Ali R. Abootalebi writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
Today’s journalism and social media, with their increasingly short news cycles, are good at pitching issues but bad at analysis and summations. Stories are just abandoned, however important, as the blogosphere moves on to the Next Big Thing. There is no shortage of opinion and commentaries on the supposedly ‘widespread rage’ we witnessed in the Arab streets and the wider Muslim world over the attention given the You Tube trailer insulting Prophet Muhammad and Islam in September 2012. The ensuing publication of cartoon caricatures of the Prophet by French Magazine Charlie Hebdo only exacerbated the situation, leading to more demonstrations and condemnations. But it is time to stand back and review the debates it engendered and reach some conclusions in the cold light of day.
Some see the cause of the ‘rage’ differently. David Kirkpatrick (NYT, September 16) covered a variety of opinions of ordinary people in Egypt who mostly complained about Western, and primarily American, attitudes and behavior and insensitivities towards Islam and Muslims. (Academic studies by Georgetown’s Professor John Esposito and the Pew Research Center’ Survey studies are among numerous survey studies taken confirming that policy is seen by majority of Muslims as the main culprit behind strong negative perception of the United States across Muslim world.) In the end, however, ignoring all these comments, Kirkpatrick concludes that a cultural clash between Muslims (Islam) and the West (secular) is the root cause of the problem: Religion still remains sacred for Muslims, while the West gives priority to its secular values of individualism and democratic rights, like the freedom of expression.
Others (Ross Douthat, NYT September 15) see the recent anger and violence, instead, as mostly an exercise in old-fashioned power politics, with the video as a pretext for violence; contending that it is “the kind of struggle for power that frequently takes place in a revolution’s wake: between secular and fundamentalist forces in Benghazi, between the Muslim Brotherhood and its more-Islamist-than-thou rivals in Cairo, with similar forces contending for mastery from Tunisia to Yemen to the Muslim diaspora in Europe. Douthat entirely disregards external factors as having anything to do with the supposed ‘Muslim rage’.
While there are certain truths in some of such observations, these are highly overarching generalizations about the supposed ‘Muslim’ anger, hatred and rage.
Recall, there were no overarching statements about a ‘Hindu’ violence when violent ethnic killings in Assam, India in July 2012 led to many dead and displaced. By august 8, 77 people had been reported died and over 400,000 people had been displaced from almost 400 villages, who had taken shelter in 270 relief camps. (Hindujagruti.org, August 19, 2012) Interestingly enough, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself declared, even the government of India was at a loss understanding the roots of the violence.
Among academics, Stanford University’s Fouad Ajami (Washington Post, Sept. 15) thinks historical and psychological reasons can best explain Arab (and supposedly all Muslims) outrage and violent response to the video. So, the rise and fall of Islam as a civilization and later Western domination through its superior secular/rational ethos has translated into frustration and anger among 1.5 billion people and thus their violent response to the video incident. It seems Ajami believes that all Muslims share ‘a common history’ and that the long-foregone history is destiny. Ajami is not alone in his thinking, as others like known historian Bernard Lewis and activist Daniel Pipes also share such views of history and its impact on Muslims’ behavior today.
Such comments and explanations can hardly explain the truth about complex sociopolitical, cultural, economic, and international factors that impact people’s lives everywhere. One must take caution to generalize about the validity in correlating a wide range of variables to the supposed ‘Muslim rage.’ Moreover, media coverage of such events is almost always overwhelmed by sensationalism and hype. Angry crowds shouting ‘Allahoakbar’ often portrayed representing huge mobs of people across Muslim world. Exceptions are rare in accurate coverage of such events, as was the report by Dan Murphy of Christian Science Monitor who reported on September 17 that, contrary to the mainstream media coverage of demonstrations, those at Tahrir Square in Egypt were a sparse group and not reminiscent of Mubarak-era political protests.
There is no doubt that people across Muslim world, including their non-Muslim minorities, feel victimized by the You Tube video affair. While most Muslims may feel insulted, but only a tiny fraction has resorted to violent protest. The majority has either remained calm and silent or has peacefully demonstrated against an attack on what is so dear to them. Recall, there are 57 Muslim countries members of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).
Are all Muslim enraged to the point of madness? The Media in the United States certainly has portrayed the situation as such. The reality, however, is that Muslims like other people come from different backgrounds and thus react to the same situation differently. Peaceful demonstrations have occurred in Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Turkey, among other places, while violent demonstrations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia have led to loss of lives. All these demonstrations have targeted American flags and interests for the most part, but Israel, France, and the United Kingdom have also been targeted. The number of death resulted from violent demonstrations hit 28 in late September. Most of these deaths, however, occurred in two Muslim countries with long history of ethno-religious conflict and governance problems—-Pakistan and Afghanistan, and later in Somalia. In Pakistan, a national holiday was actually declared by the government to honor the prophet turned violent with reports of at least 15 people killed. In Karachi, where there was the most violence, at least 12 people were killed. Similarly, Afghanistan witnessed clashes between angry mobs and police leading to death.
It is not also surprising that widespread violence and death has occurred in countries weak in their legal-institutional and political structure (e.g., Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Iraq). In contrast, demonstrations in Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Indonesia, and Malaysia, where the state’s power is exercised more through legal and institutional mechanism and relies less on government sanctions and coercive measures, have been more orderly and peaceful.
The state in these countries has also used the occasion to redirect people’s anger toward the ‘enemy’—the West and Israel– and away from domestic socioeconomic problems. The view from Tehran, for example, is that a plot by the Zionists and the religious right in the West has been hatched to foment conflict between the Christian West and the Islamic world.
At any rate, the state behavior and its effective power matters a great deal in the state-society relations and how popular sentiments translate into peaceful or violent movements. We must not sacrifice explaining important world events, negatively impacting policy and policy outcomes, for the sake of either rudimentary media coverage or superfluous academic analysis.
Ali R. Abootalebi is the author of Islam and democracy: State-Society Relations in Developing Countries, 1980-1994 (Routledge, 2000), and more than forty articles on Middle Eastern politics and U.S. foreign Policy. He is currently a Visiting Professor at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata, Osaka, Japan.