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Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Cairo and Benghazi violence a symptom of cultural intransigence

Like most people watching recent events on television from the comfort of home, or reading about developments in the newspapers, I’ve been distressed to see easily-offended hatemongers turning to large-scale violence and, in the case of the Libyan rioting, its tragic consequences.

What has further disappointed me is the tendency of many to dismiss this as yet another example of the inevitable product of religion in politically unstable environments.  While I do not fully dismiss the role that religious struggles and pressures have played in these events, it is simplistic and naive to suggest that religion itself is to blame.  That acts are committed in the name of religion is undeniable; that religion alone – rather than more complex matters of cultural identity, power, tribalism and reaction to change – is sufficient a motivation for such an outpouring of violence is questionable, and such a view ignores both the changing political realities in the Arab world and the curious but inescapable truth that these riots are both a product of, and a reaction to, the spread of globalisation.

I’ll start by considering the low-budget amateur film at the heart of this matter.  Innocence of Muslims is being held as the reason, or more accurately the excuse, for the angry demonstrations in Benghazi and Cairo.  I have not seen this film, nor do I wish to.  It appears to be an attempted biopic of the life of the Prophet Mohammad and lasts a mere fourteen minutes.  As anyone with a modicum of knowledge of Islam will understand, what is particularly offensive to Muslims are attempts to make depictions of the prophet and thus it is this, rather than any of the (admittedly provocative but already well known) claims the film makes, that has offended Islamic sensitivities.  The film was directed by someone calling themselves Sam Bacile, of whom absolutely nothing is known and who may (or may not) have told the press that Islam is “a cancer”.  Reported quotes from the filmmaker, or those claiming to be him, can hardly be taken seriously given that not only is he unknown but that the name is in all likelihood a pseudonym. 

The film was apparently screened earlier this year and no-one seemed particularly interested in it.  “Bacile” posted sections of it on YouTube, again without creating much of a splash.  Unfortunately though, it came to the attention of anti-Islamic fundamentalist Pastor Terry Jones (he of the Koran-burning controversy) who decided he would promote the film online and created his own video on YouTube in which he provided his normal divisive mixture of ignorance and insensitivity.

So far, we have an astonishingly unsuccessful amateur video whose only supporter is a discredited fundamentalist preacher.  The odds on this having any kind of impact, let alone a global one, should have been remote. 

Enter the fray Egyptian TV.  Alerted to the film by an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian, the Islamist station al-Nas decided to run with this non-story.  It had political motivations for doing so: it has previously depicted the Arab Spring as un-Islamic and its revolutionaries as “worthless kids”.  Al-Nas is an expression of an ultra-conservatism that finds an outlet in a fundamentalist Islamic political party.  It knew perfectly well the inevitable consequences of its broadcast.  The effect was dynamite, as it was fully intended to be.  No doubt it was the association with Terry Jones, rather than the content of the film itself, that raised hackles.  What al-Nas was able to do was to provide power, and credibility, to the Salafist al-Nour Party, a conservative Islamic party that makes the Muslim Brotherhood by comparison look like an Arabic version of the Liberal Democrats.  

On September 11th, a date neither insignificant nor coincidental, the al-Nour Party’s Nader Bakar and Mohammad al-Zawahiri (brother of the al-Qaeda leader) joined a protest calling for the release of a cleric currently being held in North Carolina.  It is difficult to put together the pieces of what happened next.  What is certain is that the US embassy was attacked and the flag removed.  Egyptian authorities were hugely outnumbered and powerless to respond.  It seems very likely that Bakar and al-Zawahiri were able to bring various strands of discontent together (the US response to 9/11, the incarceration of an Islamic cleric and this offensive film) and use them to further their own political and anti-American objectives. 

Certainly someone was responsible for whipping up a frenzy of hate.  It is true, especially in places where the political future is less than certain, that people – especially religious people – can be quick to take offense.  This allows ample opportunity for those who wish to opportunistically ignite outrage in order to benefit from the inevitable mayhem and unrest that follows.  And so, while the world looks on and sees the futility of the struggle in purely religious terms, with fundamentalist Muslims and rabid anti-Islamists determined to vindicate the most unsavoury beliefs of the other, it misses that this is not actually the product of a religious struggle at all.  Religious sensitivities and intolerances are simply something that the al-Nour Party and others like it can tap into, and thus something they seek to perpetuate and further. 

These reactionary parties have in some respects been the beneficiary of the Arab Spring whose spirit they now seek to crush.  In Egypt a strong despotic leadership has been replaced with weak government, poorly equipped security forces lacking any loyalty and a sense of disappointment that democracy has not delivered for Egyptian people.  Add into this melting pot the increased insecurity, both political and economic, and it is evident that fundamentalist theocratic political groups intent on creating violent upheaval will sense their opportunity.

And while the violence will appear a spontaneous expression of outrage, the reality is anything but.  It has been intentionally conceived, orchestrated and furthered by those who are best placed to benefit from undermining what little authority is in place.  It also seems that al-Qaeda may be playing a role, especially as on the day prior to the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had called for Libyans to avenge the death of Abu Yahya, a Libyan leader of the terrorist organisation.  It is certainly not outwith the realms of possibility that the Libyan protest, like that in Egypt, was a diversion; a smokescreen for planned and complex manoeuvrings on the part of Islamic militants. 

It is worth noting that these “protests” took place in Cairo and Benghazi, where recent mass political outrage at incumbent dictators played a role in the collapse of the Mubarak and Gaddafi regimes.   This too is not coincidental.  Curiously until the Arab Spring, it would have been virtually inconceivable that this kind of violence could take place: there would simply have been a huge crackdown.  The new democratic governments are unable to respond in that way, even if they wished to.  This inability to react decisively and quickly gives succour to the cause of the Salafists and others determined to topple the fledgling democracies.  It also accounts in part for the reaction of Egyptian President Morsy to the violence; while his Libyan counterpart apologised for the loss of life and pledged to bring to justice those responsible, Morsy felt the need to add his condemnation of the film, Innocence of Muslims.  He knows the potential political costs of not acknowledging the discontent created by his opponents.

What is also noteworthy is the role the internet is beginning to play in Middle Eastern politics.  Just as the democratic ideals of the Arab Spring revolutionaries werespread online so now is the anger, offense and intolerance of would-be ultra-conservative elites, be they far right evangelicals in the US or TV stations and political parties in Arab states.   The advent of the internet as a political tool cannot be underestimated and gives, for the first time, subversive elements the chance to both communicate their message unhindered and create an inward-looking political culture that cannot easily be resisted by incumbent governments. 

It is therefore short-sighted to view the recent violence in Egypt and Libya purely in terms of religious conflict or even a cultural battle between East and West.  Contrary to popular view, Muslims do not protest every time their faith challenged.  It is instead a manifestation of efforts from culturally intransigent organisations, fearful of the challenge to their authoritarianism and conservatism from democracy and globalisation, to fight back.  They do not fear violence or upheaval, which is in fact the very reason for their subversion.  These would-be counter-revolutionaries will happily and shamelessly use social, political and religious discontent to their advantage. 

There is a very real danger that Egypt could follow in the footsteps of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The problem is not with religion per se, but with those view peddling hate as politically expedient.  There is a realistic possibility that unless this counter-revolution can be challenged effectively in the near future, Egypt (and perhaps other neighbouring states) will be at the mercy of a Talibanesque group cultivating hate against the West but also many of their own people. 

That cannot be allowed to happen.  What the West’s role can be in preventing this nightmare from becoming reality must be decided by those with far more experience and expertise than myself.  However, I’d suggest that tackling the culture of outrage would be a positive start – giving Islamic fundamentalists an excuse to protest in the first instance only serves to play into the hands of those most opposed to Western values.

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