Blowback of the ugliest kind: The lessons no one will learn from Benghazi

The religious oppression, hatred and violence is “a toxic brew that… inevitably begets more of the same”, writes LeVine.

Egypt's Copts are one of the "more systematically abused and discriminated against minorities anywhere" [EPA]

“Does Mideast Democracy Complicate Diplomacy?”

This was the headline of the NY Times‘ “Room for Debate” section in the wake of the attack that killed the US Ambassador to Libya in Benghazi. Not “Is Arming an Insurgency that Includes Anti-American Jihadis Who Will Unquestionably Wind Up Attacking You a Good Idea?” Not “Does Continuing to Support Undemocratic Monarchs and Dictators in a Region Where People Already Are Angry at US for Decades of Doing So Complicate Diplomacy?”

And certainly not “Did Tens of Billions of Dollars in US Aid to Mubarak While His Government Engaged in and Supported Systematic Violence Against Egyptian Copts Just Come Back to Haunt US in Libya?” Readers wondering “Why Do Religions that Preach Love, Peace, Justice and Forgiveness Seem to Propagate So Much Hatred, War, Injustice and Revenge?” were left to search newspapers of lesser renown to find the beginnings of an answer to this most pertinent question.

Of course, there is absolutely no justification for the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and several of his entourage as well as Libyan security personnel. And yes, the attacks, and the larger anti-American protests in which they took place, remind us about the powerful strain of unchecked and often unthinking – certainly uncritical – anger and revenge that defines Islam for millions of its adherents.

The unrestrained anger against a YouTube clip has even led to outrage among some Syrian activists, with one tweeting that “the only thing that seems to mobilise the Arab street is a movie, a cartoon or an insult, but not the pool of blood in Syria”.

But if the world’s paper of record is going to ask questions in the wake of an attack like this week’s in Libya, surely it could have done better than this.

A history of violence

Among the many lessons to be learned from the strange, sordid tale of Sam Bacile – aka Nakoula Basseley Nakoula; and who knows what other names – and the “film” (if one can call it that) he apparently made, teaches us, is one that the religious oppression, hatred and violence is a toxic brew that, as Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently reminded us, inevitably begets more of the same. 


 Inside Story: Egypt’s clash of religions

In this particular case, decades of oppression and abuse of Egypt’s Coptic minority has led some members of the community living in exile to join forces with some of the most chauvinist, hate-filled and Islamophobic groups in the American evangelical community and (posing as an Israeli Jew, no less), to produce a work that according to his associates was expected, and likely designed, to provoke precisely the kind of anger and even bloodshed it succeeded in producing.

Unless you know Egyptian Copts personally have listened to their stories of abuse and violence at the hands of their Muslim Egyptian neighbours, it’s hard to understand why an expatriate community member would waste time and money in producing such a cheap polemic guaranteed to lead to even more violence against his community back home, not to mention the global blowback that was equally inevitable. 

The reality is that Egypt’s Copts are one of the more systematically abused and discriminated against minorities anywhere. And aside from half-hearted paeans to inter-religious fraternity and peaceful resolutions of communal disputes, Muslim leaders in Egypt and across the Muslim majority world – in Pakistan, Palestine, Indonesia in particular – have done far too little not merely forcefully to condemn such violence, but to educate and demand their adherents to treat Christians as equal citizens.

But the violence against Christians is part of a much larger story that only gets more complicated the deeper you dig. In Egypt, it turns out that the Mubarak government, which pretended to be a last line of defence for Copts, in fact incited and even directed violence against Copts by Salafis in order to strengthen its argument that without a secular authoritarian state the situation would be far worse.

More broadly, it’s very hard to expect Copts to be treated with respect and dignity when under the Mubarak dictatorship (and long before) men, women, Muslims, Christians, the poor, labour activists – pretty much everyone was treated without respect for their basic human, political, civil and other basic rights.

As in any family or community defined by abuse, the violence just circulates downwards and spreads outwards, with each person abused by someone with power over them passing on the anger and abuse to those below. As many women’s rights activists have pointed out over the years across the region, it’s hard to press for greater freedom for women as women when at the most basic level, no one is free.

Sadly, a similar question could be asked about Copts; the problem is that such an attitude only means that women, religious and other minorities merely face added layers of discrimination and violence on top of the more generalised political oppression.

Unrealised possibilities

One of the highlights of the 18-day uprising that launched the still unfinished Egyptian revolution was, we might remember, how Copts and Muslims protected each other during each other’s prayers. Coupled with the relatively harassment-free environment for women inside Tahrir, the freedom, fraternity and equality between ordinary Egyptians inside that utopic space offered a model for a truly free Egypt. 


 Egypt protests continue against anti_Muhammad film

But of course, the model was shattered almost the moment Mubarak was pushed from office, as Salafis attempted to hijack the celebrations the very next day and the toxic energy of decades of dictatorship led to sexual assaults of foreigners and Egyptians as well, in Tahrir and across Cairo and other cities in the ensuing months.

Copts fared no better, as the Maspero massacre of October 2011 put into stark relief. But Maspero was not the work of religious fanatics; it was the work of a secular military dictatorship that receives billions of dollars in aid from the United States, Europe and international financial organisations such as the WTO and World Bank, none of which was jeopardised despite that massacre of the arrests, torture and killings of thousands more Egyptians since Mubarak’s ouster. 

If you want to understand what’s behind the embassy attack in Cairo, and the (as I write) just reported embassy attack in Sana’a, Yemen, decades of US support for the former (and in many ways still existing) regimes in these two countries most certainly equals – and most likely outweighs – religious anger at the “film”.

Acknowledging legitimate anger does not excuse government responses, particularly in Egypt. Unfortunately, the new, democratically elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, hails from an organisation that has little experience fighting for the rights of all Egyptians, regardless of their creed, political beliefs, sexual orientations or other markers of identity.

The Brotherhood may have learned the democratic game, but it’s a very circumscribed and corporatist view of democracy that has traditionally shown little tolerance for diverse views and life choices that might challenge normative views (although the most recent Satanic metal episode might signal the beginnings of a shift, as I pointed out in my last column). Such a view is of course not much different to that of the Republican Party today, not to mention the religious right in Israel, India and numerous other countries.

But that only means that politics and religion continue to generate chauvinism, hatred, violence and discrimination wherever they combine, even as the chances of keeping them separate seems to diminish with each passing year.

Blowback of the ugliest kind

Americans and Europeans are no doubt looking at the protests over the “film”, recalling the even more violent protests during the Danish cartoon affair, and shaking their heads one more at the seeming irrationality and backwardness of Muslims, who would let a work of “art”, particularly one as trivial as this, drive them to mass protests and violence.

Yet Muslims in Egypt, Libya and around the world equally look at American actions, from sanctions against and then an invasion of Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and sent the country back to the Stone Age, to unflinching support for Israel and all the Arab authoritarian regimes (secular and royal alike) and drone strikes that always seem to kill unintended civilians “by mistake”, and wonder with equal bewilderment how “we” can be so barbaric and uncivilised.

Russia receives little better grades on this card, whether for its brutality in Afghanistan during the Soviet era, in Chechnya today, or its open support of Assad’s murderous regime.

Meanwhile, the most jingoistic and hate-filled representatives of each society grow stronger with each attack, with little end in sight.

Let us assume that the attack was in fact not directly related to the protests in Benghazi but rather was the work of an al-Qaeda affiliated cell that either planned it in advance or took advantage of the opportunity to attack. If correct, we are forced to confront the very hard questions raised by the support for the violent insurgency against Gaddafi instead of following the much more difficult route of pressing for continued non-violent resistance against his murderous regime. 


 Coptics flee Egyptian village amid clashes

Such a choice was extremely hard to make while Gaddafi was massacring Libyans by the thousands. But it’s one the needs to be examined in great detail if the most recent deaths are to have any lasting meaning. As long as the jihadis were rampaging Mali or destroying Sufi shrines, Americans didn’t have to think about the costs of supporting the violent removal of Gaddafi.

Now that the violence has been turned against their representatives, will Americans respond as expected, with prejudice and ignorance? Or, during this crucial election season, will they ask hard questions of their leaders about the wisdom of violent interventions in the context of a larger regional system which the United States administers that remains largely driven by violence? 

As I flew home yesterday from Europe, unaware of what had transpired in Libya, I read through the 2008 report by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, titled “From Exporting Terrorism to Exporting Oppression: Human Rights in the Arab Region”.

The report described the often unbearable levels of abuse suffered by citizens across the region is one of the most depressing reads imaginable. Every single government, from Morocco to Iraq, was defined by the systematic abuse of its citizens, denial of their most basic rights, and rampant corruption and violence. And in every case, such abuses and violence have been enabled by Western, Russian and other foreign interests.

Simply put, each and all the policies and actions described in the report – and 2008 was no better or worse than the years that proceeded or followed it – are as much forms of terror as the destruction of the World Trade Centre, invasion of Iraq, or attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi.

In fact, the Middle East and North Africa have for over half a century constituted one of the largest and most pernicious terror systems of the modern era. And the US, Europe, Russia, and now increasingly China have been accessories, co-conspirators, and often initiators of this terror throughout the period, working hand-in-hand with local governments to repress their peoples and ensure that wealth and power remain arrogated by a trusted few.

Who can lead?

If the combination of the report and the news of the Benghazi attack weren’t enough, within 20 minutes of arriving home, and while I was getting up to speed on the Benghazi attacks to respond to the inevitable media queries that were coming my way (Why do Muslims react like this just to a stupid movie? was what everyone wanted to know), I received the following alert from some Moroccan activists:

“A young Moroccan, in his twenties, who was employed and active in Communications, PR and Event Planning, has just been sentenced to 10 months in prison following a peaceful protest in Casablanca to free political detainees in Morocco last month. Samir Bradley was tortured by the Moroccan security apparatus during his initial interrogation. Sexual abuse, plucking of the eyelashes and attempts to pull of his nails were part of the techniques used by Moroccan authorities to humiliate him into submission.

After a ridiculously unfair trial and ruling, Proud and Strong, Samir has now started a hunger strike and is refusing water. Samir is an innocent active patriotic young man. A peaceful activist who only used peaceful means to push for positive change in Morocco. He will die in three days. The next time anyone reads the Articles 20 to 29 of the new Moroccan Constitution, please refer to reality to understand Morocco is not an ‘exception’. The regime is repressing peaceful protests and Morocco is far… FAR from reaching out for Rule of Law.”

This abuse was perpetrated by a “moderate”, “modern” regime whom Secretary of State Clinton recently praised as not merely a leader for peace in the region, but a “very good model for others who are also seeking to have their own democratic reforms”. 

“The most jingoistic and hate-filled representatives of each society grow stronger with each attack, with little end in sight.”

What do Americans really expect to be the result of such bald-faced lies and support for brutality by our leaders?

The Arab uprisings of the last two years have at least given the world hope that a rising generation, in the region and – with their inspiration – globally, is finally trying to challenge the international terror system that ensures that hundreds of millions (indeed, billions) of people live mired in poverty and hopelessness, with almost no chance to create a better future, all so that a global elite can enjoy unimaginable wealth and power.

As global warming increases with its attendant environmental crises, food and fuel become more scarce and expensive, and global inequality rends social fabrics everywhere, we all have a choice.

We can succumb to the hatred and anger and each do our own part to speed the trip to our collective Hell, or we can follow the lead of the heroes of Bourguiba Boulevard, Midan Tahrir, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, Wall Street and numerous other places where during the last two years, at least for a moment, ordinary people have come together to knock down the system that has oppressed them for as long as they can remember.

Choice number one is far easier, as it will happen merely by continuing to think and act, as we always have and letting inertia carry us over the cliff. Choice number two demands that people everywhere engage in serious soul searching, make profound changes in their most basic attitudes, beliefs, actions and policies, and then force our leaders to do the same.

Whichever choice we collectively make, events like the Benghazi attacks and all they signify remind us that at least we’ve been warned.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.