The recent wave of protests spreading throughout the Muslim world questions many assumptions we commonly make about national and global politics. We all want to know why and how it started; what groups and organisations are behind the riots and attacks against American targets and most importantly, how do we deal with such a rapid and unpredictable escalation of symbolic and physical violence? However, these may be the wrong questions.
The alleged anti-Islam film is nothing more than a 14 minutes long video widely circulated on the internet. We know very little about the producers. Conspiracy theories will keep on multiplying around the identity of the production team, the director and cast.
Either way, this search for the people behind the movie misses the point. When content goes viral on Facebook, we don’t usually ask who sent it or why. If it provokes our thoughts and feelings, we engage with it. We might like it or dislike it, comment on it, perhaps share the content further.
Something similar happened with the trailer of the “Innocence of Muslims”, except that action well exceeded the boundaries of the virtual world. What is it that makes us react to media content over the internet? Why are so many people worldwide reacting so vigorously against this video?
I think that it shows the crucial role played in everyday politics by people’s deep-seated attachment to powerful images, symbols, messages and ideas. The latter are often glossed over as mere emotional hang-ups, the inevitable side-effects of human politics that can be corrected and harnessed through the development of sound democratic institutions.
The dominant western assumption is that – despite the complexity of today’s world – individuals, groups and institutions have clearly defined identities and consciously pursue specific interests and act upon them. For many politicians and analysts, these are the dimensions that are most important to a deeper understanding of political events.
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This point of view overlooks an important social fact: in the “real” reality out there, messages, ideas, emotions and reactions spread virally, just as they do in our “Facebook” worlds. Contemporary identities are multiple and fragmented. There are undoubtedly numerous groups and institutions that do try to direct collective action and mobilise military, economic and social resources in pursuit of their interests.
There are also billions of people that, not unlike Facebook users, move in and out of groups, social movements, actions and protests. Sometimes endorsing a cause and then supporting the opposite cause, without a clear linear rationale. Today’s social world is not rational, certainly not in the way we assume it to be.
Focusing attention solely on terrorist groups and Islamic fundamentalist preachers inciting people for their own undemocratic goals does not bring us closer to a deeper understanding. It serves the purpose of providing a sensible explanation for what is happening to citizens of Western “liberal democratic” states.
We are told that if we catch the leaders of the protest, and make sure that these countries adopt the same democratic institutions that we have at home, it will all be fine.
These messages reveal at best a delusional understanding of contemporary reality, and at worst are a lie distracting our attention from the worrying realisation that Western leaders in fact have little or no control over such events.
We are seeing people storming the streets with anti-American messages in the same countries where mass rebellions against dictators and authoritarian regimes were hailed by the West as the “Arab spring” only some months ago.
We cannot separate these events, they are part of the same reality. We cannot easily distinguish the “democratic” desires of the people rising against their tyrants from the “fundamentalist” delusions of crowds blinded by inflammatory rhetoric and bad leaders.
Alternative means of violence
It is just as hard as trying to categorise our own Facebook activity in some linear model that would clearly and neatly explain who we are and who we will vote for in the next elections. We will most likely fail. Sometimes we engage in contradictory thoughts, and that’s just the way it is – we don’t think about it, we just do it. Nor is the US response on the whole any more “rational”.
Obama and his entourage went to great lengths to explain that the US and its representatives have nothing to do with the movie, which they condemned as “disgusting and reprehensible“. At the same time, the president also tried to reassure Americans that security is being stepped up by sending warships to Libya in the wake of the embassy attacks.
The truth is that this is not a struggle between US interests and its military establishment on one side, and the anti-US Islamist “insurgents” and fundamentalists fighting for their own interests, using alternative means of violence and political consensus, on the other. At least not in the sense in which we usually mean it. We often tend to think of these interests as the primary “stuff” of which social reality is made.
The imagery attached to these struggles, circulating in the form of videos, books and other media, is seen as a derivate of the real material struggles for power and resources on the ground and indeed it may well have been this way in the past. Today however we live in a different world where the production of images and symbols shapes who we are, what we do in our lives and how we act as political beings.
To put it more crudely, Facebook is the “real” reality, and the “physical” reality out there has just become an extension of our Facebook worlds. From this perspective, the reactions of the protesters make more sense: their anger and concerns originated in this “virtual” world and then they took to the streets.
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This is not to say that material factors don’t count. It is clear that poverty, corruption, exploitation, military repression and colonialism are all realities that have shaped and negatively affected the lives of protesters. And yet the eruption of these repressed feelings were spurred and driven by a visceral reaction to a video. It is the production of images that drive the material reality and not the other way around.
The US reaction follows a similar pattern. The protests exploded on September 11, the anniversary of the tragic attack on the Twin Towers. American officials are responding to this symbolic assault beyond the material implications of the shocking killing of an ambassador and the physical threat posed to its diplomatic staff throughout Muslim countries.
Warships and marines are being sent to the region making it clear that the attack will not succeed, that the sentiments and ideas behind the “American nation” will not be stopped by unacceptable verbal and physical violence.
Symbols and images do not follow the logics of rationalist enlightenment upon which the ideals of liberal democracy have been grounded. Meanings carried with imaginary narratives are never straightforward, they mix in strange and unpredictable ways, leaving us with a sense of mystery and puzzlement.
There are no linear boundaries in the imagination of protesters that make absolute distinctions between US embassies and those from other Western nations.
There are no clear geographies that confine the protests to the “Arab world”. The Taliban attacked a British base in Afghanistan as a reaction to the movie, just as thousands of peaceful protesters gathered in London responding to the same imagery. There is no orchestrated conspiracy, and therefore also no easily identifiable source of these attacks.
Military deployment is not a rational strategy to use in combating an invisible enemy – and Obama knows that. It is used as a show of force, a symbol, part of the same struggle, the same emotional politics that feeds the protesters’ fury. He needs to assure his fellow citizens of his unequivocally American qualities in the lead up to presidential elections.
These trends are not just happening “out there”, outside the comfortable borders of Western democracies, nor are they confined to one region and to the ideological conflict between the Christian West and Islam. They are at the very heart of our global society.
Interesting parallels can be drawn with the unplanned, spontaneous way in which tens of thousands of youth subverted the social order for five days with widespread looting and rioting across major English cities in August 2011. Or with the dramatic build-up of the May 2008 xenophobic attacks against foreign Africans living in South Africa which spread very rapidly and violently.
These are different contexts, different symbols and different struggles. Yet, in all these cases the eruption of collective discontent lacks clearly defined political actors. They all bring together different – and sometimes conflicting – interests, intentions and motivations that cannot be arranged into a single coherent narrative.
Before we can understand and deal with such events “rationally”, we need to explore new and better ways of looking at these dynamics and how they are shaping our everyday lives.
Vito Laterza recently completed PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and is currently a Research Fellow at the University of the West of England. His research focuses on political, economic and socio-cultural issues in Africa and the West, from a global geopolitical perspective.