Sat 15 Sep 2012
The past week has seen a dramatic punctuation in the political present. This present is one in which several countries in North Africa and the Middle East are emerging from years of “stable” dictatorial rule in which human rights were ignored by the Western countries who philosophize how important human rights (or at least the right kind of rights) are. There is also a presidential election looming in the most powerful nation on earth, a nation divided in a partisan way with few realistic ideas on how to frame a way out of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. It is raining politics and that is fire and brimstone in the current climate.
The drama starts with the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, which like the abduction of Helen of Troy, prodded the United States to engage in two decade-long wars that have resulted in the deaths of former figure-head foes (Saddam and Bin Laden) but which are unwinnable in the old-fashioned “sign a peace treaty and let trade make us friends” sense after World War II. The spark, a most surreal one at that, is a pathetic trailer for the kind of film no one would ever pay money to see. Before Youtube, before the Internet, this would have been yet another throw-away on the huge cinematic rubbish pile already brimming with porn. But in a scenario that a producer would probably laugh away, an Islamophobic individual dubs intentionally hateful dialogue denigrating the Prophet Muhammad. For non-Muslims the main thing offended is taste; for Muslims this is hateful and hurtful, akin to throwing something sacred into a toilet.
The politics has exploded all over the media, not in spits but a massive vomit. The death of an American ambassador along with other embassy personnel in Libya, the burning of American flags and the breach of American embassies in Egypt and Yemen, attacks on “American” businesses like KFC in Tripoli, Lebanon: the news cycle is gorging on its own vomit. Meanwhile the American presidential war of words has turned from “it’s the economy, stupid” to “who carries a bigger stick into the White House.” Through it all the scenes of violent protesters morph into a scenario of the Muslim world as the enemy. “Muslims” are attacking our embassies; “Muslims” must hate American values; “Muslims” are not grateful for our help in liberating them from dictators (a bit belatedly, but nevertheless…). These “Muslims” might as well be the “Jews” in Nazi propaganda or the “Indians” in the eyes of General Custer.
So who are the “Muslims” who seem to so hate us? There are an estimated one and a half billion Muslims worldwide, spread out over all continents, but especially concentrated in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. If one and half billion Muslims (even considering those too young to yet know they should hate America) really do hate America so much, the future is apocalypse. But do a head count and go beyond the “Muslim” label to the grievances of those chanting. The emerging evidence suggests that the attack on the Libyan consulate was planned well in advance and the limited protest was an excuse by al-Qaeda or those sympathetic to terrorist aims to celebrate 9/11 in their own twisted way. In Egypt there was indeed widespread anger at a film most had not actually seen (nor felt they needed to see), but those who stormed the embassy and battled with Egyptian police were more soccer houligans than devout men with henna in their beards. Compare the largely peaceful protests, with many women, that brought down the regime to these late-night, rock-throwing street skirmishes.
There is a problem with labeling here. Just because the protesters are “Muslim” in principle does not mean they represent the vast majority of Muslims in these countries. A very small minority is taking advantage of an out-of-control situation to power play. In Yemen, for example, there is no stability following the removal of Ali Abdullah Salih. His Republican Guard is still loyal to the former dictator, making it difficult for the new regime to field a unified military; the unrest that allowed the radical Ansar al-Shari’s to control major towns in the south until recently continues. Whatever is being chanted by either the rock throwers or rocket grenade shooters, local politics is far more motivating than fury over a religious insult. Regime change is never pretty and never easily settled.
We are political animals before we are religious zealots. The morphing of the two is a recipe for disaster, a raging fire. There are times when the best solution is to fight fire with fire; thus, every one of the countries in which the American embassy is under attack is being defended by that country’s security forces. There is no repeat of the Iran hostage crisis here, nor will there be. Using these protests as an excuse to send in American military (something not asked for nor needed by any rational measure) would guarantee an even greater fire. We need the water cannons of diplomacy, not the drones of revenge. One hardly needs Gallup to realize that most Muslims are not out in the streets, nor do they hate American values. To the extent Americans assume that the problem is with “Muslims” rather than those politically motivated individuals who usually have a very limited understanding of their own religious tradition, it will only encourage more violence.
Every American president, including George W. Bush right after the 9/11 tragedy, has made the distinction between the religion of Islam and the violent acts of those who say they are acting in the name of Islam. Mitt Romney has come dangerously close to creating a “Muslim” problem with his politically opportune attack on President Obama in the midst of a national emergency. When Jimmy Carter authorized a mission to rescue the American diplomats held by Iran and it failed, his challenger Ronald Reagan acted responsibly by not taking a cheap shot but by insisting we rally behind the President in a time of crisis. Romney, however, appears to so desperate to show how conservative he “really” is, that he toys with and at times employs Islamophobic rhetoric of the kind that persecuted the founders of his own Mormon faith.
The “Muslim” problem is one of our own making. These protests are not really about a film, nor about America, but as much a part of the local politics where they occur as Romney’s pandering twitter on the eve of 9/11.
Daniel Martin Varisco
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