We’re in familiar territory. Newsweek‘s recent cover story, Muslim Rage: How I Survived It and How We Can End It, is unsurprising given the ferocity of recent anti-blasphemy protests. Terrified, Western media have spent the past fortnight asking “Why are Muslims upset?” and, in reference to the Benghazi killings, “How can this happen in a country we helped liberate?”
Such cluelessness is a classic example of how colonialism still affects the Western mind. The image of pampered news anchors sitting in air conditioned rooms, wondering why Islamist factions in the Global South (who somehow represent the entirety of the Middle East) aren’t grateful to the United States reeks of the lingering racism that continues to dominate the post-colonial era. Completely ignoring the fact that most Libyans currently have a favorable view of the United States, the violence appeared to provoke a racist demand for Muslim gratitude.
The Libyan Revolution, which was quickly promoted as an American journey of self-discovery following its military debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, had appeared to take a sudden turn towards the terrifying prospect of “Muslim Rage.” Commentators and political leaders began linking the attacks to the North African terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, despite there being no evidence for this besides “al-Qaeda” having become synonymous with “non-white terrorist group.” Panic-stricken analysts began worrying about American expatriates in the region and the seemingly escalating violence. CNN even went so far as to ask, “was the Arab Spring worth it?” following the Benghazi killings (rather than ask this question earlier this year, when the death toll from counterrevolutionary mobilization in the region exceeded 60 000 people.)
Conveniently, the question of “was the NATO intervention in Libya worth it?” was never asked, despite there having been major bombings in Libya in the months following the civil war’s official conclusion. We do not discuss the idea that an intervention in Libya may have been concluded irresponsibly, as continued militant and weapons flows still cause sporadic violence in the country, and are even linked to Captain Amadou Sonogo’s coup d’etat in Mali. Rather, coverage has predominantly spoken to more sinister aspects of post-colonialism, including frustration in the greater Muslim world, and “Global North” perceptions of it.
The motivation for these protests is not new. Frustrations regarding blasphemous depictions of the Prophet Muhammad have sparked similar actions previously, most notably the 1988 publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses, and also the 2005 Jyllands Posten cartoons. Despite these precedents, many commentators have been quietly asking why “Muslims” would react so strongly to the new anti-Muhammad YouTube video, Innocence of Muslims. The confusion is understandable, if not understood as a psychological consequence of colonialism, and ongoing Western military violence in the Middle East. Muslims continue to feel humiliated during the post-colonial era, of which the current blasphemy is considered an integral part. The appeal of Islamic fundamentalism is understandable in such a context.
It is easy to lose something basic in the Satanic Verses controversy, which was made fiery by Ayatollah Khomeini’s politically-motivated fatwa, the murder of several of the book’s translators, and the rhetoric of East/West conflict that quickly materialized around it. Almost no one actually read the novel. This includes its defenders, who did not need to read the book to make a passionate defense of liberal democratic values such as freedom of speech, and its critics, who did not need to read it in order to understand its horrid depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The novel itself did not matter. Rushdie was irrelevant. It was the idea of his novel that served as a convenient lightning rod for prevailing ideologies in the post-colonial era. Protests and violence surrounding the book were most prevalent in conservative Pakistani communities with an emerging bitterness regarding Anglo-American interventionism in South Asia.
The fusion of Pakistani and conservative Muslim identity that occurred through the rule of General Zia ul-Haq meant that an attack against Islam also qualified as an offense against Pakistan in the nationalist sense. Broadly, this is a consequence of pan-Islamist ideologies being attached to Saudi Wahhabism, which made great strides in the region after leftist Nasserism was discredited following the 1967 Six Day War, and figures such as Ayatollah Khommeini emerged victorious in their struggles against pro-Western leaders like the Shah. Therefore, with Islam as the prevalent voice for political dissent, insensitivity and humiliation of Islamic principles quickly became equated with a continuation of Othering and insensitivity that dominated the colonial era. This is exactly why no one had to read the Satanic Verses in order to find it massively appalling, as opposing the novel provided an emotional medium for the bitterness of the post-colonial period.
Similarly, the 2005 Danish political cartoons provided an avenue for dissent regarding this crucial dynamic. It is hardly surprising that the most violent backlashes against them had links to specific countries that were targets of Bush-era neoconservative policy. The most fatal protests occurred in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, all homes to residents that had anecdotal experience with the narrative of continued Western humiliation in post-colonialism.
Much of the terrorism seen in Europe, along with attempted attacks, were conspired by European Muslims with clear ideological motivations linked to discrimination in these countries. European Muslims were especially alienated by the cartoons, which many saw as a stark reminder that the continent of “Europe” was formulated against a Muslim Other. And once again, it was clear that seeing the cartoons was not a requirement for using them to express this dissent against a racist narrative.
Concurrently, these narratives also provided an excuse to modernize the concept of “Muslim Rage” that is integral to Aysaan Hirsi Ali’s Newsweek article. The defense of liberal values such as freedom of speech was accompanied by half-hearted apologies for offending Muslims. The dominant discourse, which ignores the actual problem, argued that it irrational to kill people over passages in a book, and a few cartoons in a newspaper. This revolt against Othering therefore became another avenue for that Othering, catalyzed by images of terrifying violence from the Second Intifada, the Iraqi civil war, and sporadic violence in Afghanistan.
The violence and protests we see now in reaction to the Innocence of the Muslims is therefore nothing new. It plays out in a similar fashion, mainly occurring in states where people feel existentially wronged by the Western world generally and United States specifically. The Benghazi killings were a clearly planned terrorist attack that reflected the continued power struggles of a post-civil war Libya rather than frustration within the population, and protests against the attacks reflect this support. Protests in other areas of the region continue this idea of attacking the film and post-colonialism simultaneously.
Many Egyptian protesters, for instance, viewed the film as a reminder of U.S. actions in support of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Mubarak regime previously. Yemeni protests, which resulted in the Obama Administration quietly deploying fifty U.S. Marines to Yemen, were also a reaction to clear American support for efforts to curb democratization due to the threat of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. There were also protests in cities such as Karachi, which continues the escalating ideological conflict between Pakistani Muslims and their former colonial masters.
At this late stage of the Arab Spring, the Obama Administration’s efforts to create a regional status-quo favorable to American geopolitical interests have become obvious. It is not surprising that countries that saw their revolutionary efforts in conflict with these interests, such as Yemen and Egypt, have seen dramatic protests. It is also not surprising, given how the revolutions spread last year, that Arabs in countries such as Tunisia would feel ideological solidarity, and mobilize as well.
The question no analyst appears to be asking is how foreign policy efforts in the Arab Spring have reinforced the counterrevolutionary role psychologically assigned to Western states in the post-colonial period. The Arab Spring was an opportunity to redefine the colonial dynamics that found voice previously in backlashes against the Satanic Verses and the Jyllands Posten cartoons. Instead, many in the region view the West’s reaction to be one of helping to assemble looser shackles rather than supporting how they had already been broken apart. It is difficult to predict how events will transpire now that this popular view has clearly spread across many factions in the Middle East.
And, at the same time, it will be difficult to predict how interstate relations between Muslims and other minorities will be affected by this ideological hatred of the West. Lost in the Egyptian protests, for instance, was the fact that the Innocence of Muslims‘ director traces his ancestry to Egypt’s Coptic Christian community. The movie is partly an expression of his own bitterness at how Egyptian Copts have been treated over the past few decades, particularly under the Mubarak regime. Egyptian Copts, who voted for Ahmed Shafik in the June presidential runoffs fearing Muslim Brotherhood rule, continue to be held in a questionable position in the post-revolution country.
Aysaan Hirsi Ali’s article was likely inspired to some extent by this toxic cycle of fundamentalist hatred, as she has become a conservative media darling due to her own harrowing experiences at the hands of Somalian fundamentalists. The immense psychological damage of colonialism, which survives those who experienced it, is also echoed in such communities.
The Arab Spring’s legacy will not only be judged by how it challenges wider post-colonial dynamics between the Muslim Global South and the formerly colonizing Global North. It will also require a deeper meditation on what constitutes democracy and the rights deserved by those who exhibit any type of difference.
“Islamists target Berlin.” (Berlin Morgenpost headline.) Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.