“Innocence of Muslims” – Taking the Bait and Having a Field Day

14 09 2012

Writing on flags say: “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”

No one has learned anything from past lessons.  The senseless violence snowballing throughout the Muslim world, supposedly in reaction to an amateurish 14-minute YouTube trailer for a film that no one can find in full length, is a stain on the 21st century.  The news media are presenting the cause of the violence as solely stemming from the anti-Islamic film, entitled “Innocence of Muslims,” which ridicules the Prophet Muhammad.  However, there is much more behind the causal factors of this epidemic violence than the simplistic headlines convey.  Here are some variables, based on my assessment, pertaining to this outbreak of violence, and all of them are interrelated:

  • Genuine emotions
  • Extremists Pulling Strings and Having a Field Day
  • 9/11 Timing
  • Grievances against People’s Governments
  • Taking the Bait

No doubt, many Muslims are expressing genuine hurt feelings and passionate emotions in reaction to insults and offenses targeting Muhammad, the last prophet of Islam, in the film trailer.  If we look back at the Salman Rushdie affair in the 1980s, we see that such sensitivities have not changed, and on the part of more orthodox and conservative Muslims, they have only intensified.  In addition, this film comes in a long series of anti-Islam expressions, like the Danish cartoons, the threat of Quran burning by Terry Jones, the accidental Qurans burned in Afghanistan, etc.  These recent incidents have only reinforced the narrative among many Muslims that the West is against Islam and permits such offenses with impunity.  That’s the perception fueling the anger and hatred.  Yet, there is no condemnation of killings in response to these perceived offenses, like the murder of Theo Van Gogh, for example.  Objective parity is not part of the narrative in this case.

Such hurt feelings and anger never justify the violence and vandalism that the recent protests have generated.  In the big picture, so many films, TV shows, art exhibits, and popular culture programs and performances have insulted Christianity and other religions.  Consider “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “South Park,” and “Monty Python,” to name a few, which are film producers and programs that have repeatedly ridiculed Christianity and other faiths with the sharpest irreverence and mockery, yet we never see violent reactions to them.

Among Islam’s ultra-orthodox and extremist elements, resorting to violence and calling for the death of the offenders are all too quick to the draw.  No one seems to pause and consider the consequences and damage to Islam’s image as a whole, as they become so consumed by their emotions and hatred.  There have been calls for peaceful protests by some, but mob mentality is hard to control especially once it gets out of hand.

This brings me to extremists pulling strings behind the scenes and having a field day.  Undoubtedly, extremist leaders at local levels see an opportunity in manipulating and exploiting the emotions and passions of the masses, especially those who embrace common extremist ideologies.  It is no coincidence that the attacks on the US consulate in Libya and the US embassy in Egypt fell on September 11th, which reinforces the theory that there is more to this violent fervor than just emotive reactions to the offensive film, which most protesters have not even seen (and for the record, the trailer is not worth one’s precious time).  Some analysts are also pointing to the revenge factor, especially in the case of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and his security detail.  In June Al Qaeda’s number two leader in Yemen was killed, and he happened to be Libyan.

Furthermore, the extremist Islamists are dismayed at being sidelined and even delegitimized upon the 2011 uprisings and revolutions that toppled decades-long secular dictatorships.  For just as long, these extremist groups spread throughout the region, although small in numbers, were forced to operate underground.  Once the revolutions took place last year through mostly nonviolent protests and civil disobedience, the extremists had the rug pulled from under them.  Even the Islamist parties that have come to power following the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have to balance their respective Islamism with moderate secular and liberal ideals and policies.  This also angers the extremists, who feel that these Islamist governments are “too soft” in their Islamism.  Particularly in the case of Egypt and Sudan, Islamist hardliners are pressuring the governments to capitulate on some of their demands to implement stricter Shariah rules and policies.  These Islamists constitute major political constituents in some cases, and so the governments cannot be seen as leaning too much toward secularism and liberalism.

Similarly, the protesters, especially the young men, continue to hold grievances against their own governments for failing to meet their needs, especially providing jobs and a better future for the next generation.  Thus, woven into this discontent about the anti-Islam film are the underlying grievances against respective governments, especially for socioeconomic reasons.  Change is not occurring fast enough for many, and this has been an opportunity to express their multi-layered anger.

Anti-Western and especially anti-American sentiments are also being exploited by various elements.  Many people in the region, but certainly not all, see Western values, especially freedom of expression, as “boundary-less,” meaning that these freedoms and rights have no limits.  This is not exactly true, because we have laws against “hate speech” and of course the exception to the First Amendment right to free speech and expression exists for the sake of public order and safety, prohibiting incitement of violence.  The “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” phrase aptly describes this exception.

But, most people in the region are not aware of these provisions and exceptions.  They simply see that an American national has funded and produced this vile film, and that the US government should take action against such offenses, and place boundaries or “reasonable limits” on free speech and expression.  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama have unequivocally condemned this film, as well as the violence in the Muslim world.  But, they have no authority to undo the constitutional laws that grant all Americans First Amendment rights and freedoms.  The First Amendment embodies the fabric of American values, and, by the way, it also grants everyone the freedom of religion.  We should never compromise on that.

The last few days have been extremely sad, tragic, and disheartening.  Too many breaches have occurred, including the murder of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues.  Also, the loss of life of protesters is, in my opinion, such a waste.

According to a Reuters article (9/14/2012), entitled “Anti-American fury sweeps Middle East over Film” –

“At least seven people were killed as local police struggled to repel assaults after weekly Muslim prayers in Tunisia and Sudan, while there was new violence in Egypt and Yemen and across the Muslim world, driven by emotions ranging from piety to anger at Western power to frustrations with local leaders and poverty.”

The article also explains the balancing act that Egypt’s President Mursi must play regarding the Cairo protests and US relations (Egypt is the second highest recipient of US foreign aid):

“Mursi must tread a line between appealing to an electorate receptive to the appeal of more hardline Islamists and maintaining ties with Washington, which long funded the ousted military dictatorship.”

The Salafists are involved in most if not all of these violent protests.  I have repeatedly written about the dangers of Salafists, even in Tunisia, as the Reuters article describes:

“Further west along the Mediterranean, a Reuters reporter saw police open fire to try to quell an assault in which protesters forced their way past police into the U.S. embassy in Tunis. Some smashed windows, others hurled petrol bombs and stones at police from inside the embassy and started fires. One threw a computer from a window, others looted computers and telephones.

A Tunisian security officer near the compound said the embassy had not been staffed on Friday, and calls to the embassy went unanswered. Two armed Americans in uniform stood on a roof.

The protesters, many of whom were followers of hardline Salafist Islamist leaders, also set fire to the nearby American School, which was closed at the time, and took away laptops. The protests began after Friday prayers and followed a rallying call on Facebook by Islamist activists and endorsed by militants.”

This is shameful, disgusting, and criminal behavior, not much different in measure than the film producer, and in fact is even worse because lives have been lost.

This behavior also exhibits extreme immaturity at so many levels.  Islam is the youngest of the Judeo-Christian faiths, and its internal ideologies and diverse compositions and manifestations are still evolving.  As one student put it, Christianity used to be very puritanical, with the Inquisition, the Crusades, witch-burnings, and the like.  Islam is going through its phases and evolutions as well, some aspects of which are still very medieval in their outlook.  It’s imperative for the world’s Muslims to reconcile the internal conflicts and facilitate enlightenment and stamp out the extremist ideologies that are so harmful.  Puritanism serves no purpose, especially in the modern era.  It is extremely counterproductive and threatens regional and global peace and security.

Another point for the Muslim world to ponder is this:  given all the anti-Americanism and knee-jerk emotional and violent reactions that we’ve been witnessing throughout the Muslim world, Western powers will think twice before helping Muslims again, and that might include the opposition in Syria.

Finally, why people continue to take the bait is beyond comprehension.  Clearly, this film was intended to provoke anger and emotions.  Yet, it seems that repeatedly Muslims fail to transcend the temptations to react, especially so destructively.  Consider that the Prophet Muhammad’s own reputation and character should speak for himself.  Does he really need people to defend his name violently?  Isn’t something wrong with this picture?  It only gives perpetual license to the world’s provocateurs, who are probably rolling on the ground laughing, at the expense of global peace.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views

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The Tunisian Model: A Promising Outlook

5 03 2012

I spent the last week in Tunisia and returned last night.  One year after the revolution, Tunisia looks impressive, and the outlook for the country’s economic and political development seems promising and bursting with potentials.  Tunisia is not without problems and bumps in the road to formulating some sort of hybrid Islamic democracy, although no one expects a smooth glide to post-revolution successes in all aspects of society.  That would be naïve for sure.

Tunisian nationalist pride is evident everywhere, and in terms of economic health, one notices construction projects proliferating the skyline in Tunis and elsewhere.  The souk (market) in the old quarter of Medina in Tunis is bustling with activity, but the number of tourists is still not up to standard.  Clearly, the usual crowds of foreigners filling the Tunisian streets and major sites are missing, and this is cause for worry, as the Tunisian economy relies heavily on tourism.  It is not peak tourist season yet, as that happens in the warmer summer months.  But still, people are anxious about uncertainties ahead and the ability to draw foreign investments and tourists.  French and German businesses are quite active in Tunisia, hiring young, tech-savvy Tunisians.  A Gulf-based Islamic bank has been built in Tunis.  The foreign investments are trickling in, but there is still a greater need for more.

The infrastructure functions well, despite the revolution’s overwhelming impact.  Locals informed me that the electricity never shut off, and water keeps flowing in the tap.  There is still unemployment and in the south one finds poverty and labor disputes, plus the grape vine reports serious concerns about Libyan migrants and some unsavory characters crossing into Tunisia from the Tunisian-Libyan border.  In general, Tunisia finds herself at a crossroads:  from reading the locals’ faces, it appears that for the most part everyone is very pleased to see the former dictator Ben Ali go.  Yet, there is anxiety about the way ahead, but nothing like the tension we find in Libya and Egypt.  Tunisia even prides herself as the potential future model for the Arab Middle East, whereas at one time the “Turkish model” was cited.  Tunisians see themselves as the torchbearers.

In order for Tunisia to truly live up to that image, the post-revolution government will need to develop effectively, particularly focusing on employment demands and improved income distribution.  The degree of corruption in the Ben Ali era has left an indelible mark on the Tunisian people, and they are firmly determined never to allow that to happen again.  Many political institutions remain intact, which, one scholar tells me, will allow the future government to function well.  They won’t have to rebuild institutions from square one.  The constitution is still being drawn up, but some speculate that it might be completed within a year.

Of course, there are still some Ben Ali era elements lingering within Tunisia, and I was even told that some Qaddafi family members have fled into the country as well.  These elements only add to the collective anxiety, but overall, Tunisia appears to be on the road to political development and long term prosperity.  These processes will take time, and the Tunisians are very much aware of that.  Everyone I spoke to expressed great optimism, and some even expressed Tunisia’s trailblazing role in triggering the regional uprisings as also a sign that Tunisians will serve as the role model for the post-dictatorship governments to follow.  Right now, Tunisians are sorting out what that model will look like – secular liberal democracy, or some combination of Islam and democracy – and while the subject may be contentious, the discourse and debates I observed were nothing less than civil and respectful.  One year later, Tunisia is deeply and collectively introspective, and may eventually emerge as the model for the region to follow.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.





Condemning Democratization in the Middle East

22 01 2012

One of the first comments we heard from the Obama administration in the early stages of Egypt’s 2011 revolution was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remark, “the Egyptian government is stable,” referring to the Mubarak regime.  Of course, this is a stark contradiction to the democratic and human rights principles that the US espouses.  It also contradicts the expressed objective to promote democracy in the region, as stated in the US National Security Strategy (NSS).  Since then, we have seen regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and major political reforms in Morocco, Jordan, and some of the GCC states.  One of the outcomes of all of these events and changes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in 2011 has been the electoral empowerment of various Islamist parties.  Now, the editorial and news pages of global newspapers are brimming with alarmist messages about the Islamists coming to power in the MENA.  And, those of us in the field of MENA Studies are hearing earfuls of complaints and “I told you so’s,” because of the Islamist tsunami.

I respond to these complaints with these observations and explications:

  • This is the price of democracy, and democracy has various components:  the electoral, civil / human rights, and some argue the civic duty component (i.e., citizens have the obligation to participate in the political process).
  • Open, fair, and free elections should translate into allowing any party, however unpalatable, to run for political office.
  • These countries in the MENA region have never seen democracy, which means that they will respectively undergo their own evolutionary processes, just like we did in US history.  The MENA countries are starting from square one in this regard.  American democracy took a long time to reach the maturity we have today.  Let’s not forget that American democracy began with slavery, a brutal civil war, racial segregation, a women’s suffrage movement in the 20th century, and a very bloody and painful Civil Rights Movement.  For the MENA region, I am dubbing the process, “Evolution after Revolution.”  And, evolution after revolution takes a very long time.
  • If anyone doubts the compatibility of Islam with democracy, consider the approximately 14% of Muslims in the 1.3 billion total population of India, the world’s largest democracy.  This core Indian Muslim population has accepted and embraced secular democracy since day one of India’s independence from British colonial rule, the creation of Pakistan notwithstanding.  We often forget this point.  I am quick to remind people, pointing to India on the map.  Of course, India’s post-colonial history has its own complexities and communal problems; no one denies that.  But, it’s still evidence that Muslims in India, in whatever nuanced manner, find Islam and democracy compatible.  Turkey is another example that has been repeatedly cited as a template for the 2011 Arab uprising.

This is not to say that some of the developments in the region don’t trouble me.  The rise of the Salafists in Egypt, in particular, bothers me to no end.  If Egypt veers in the direction of a Saudi-like theocracy, then I will indeed be biting my nails with anxiety.  However, even then, it will be up to the Egyptian people to redirect the polity towards a flourishing democracy.  The burden is on the Egyptian citizens.  The same goes for all the other countries in the MENA region.  Of course, these will be long, hard struggles for freedoms and rights.  Let’s go back to US history and remind ourselves that we also have gone through difficult struggles to bring our democracy to maturity, and even now, it is far from perfect.  No one should expect absolute perfection.  But, everyone should aspire to it nonetheless, keeping the eye on the prize:  democracy that encompasses all of the components – free, fair, and open elections, freedoms and rights, and civic participation.

Two major dichotomous arguments are circulating about this issue today.  One is the recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that calls on Western governments to, basically, suck it up and accept Islamist parties coming to power in the region, as this is what democracy embodies, and it is a better outcome than the status quo autocratic dictators in power for decades who have violated human rights for so long.

The other argument is that the Islamists have hijacked the “Arab Spring” fruits of the secularists / modernists / liberals’ labor.  Some say this hijacking threatens the rights and freedoms of women and religious minorities, and in fact, thousands of Coptic Christians have preemptively left Egypt already.

Today’s Haaretz has an article about the former argument, citing the HRW report:

“Western democracies should overcome their aversion to Islamist groups that enjoy popular support in North Africa and the Middle East and encourage them to respect basic rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Sunday.

HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said in the group’s annual report that the past year’s Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings across the region have shown it is vital for the West to end its policy of backing ‘an array of Arab autocrats’ in exchange for supporting Western interests.

The West should also be more consistent in supporting pro-democracy forces in the Arab world and elsewhere, he said in HRW’s 690-page report on human rights abuses worldwide.

‘The international community must … come to terms with political Islam when it represents a majority preference,’ he said. ‘Islamist parties are genuinely popular in much of the 
Arab world, in part because many Arabs have come to see political Islam as the antithesis of autocratic rule.’

‘Wherever Islam-inspired governments emerge, the international community should focus on encouraging, and if need be pressuring, them to respect basic rights – just as the 
Christian-labeled parties and governments of Europe are expected to do,’ he said in the introduction to the report.

He added that the international community ‘should adopt a more principled approach to the region than in the past. That would involve, foremost, clearly siding with democratic reformers even at the expense of abandoning autocratic friends.’”

The counter-argument, which actually does not completely dismiss the former argument, is presented in today’s Al Arabiya News by Raghida Dergham, saying –

“Mistaken are those who demand that power be handed over to the Islamists in the Arab region of change, even on the grounds that they have been brought to power by a democratic process that must be honored, and that there is no choice but to submit to the de facto situation until the Islamists are tested in power. This is because democracy has been abortive as a result of excluding women and the youths from decision-making, and there are dangerous indications that the personal freedoms of Arab women and religious minorities are being undermined in the age of the Islamist monopoly of power. The youths of the Arab Awakening launched the revolution of change, but the ballot boxes brought victory for the Islamist movements. While they had toppled their regimes jointly in 2011, they parted ways in 2012 battle over the fateful choice between the modern state and the Islamic state.”  (my emphasis)

I close with Raghida’s last paragraph, which, I think, sums up this discourse very eloquently, and leaves you, the reader, to contemplate how the “necessity of challenging monopoly” applies to your own political system.  The checks and balances in a democracy are not just a civic responsibility, but are also imperative for upholding all of the components of democracy simultaneously.  Consider Raghida’s words –

“The change coming from the Arab Awakening is going through a frightening phase that is causing much frustration, and yet there is something in the air preventing a downward spiral into pessimism – something that awakens frustration into the necessity of challenging monopoly.”

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.