Demonstrating for dignity: why are Muslims SO enraged?
Muslims eh, they just cant seem to take a joke can they? It would be very easy to cast, as many commentators have, the latest riots in response to the islamophobic film, as another example of intolerant Muslims lacking a funny bone. The Rushdie affair, the Danish cartoons, the murder of Van Gogh – surely the latest saga fits neatly into a pattern of evidence suggesting Muslims are over sensitive and violent. After all, critics will argue, Christians are regularly derided through the arts and media and they don’t go around burning embassies and killing people. Only the situation is hardly analogous. The power relations in which a dominant majority can be perceived as insulting and humiliating a disgruntled and feeble minority, cannot be ignored in the analysis of Muslim responses to offensive art works. But the truth is, the protests across the Arab world are about much more than the usual ‘free speech’ Vs ‘Islam’ blah. In fact, at the heart of the unrest is a powerful current of anti-Americanism rooted in imperialist policies and bolstered dictatorships and the expected instability to be found in post-revolutionary states.
Firstly, although the film may have been the catalyst for the riots, it would be wrong to assume that all the riots have exactly the same cause. The murder of American embassy staff in Libya appears to have been the work of an Al Qaida fringe which had been plotting the revenge of one its senior leaders and used the protest against the film as a smokescreen for its attack. What brought regular Libyans to the embassy was undoubtedly initially, opposition to the film. However there and elsewhere, the anger of the masses has appeared to morph into something much broader – a reflection of anti-American sentiment grounded in the USA’s historically fraught relationship to the region.
This is hardly the first demonstration of anger against Western targets in any of the countries at hand, it is only possibly amongst the most mediatised because of the spin placed on the story, represented as it has been, as some sort of reflection of the fundamental intolerance of Islam.
For those with a short memory, it was only last month that a pipe bomb exploded outside the US embassy in Libya and both the Red cross and other Western aid organisations have come under fire there in recent months. It is certainly a misnomer to think that NATO intervention in support of the rebels against Gadhafi somehow erased deep-seated grievances against the US, not least the sense of humiliation of the Arab world against decades of Western domination. Sure, we may have helped get rid of Gadhafi when it was expedient, but for a long time, we traded quite happily with the man whilst he brutally repressed his people. In some cases, we even helped him do it. A recent Human Rights Watch report, Delivered into Enemy Hands: US-Led Abuse and Rendition of Opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya , details the stories of Libyan opposition figures tortured in US-run prisons in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and then delivered back to Libya, with full-awareness that they were going to be tortured or possibly killed. Even in the “new Libya”, not all sections of the Revolution feel the outcome of the elections was truly representative of popular feeling. Not to mention Egypt, where Mubarak, whom Hilary Clinton once described as a “close family friend”, tortured and killed innumerable dissidents in a US backed dictatorship. To think the elections which happened just months ago would transform popular opinion concerning the US’s role in the region is ludicrous. And that’s before we even get to Iraq.
Broken by poverty, threatened by drones, caught in the war between al Aaida and the US, to many Arab Muslims, the film represents an attack on the last shelter of dignity – sacred beliefs – when all else has been desecrated.
It is no surprise that some of the worst scenes of violence come from Yemen, where US policy has resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, fuelling anger against a regime whose brutality and corruption has left the country ranking amongst the poorest in the Arab world. Given that it is also one of the countries where people have the least access to computers and the internet, it is also entirely likely that many protestors never even saw the film. It also seems unlikely anyone believed the film was actually produced by the American government. Though many might have believed the US government could act to restrict the film’s diffusion, censorship being altogether common in many of these countries, the focus on American symbols – embassies, American schools – even KFC – suggests the roots of popular anger is not hurt religious pride. These symbols of America were not the unwitting target of frustration over a film – rather the film has provided an unwitting focal point for massive and widespread anger at US foreign policy in the region. If the Arab revolutions let the dictators know exactly how people felt about their repression, these demonstrations should be read as equally indicative of popular anguish with the US’s role in the region.
The film is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back – to stand in consternation at the fact a single straw could cripple such a sturdy beast is to be naïve or wilfully blind to the accumulated bales which made the straw so hard to carry.
This is not an attempt to minimise the offense caused by the film – Mohamed is a man whose status in the eyes of many Muslims, cannot be overstated. When your country has been bombed, you’ve lost friends and family, possibly your livelihood and home, dignity is pretty much all you have left.
The producers of the film may have known very little about film-making, but they knew lots about how to cause a stir. Despite its obscure origins, mediatised references to an “Israeli” director living in the US, to a “100 Jewish donors” who allegedly provided “5 million dollars”, to a hazy “Coptic network” – all played into a well-known register. When 2 out of five Arabs live in poverty, a 5 million dollar insult has more than a slight sting to it.
Those who sought to bring winter to an Arab spring and possibly destabilise a US election, were keenly aware of the impact those words would have, situating the film within on-going tensions between Israel and the Arab world and stirring up the hornet’s nest of minority relations in a region where they remain unsettled.
In a tweet, the Atheist academic Richard Dawkins decried the events by lambasting “these ridiculous hysterical Muslims”. In so doing, he, like others, not only failed to read these events for what they are – predominantly political protests against US meddling, but he also failed to recognise the basic humanity of the protestors. To dismiss deep anger as mere hysteria is to diminish to decades of oppression experienced by many Muslims, particularly in the Arab world, often with US complicity.
If you deny any relationship between the systematic discrimination of Muslims and stigmatization of Islam and the overreaction of the Muslim community to offensive jokes, or films, or cartoons, then you are only left with essentialist explanations of Muslim hysteria and violence. These protests aren’t about a film – they’re about the totality of ways in which Muslims have felt humiliated over decades. Humiliation doesn’t justify violence, but it certainly helps explain it.
Reporting on the “incident” as somehow indicative of Islam’s essential incompatibility with the West not only conveniently omits the realities of Muslim oppression globally, but also reinforces them in many ways. Before we start searching for the nebulous network behind the film, or the reasons why “Muslims are so prone to getting offended”, we would do better to actually search for the conditions that have contributed to rendering the mass dehumanization of particular group of people socially unobjectionable and do well to remember that the right to protest, angrily even, is just as central to the concept of free speech, as the right to make offensive movies.
Update: this piece was written in the very early days of the protests and consequently, I would want to nuance some of the points I’ve made here in light of more recent developments.
Firstly, popular anger in many countries might well have as much to do with the instability of a post-revolutionary context as it does with anti-US feelings. In Tunisia, in Libya, these protests might also be seen as occasions to vent anguish at more localised concerns.
Secondly, the protests were clearly instrumentalised very quickly by ‘islamist’ groups to bolster popularity by waiving the ever unifying banner of anti-US feeling. This suggest they took on a local, political dimension very rapdily.
Thirdly, in some countries, such as Libya, local people even took to the streets in following days to oppose extremist elements and express solidarity with the murdered embassy staff. This doesnt discount mistrust or anger with previous US policies in the region but it certainly suggests a more complex relationship wit the US following the NATO support to rebels.
Fourthly, only a very very small proportion of people protested and an even smaller number engaged in violence. In many stable countries, such as Malaysia or Turkey, protests remained peaceful. Those countries which saw the most violence were often the most unstable and local factors – disaffection, unemployement, anger at government, poverty – are all essential components having contributed to people’s behaviour during the protests.