Dreaming of the Apocalypse

If ever real leadership was needed among American, European and Arab leaders, it’s now.

Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the anti-Islam film as 'disgusting and reprehensible' [AP]

“Disgusting and Reprehensible!”

That’s how Secretary of State Hilary Clinton described the “film” Innocence of Muslims in the latest official US comment on the movie that has sparked outrage across the Muslim world. 

We can all hope that these comments will placate the one tenth of one per cent of the world’s Muslims – and this is likely an overstatement of the true number – who’ve been angered enough by the film to take to the streets in protest. 

It would be useful, however, to put the current protests into a bit of perspective. 

It is true, as the Atlantic put it, that the Innocence of Muslims (why has no one commented on the fact that the title literally makes no sense, as if it was written by someone with almost no command of English) “has sparked furious protests from Somalia to Egypt to Sudan to Tunisia to Libya to Bangladesh to Indonesia to Pakistan”. Indeed, if you look at the map Al Jazeera has put together showing the location of all the known protests in the last few days, it appears as if the Muslim world is going up in flames, with upwards of three dozen locations of protests across its length and breadth.

But then you click on each of the protests and it becomes clear that the average number of protests is in the low hundreds, and well under 10,000 people across the region in total out of a population of 1.6 billion, are involved. 

Yes, they are doing quite a bit of damage and are expressing a level of anger and even violence that, from a liberal perspective, is out of proportion with the offence.

Nevertheless, if we compare the so far miniscule number of protesters vis-a-vis the total number of Muslims with the impact generated by the images of their protests we are reminded of how powerful and distorting visual images can be when they are used to generalise about such a vast conglommeration of people. Of course, the number could rise precipitously in the coming days if security forces kill a large number of people in one location or new films or other provocations appear with the goal of inflaming anti-Western sentiments even more. But the number would have to increase drastically to reflect a significant percentage of the population of these countries, and thus legitimately be used to characterise the attitude of Muslims writ large.

But there is need for even more perspective. Secretary of State Clinton no doubt felt compelled to make such a strong comment in order to be sure the Muslim world understood that the film does not reflect the official position of the US government or the sentiments of most Americans. (It will be interesting to see President Romney try doing that, given that such people constitute the core cadres of his party, the main backers of his presidency, and would surely make up a significant part of his foreign policy team.)

Disgusting and reprehensible

But Clinton’s remarks got me to thinking: What else precisely has she or President Obama found similarly disgusting and reprehensible during their tenure? Surely such strong words about a ludicrous little film mean far more egregious actions would receive equal if not stronger condemnation.

Let’s see…

Thirty years of Mubarak’s dictatorship, with all the torture, brutality, corruption, and oppression, supported by well over $40 billion US-tax payer dollars? No. Mrs Clinton considered Mubarak a “friend of the family”.

The Maspero massacre of Coptic Christians and the arrests and military trials of thousands of pro-democracy protestors? No. The most the President would do was urge “restraint on all sides”.

Inside Story: US 2012 –
The political fallout of the Libya attack

The Israeli occupation and brutalisation of Palestinians for nearly half a century? Nevermind.

Bahrain’s ongoing crackdown on human rights activists? Perhaps a bit “troubling”, but not worth stopping the flow of arms to the monarchy. According to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, “the lack of pressure from the US administration appears to be linked with the Bahraini government’s willingness to escalate” attacks on human rights defenders.

Tunisia’s Ben Ali? Nary a bad word, not even in a major speech the day before he was forced from power.

Yemen’s corrupt and brutal former President Saleh? “We face a common threat, but our partnership goes beyond terrorism,” Clinton declared on January 11, 2011 in a press conference with him (three days before Tunisia’s Ben Ali stepped down, starting the flood of Arab democracy uprisings). 

And the list goes on…

It’s enough to wonder: Had the US and other governments shown as much disgust at the reprehensible behaviour of Middle Eastern and North African governments during the last fifty years instead of supporting and arming most of them to the teeth, might the anti-American reactions to the film be a bit less fierce?

Whatever the religious rationale behind the initial protests, they have followed a long-standing trajectory of morphing into an expression of broader disgust at generations worth of reprehensible US and broader Western foreign policy towards countries like Egypt and Yemen, including during the pro-democracy uprisings of the last 2 years. They are also implicitly attacks on their governments who have been the beneficiaries of Western largesse at the expense of their people. This trajectory is so well established precisely because under authoritarian governments religion has usually been the only sphere not directly controlled by the government, and thus through which people could express their anger and grievances.

Thus, for example, the Ultras who have been on the front lines of the battles in front of the US Embassy did not pick this fight with their hated enemies in the Egyptian security services and storm the US Embassy over a film trailer. This was but the latest instance of a longer term struggle against an Egyptian military state and its chief global sponsor that they and many other revolutionaries in Egypt believe is far from over, despite (and for some even because of) the election of President Morsi. In Tunisia, activists aren’t even sure who in fact is involved in and organising the protests that have left several people dead and many more injured. From the beards sported by many protestors we might conclude they are Salafis. But what about photos of people stealing plastic chairs and other cheap furniture from the American Embassy? Not exactly the Salafi MO.

As one of the country’s most active revolutionary bloggers put it to me, “The demonstrators try to look like Salafists, but they are not.” And indeed, another blogger who went to the Embassy reported witnessing adults paying young kids [FR] about about 10 dinars each (a bit over US $6) to chant slogans and throw stones.

Apocalypse now

Whoever is involved and whatever their individual motivations, the reality is that there are so many reasons for huge swaths of the citizenry of these countries to be angry at their own governments and the major Western powers, or to be using this moment of chaos to pursue their own interests, that trying to pin these protests on some fanatical and irrational anti-American fury directed against a movie trailor would seem to be an unsupportable proposition.

What is clear is that because the US, including the present administration, have expressed so little disgust at the reprehensible actions of their local clients in the past, it’s very hard for it to be taken seriously now, when trust and good will in American intentions is most needed. Indeed, one could argue that Obama aggravated the history of mistrust by starting his presidency with his famous Cairo speech promising a new beginning to US-Muslim relations, only to continue and even intensify many of the policies that people across the Muslim world have, quite naturally, found most objectionable.

Perhaps the most pernicious blowback to this whole situation would be if an intensification of the protests and more violence against American property and citizens helps the President’s Republican opponent to paint him as weak and unwilling to defend America’s honour – the mirror image of the extremist Muslim rallying cry against the US. Should that happen, and Romney and Ryan enter the White House in four months’ time, they will find themselves in a very unenviable position: beholden to a group of well-financed, violence-prone fanatics whose primary goal seems to be egging on their Muslim counterparts towards an Apocalypse that both sides assume will mark the end of history and the annihilation of the other side (taking with them, needless to say, all the traitors on their own side). As the former French diplomat and Islamic studies professor Jean-Pierre Filiu points out in his excellent recent book, Apocalypse in Islam,  such views have in fact witnessed an “extraordinary resurgence” in the Muslim world in recent decades, and are strongly related to and even influenced by their fundamentalist Christian and Jewish counterparts.

I don’t pretend to know how or even if one can avoid an Apocalypse once it has been set into motion. And as of now, however frightening the images on YouTube or TV, the number of people involved is far to small to augur anything resembling a long term battle of the proverbial Arab or Muslim “street” against the so-called “Great Satan”. But I’m pretty sure that the longer it takes all sides to look in the mirror and initiate fundamental changes in their attitudes, actions and policies, the closer we’ll come to proving the fanatics right. If ever real leadership was needed among American, European and Arab leaders, it’s now. Sadly, it seems no one is up to the job.

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.