedom in Europe — but perhaps that was naive. After all, Muslim activists are on the lookout for such material. And Arab governments are eager to defend Islam. The Egyptian ambassador to Denmark encouraged a radical preacher of Palestinian birth living in Denmark and a young Lebanese agitator to fan the flames of the controversy.

But it was Syria that made the most of this opportunity. The regime asked the highest clerics to preach against the Danish government. The Danish embassies in Damascus and Beirut were sacked; there was a call to boycott Danish products. Denmark had been on the outer margins of Europe’s Muslim diaspora. Now its peace and relative seclusion were punctured.

The storm that erupted this past week at the gates of American diplomatic outposts across the Muslim world is a piece of this history. As usual, it was easily ignited. The offending work, a 14-minute film trailer posted on YouTube in July, is offensive indeed. Billed as a trailer for “The Innocence of Muslims,” a longer movie to come, it is at once vulgar and laughable. Its primitiveness should have consigned it to oblivion.

It was hard to track down the identities of those who made it. A Sam Bacile claimed authorship, said that he was an Israeli American and added that 100 Jewish businessmen had backed the venture. This alone made it rankle even more — offending Muslims and implicating Jews at the same time. (In the meantime, no records could be found of Bacile, and the precise origins of the video remain murky.)

It is never hard to assemble a crowd of young protesters in the teeming cities of the Muslim world. American embassies and consulates are magnets for the disgruntled. It is inside those fortresses, the gullible believe, that rulers are made and unmade. Yet these same diplomatic outposts dispense coveted visas and a way out to the possibilities of the Western world. The young men who turned up at the U.S. Embassies this week came out of this deadly mix of attraction to American power and resentment of it. The attack in Benghazi, Libya, that took the lives of four American diplomats, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, appeared to be premeditated and unconnected to the film protests.

The ambivalence toward modernity that torments Muslims is unlikely to abate. The temptations of the West have alienated a younger generation from its elders. Men and women insist that they revere the faith as they seek to break out of its restrictions. Freedom of speech, granting license and protection to the irreverent, is cherished, protected and canonical in the Western tradition. Now Muslims who quarrel with offensive art are using their newfound freedoms to lash out against it.

These cultural contradictions do not lend themselves to the touch of outsiders. President George W. Bush believed that America’s proximity to Arab dictatorships had begotten us the jihadists’ enmity. His military campaign in Iraq became an attempt to reform that country and beyond. But Arabs rejected his interventionism and dismissed his “freedom agenda” as a cover for an unpopular war and for domination.

President Obama has taken a different approach. He was sure that his biography — the years he spent in Indonesia and his sympathy for the aspirations of Muslim lands — would help repair relations between America and the Islamic world. But he’s been caught in the middle, conciliating the rulers while making grand promises to ordinary people. The revolt of the Iranian opposition in the summer of 2009 exposed the flaws of his approach. Then the Arab Spring played havoc with American policy. Since then, the Obama administration has not been able to decide whether it defends the status quo or the young people hell-bent on toppling the old order.

Cultural freedom is never absolute, of course, and the Western tradition itself, from the Athenians to the present, struggles mightily with the line between freedom and order. In the Muslim world, that struggle is more fierce and lasting, and it will show itself in far more than burnt flags and overrun embassies.

Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is the author of “The Syrian Rebellion” and “Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey.”

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