The recent September protests and attacks on the US Consulates in Cairo, Benghazi and Sana may prove to be a critical impasse for the three nations’ nascent and transitioning governments.
Yet, in the US, the recent events and their associated images have re-shifted the focus from progressive revolutionary back fully back to prevailing image of the Arab and Muslim as menace.
The spirit of progressive reform that inspired the revolutionary sweep that cleaned out dictators Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi and Ali Saleh Abdullah, and sprung up the pride of Arabs and Muslims globally, is being rained away by a renewed, yet established, seasons of Arab and Muslim vilification.
The protests in the three nations manifested the embryonic freedom of speech claimed during and after the revolutions. However, the events were elevated into full-fledged melees, and particularly in Libya, hijacked by extremist elements into a violent siege on the US Consulate that led to four causalities.
Precipitated by the recent protests and attacks, Arab and Muslim Americans are, once again, apologising for acts to which they bear no connection or causal link.
Thousands of Egyptians stormed the US Embassy in Cairo, protesting the anti-Islam film, Innocence of Muslims. The film produced by alleged Israeli-American Nakoula Basseley Nakoula demonised the faith’s primary messenger Prophet Muhammad and denigrated Islam. Nakoula, a California-based real estate developer and criminal convict, has achieved the civil upheaval in the region that was the likely aim of his film.
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The attacks that grew out of the protests, and particularly the murders of Ambassador Stevens and his three colleagues in Benghazi, are heinous acts that compel investigation. However, they do not compel admissions of guilt from Arab and Muslim Americans a hemisphere away, with no connection or association to these acts.
From Tahrir Square to terror squads
Chants of “death to America” and news clips of angry throngs of brown, bearded and veiled Arabs re-saturated the news. The Arab Spring’s makeover of Arabs and Muslims as democracy-hungry, downtrodden and resilient underdogs was well past its equinox, and eclipsed by the Oriental depictions in Nakoula’s film. These sounds and sights, for the global viewer – and particularly the American audience – were nothing new.
Tahrir Square and its sister spaces throughout the region were washed away by the “Terror Squads” that encircled the US Compounds in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Although Nakoula’s film, in varying degrees, flamed the anger of the protests in Egypt and Libya, the guilty parties behind the violent acts in the three nations were unidentified – in the case of Yemen’s protests, guilt was on the hands of the local police.
Nevertheless, Arab and Muslim Americans were still prepared to apologise, express regret on behalf of their ethnicity and faith, and admit their own guilt.
The politics of apology
In most legal systems, including the United States, an apology is an admission of guilt. The act of apologising draws a formal nexus between the subject and the wrongdoing – regardless of how tenuous the connection.
Immediately after 9/11, a number of Muslim Americans – in every strata of society – took it upon themselves to apologise for the terrorist attacks. The motivations that fuelled these apologies were as diverse as the apologists themselves.
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Some strategised that an express apology would provide safe haven from formal discrimination, hate crimes and violence; others considered it religious obligation or duty to condemn acts made in their faith; while a segment of the Muslim and Arab American political communities capitalised on the political platform, and concomitant opportunities, an apology afforded.
There is a politics of apology, if not a wholesale industry. However, the more dire consequence of this culture of apologetics stems from the existential and epistemological co-option of the Arab and Muslim Americans.
The culprits of the 9/11 attacks were a deviant and homogenous collective, with no nexuses to Muslim and Arab Americans. Similarly, the protestors who besieged the US compounds in Egypt and Yemen and claimed the lives of four Americans in Libya, bore no direct links to Arab and Muslim citizens of the US.
However, mirroring the proliferation of apologies that rang out after 9/11, Arab and Muslim Americans ran to their social media outlets, civic events and organisational platforms apologising for the acts of “Muslims and Arabs” worlds away. These apologies fabricated a direct link between Muslim and Arab America and the acts of a handful of Egyptian, Libyan and Yemeni citizens, bringing to fruition the stereotypical bind that ties these diasporas to the imagined terrorists and barbarians in the Arab World.
In the Anatomy of Racial Inequality, Brown University economist Glenn Loury outlines self-conforming stereotypes as a “statistical and reasonable generalisation about some class of persons… that becomes operative in the observer’s mind”. In short, the pervasive and perpetually reoccurring stereotype that Arabs and Muslims are violent and prone to terrorism, while statistically absurd and unreasonable, has been entrenched and engrained within the psyche of many Arab and Muslim Americans.
The extreme version of Loury’s self-conforming stereotype is what Hamid Dabashi, author of the Franz Fanon inspired Brown Skin, White Masks, calls “autophobia”. This affliction, which drives a strand of the apologetics following crises, impacts “the person who is both the subject and the object of his own hatred”.
The American psychosis of the Arab and Muslim menace, therefore, has co-opted the minds of many Arab and Muslim Americans. The wellspring of apologies following crises – near or far, in America or in the Arab World – where no personal or communal nexus exists, evidences the entrenchment of the self-conforming stereotype and the uptick of autophobia.
No apologies needed
With no mens rea, criminal act, attempt, or result, Arab and Muslim Americans are volunteering their guilt – admission by way of apology.
Most criminal convictions in the US require presence of these elements. However, being Arab and/or Muslim, in America alone, precipitates a presumption of guilt by association – even in instances where associations with the protestors and attackers in the Arab World are non-existent.
The Arab Spring revolutions extended temporary shade from the wholesale casting of suspicion and guilt on Arab and Muslim Americans, before and especially after 9/11.
The fall of apologies following the sweep of US Embassy and Consulate attacks in the region highlight a return of an accustomed season of vilification and guilt; and foreshadows a winter of stereotypical conformity and co-option, from a rising number of Muslim and Arab Americans.
Guilt has already been cast on Arab and Muslim Americans – for the recent string of attacks, and those that preceded and will follow them.
No apologies needed.
Khaled A Beydoun is Adjunct Faculty and the Critical Race Studies Teaching Fellow at the UCLA School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.
Follow him on Twitter: @Legyptian