A Post-Mortem on Muslim Rage: What did the reaction to the Islamophobic Trailer Really Tell Us? (Abootalebi)

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.

Posted in Islamophobia | 11 Responses | Print |

11 Responses

  1. While usually columnists like Douthat are too hobbled by their kowtowing to party-line idols to say anything intelligent, I think he has a point, supported in this post’s observation of the weaker institutional structures in those countries where violence occurred. “The West” insulting “Islam” serves precisely as a pretext for political organizations to exploit, the more violently the further to the right they are. Of course the West frequently has contributed mightily to that institutional weakness – a fact Douthat ignores.
    Also, let’s not forget that the “view from Tehran” is 100% correct in this case; the director posed as Israeli and was funded by the Christian right.

  2. I do agree that the ‘more-Islamic-than-thou’ showing off aspect of this has been responsible for much of this violence. Islamic – but not Islamist. A large number of Muslims from a group centred on Pakistan are very keen on demonstrating how much they love the Prophet – and some unfortunately are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to prove their fervour in this respect. Those most keen on this are part of a Sufi movement that is very, very far from the Islamist movements in Pakistan – their abhorrence of one another can be quite shocking. Ironically the behaviour of those keenest to beat their chests over this issue in front of the cameras has led many to conclude they are some kind of metastatising of Al Qaeda. And of course we have the poison Pipes pumping away over here making the very important point out that this is the essence of what all Muslims are all about. Apply the same about what the IDF and it’s fan club have been up to to Jews in general and see what comes your way.
    Even those who have been demonstrating in the UK are from this faction. Their behaviour (and dress) at at EDL counter-demos recently has just served to convince more that all Muslims are somehow Al Qaeda in disguise. Yet they despise Islamist movements, and will at the drop of a hat, tell all and sundry they are the “nice” Muslims who are against all this “Islamist” stuff. This sectarianism reminds me of old jibe at Presbyterians – they can’t decide which is worst, The Pope or the Devil. It all exists for the petty self-aggrandisement of what passes as ‘Clergy’ – who live in their own little bubble, acting pious – playing personal politics, milking their congregation AKA constituency.
    It would be interesting to see how those so keen to prove their piety in a thuggish manner actually measure in terms of real personal morality in their everyday transactions. A little bit of over compensating going on here, one cannot help but conclude. But as long as sufficient goes in the pot on a Friday, however ill-gotten, they will be told by the one that matters what good men they are.

    • “But as long as sufficient goes in the pot on a Friday, however ill-gotten, they will be told by the one that matters what good men they are.”

      Strange comment… I’m curious where you’re talking about where they pass a ‘pot’ on Fridays.

  3. That the West’s understanding of the Islamic world is shallow is hardly surprising. It is quite deliberate and has been longstanding. It serves those who’s “interests” have become America’s “interests”. It also serves the supporters of Israel. How many times have we heard “They never have accepted Israel” asked as a serious question? As if those oppressed by Israel must accept their oppression.

    I doubt that this will change. More likely we will withdraw from the Middle East while grumbling about their ingratitude after all that we have done for them. This outcome will be good for us and for them.

    It has taken 20 -30 years for us to come to a more nuanced understanding of the Vietnam war; its history and our part in it. Likely it will take that long for us to gain such an understanding of the Middle East; but first we must go.

    • You’re right, and the ongoing de-feudalization of South America is the next iteration of the dismantling of US hegemony and the beginning of healing. The suffering caused by US Shock Doctrine economic coercion created an interstate resistance movement at the very moment that the US got tied down with its Middle Eastern ambitions. Now the Chinese are all over the place offering real investments, instead of plotting military coups like we do. South America is now one of the bright spots, or at least less dim spots, of a crippled global economy.

      Unfortunately, Central America has further to go, and Mexico as always is so far from God, and so close to the United States of America narcotics market. Perhaps one day a modern, Social Democratic Latin America will be sucking immigration Southward, and our past crimes there will be forgiven.

      (Parallel to this, the collapse of the American-trained Turkish Army regime and the economic rise of an assertive, independent Turkey where Islam coexists with law – Israel’s worst nightmare.)

  4. Let’s get a grip here – there was actually not much violence connected with the reaction to the film. A lot of energetic demonstrations and some situations that looked like they might turn ugly, but mostly just peaceful protest. A few people here and there threw stuff, or clashed with police, and IIRC some people tried to break into the Cairo embassy, but that’s about it. It turns out the assault on the Benghazi consulate was unrelated.

    The whole thing blew over in a few days. It really was not a big deal.

    • And where there was such violence, it was very small scale – protests featuring a few hundred people. The coverage in the American media makes it sound as if these protests were on the same scale as the Arab Spring protests.

  5. Western coverage of Muslim demonstrations is extremely selective … while sighs are heard and heads are shaken and extensive coverage given to demonstrations wrt to Danish Cartoons and American movies or burnt Korans and soldiers urinating on Muslim corpses …. the ongoing peaceful demonstrations against the American Occupation of Afghanistan have been ignored for years.

    In Pakistan, all sorts of issues result in thousands of demonstrators in the streets — and — if you get thousands of individuals mobilized and upset, people tend to get hurt, particularly when there are counter-demonstrations or deliberate provocation by outsiders.

    In this report, most of the deaths seem to have resulted from an armed minority faction within one of the demonstration attacking the police, elsewhere, the police shot demonstrators. Flags were burned. Two movie theatres were burnt to the ground. And these were among the MOST violent demonstrations with 10,000 participants. CBC: Pakistan protests against anti-Islam film leave 19 dead. The security of the Pakstan protestors rests with, as the author notes, the Pakistan civil society/government, social institutions and the rest. Deaths in sports riots are not covered here. PAKISTAN STATE TIMES: Egypt charges 75 people in deadly soccer riot (75 DEAD). There will always be the provocateurs, the hot heads and the opportunistic delinquents exploiting such venues for their own purposes, i.e. looting, vandalism.

    Similarly, the riots associated with the burning of the Korans are summarized here aljazeera: Deadliest day in Afghanistan’s Quran protests

    Seven protesters were killed on Friday in the western city of Herat, where protesters tried to storm the US consulate. Another protester died in the Pol-e-Khomri area of northern Baghlan province. Two deaths were also reported in the eastern province of Khost.

    Although news reports of these demonstration that occurred in MANY MANY cities, the deaths are generally isolated and most appear to have been killing of demonstrators by the “authorities” — not some anarchic melee, threatening women and children and other innocent bystanders.

    American ignorance is extraordinary … many believe that this “extremism” is not just part of, but the very essence of Islam — always has been, always will be, immutable, integral … and that’s not true now, nor in the past, nor likely in the future. Yet, as Islamophobia is decried by all “right thinking Americans” … the one-size-fits-all stereotypes are reinforced continuously. There simply aren’t enough muslims in the United States to provide a counternarrative.

    With the Benghazi attack … there were similar generalizations … that sharia-al-magreb was pronounced somehow equivalent to Al-Qa’ida of the Arab Peninsula (or any other Al-Qa’ida or any other Sharia Know your Ansar-al-sharia).

    THEN, because the attack was assumed to be the work of “Al-Qa’ida,” no other reason for or background to the the attack was felt necessary. They hate us, nuff said.

    Despite much mention of some presumed 09/11 anniversary connection, I remember (and googling find) no pattern of 09/11 anniversary attacks — it was assumed that this attack was somehow commemorative of an attack 11 years ago … as if, 09/11 (which so many Afghans have no knowledge of at all) were some all-important date in the lives of Libyans. Maybe it was significant, maybe it was coincident.

    I found most interesting that the possibility that the attack could have / might have been the work of Gaddafi “dead-enders” was NEVER mentioned. The idea that there was any possible non-religious basis for any of this outrage was dismissed. The perpetuation of this “clash of civilization” myth continues.

  6. “………..a plot by the Zionists and the religious right in the West……….to foment conflict between the religious right and the Islamic world.

    “Plot” is too strong of a word to descibe a relationship between Zionists and the religious right in America to promote Israeli interests that include the eventual construction of the Third Temple in Jerusalem and the necesssary demolition of the Dome of the Rock to effectuate this.

    Pastor John Hagee of Texas wrote a book about the realization of such a Third Temple is a prophetic certainty and will require the use of the land upon which the Dome of the Rock now sits. Hagee wrote that the construction of this Temple will likely cause a major war between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East.

    The Temple Institute in Jerusalem, headed by Rabbi Chaim Richman is working to make the Third Temple a reality and has a funding arm – the Temple Foundation. Many Christian fundamentalists have corresponded with Rabbi Richman and have seen him as a force to making this edifice a reality.

    Pastor Hagee has attended fund raisers with prominent Jewish leaders that have included then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

    Palestinian Muslims have been well aware of these events and see Pastor Hagee and this movement as a potential threat to peace in the region – as do many Jews as well. It should be noted that the vast majority of Israeli and American Jews – particularly secular non-observant Jews do not adhere to the necessity of the imminent construction of a Third Temple.

    It must be remembered that a key event that triggered the Second Intifada was excavation activities conducted by Jews near the Dome of the Rock that spurred protests by Palestinians.

    The religious right sees an ally in Israel in a religious sense and has no reason to promote Muslim interests. The Israelis on the second hand, welcome the political support, but do not have any affinity to the Christian right in a religious sense, nor do they, for the most part, understand that the root cause of the Christian right support stems from religious, rather then political motives. Thomas Friedman, in his book, “From Beirut to Jerusalem” addresses this relationship. The cozy relationship between the Christian right and the Zionist adherents in the U.S. and Israel is in stark contrast to the way Israel is generally perceived throughout the world as an unaccepatable apartheid state.

  7. A local personality Steve Kline, admittedly involved with the “Innocence of Muslims” intimated that the film was deliberately contrived and released during election season to inflame anti-US demonstrations to create an election year crisis for the Obama administration. He is from Hemet Ca. and was recently interviewed on Loma Linda — Redlands Ca. radio. Part of that interview was carried by the Redlands Daily Facts around Sept.15. JSL

  8. In the run-up to Bush’s invasion of Iraq, I attended a very large (for Denver) anti-war demonstration … memorable was the woman ahead of me who complained her companion that the policeman had failed to return her smile … what a bad attitude she thought he had … it was a beautiful weekend morning … she was upset that he failed to “validate” her exercise of her first amendment rights …

    Also, just as an addendum to previous post and this article, Wikipedia sez:

    Afghans became aware that their feelings were being exploited by militant groups such as the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami. Deutsche Welle reported: “Ahmad Jawed, a protester from Herat, said it was wrong to respond to the burning of the Koran with violence. ‘Those who have used violence in the past days are harming the Afghan people. Unfortunately, some politically-motivated groups are exploiting the peaceful intentions.’ ‘We not only condemn the US for the burning of the Koran but also those who are committing crimes in the name of the Koran and its desecration,’ he stated angrily. Yunus Fakoor, a political expert in Kabul, said radical religious groups were pouring oil on the fire for their own purposes. ‘This is not a defense of faith. They are exploiting the religious feelings of people.'”[28]

    Wikipedia: 2012 Afghanistan Quran burning protests

    Personally, I would not demand that anyone conceal/hide their anger … however, looking at models of nonviolence … this may be worthy of consideration …

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