Thursday, September 13, 2012

And the cycle of outrage continues...

by Salman Hameed

In an inter-connected world, we will see the same story repeat over and over again. The movie excerpt of The Innocence of Muslims is hateful and designed to provoke a reaction from Muslims across the world. Now the protests are spreading to countries other than Egypt and Libya. The problem is that the global communication is now making it too easy for a few people on one side of the world to incite a reaction from a few people on the other side. I wrote about some of it in a post from a few months ago: Moral Outrage: Burning of the Quran versus Free Speech.

But it is still not clear exactly what has happened and how should we think about this episode. So here are a couple of  links that may help in getting beyond simple narratives:

From what we know so far, most of the crew did not know about the nature of the film and this may explain some of the odd dubbing in some parts of the film:

The movie was originally about Coptic Christians. Israel said he found the project when it was still called Desert Warriors. He was told by his friend and Bacile the movie was about, "the historical persecution of Coptic Christians." Nakoula admitted to being a Coptic Christian to the AP, too.  
The budget wasn't anywhere close to $5 million. It was closer to $100,000, tops, according to Israel. "Israel suggests that, despite earlier reports that the film had millions of dollars of outside financing, the total outlay for the project couldn't have exceeded $100,000."
Also this NPR story on the mystery of the person behind the film.

And here are two takes on the current violence. The first one, Beyond Religion in the Middle East, looks at the Arab Spring and the complex socio-economic conditions in the Libya and Egypt:


The Arab Spring produced a complex matrix of political instability in Libya and Egypt, with enormous economic and social reverberations in those nations and their geopolitical relationships and strategies. The anti-American violence in Benghazi and Cairo is mostly a reflection of weakened central governments in the wake of the toppling of long-standing dictators and amid the jockeying for power of a host of actors and organizations. 
If the reaction was generically Muslim in nature, Saudi Arabia, the most notable bastion of Sunni orthodoxy vehemently opposed to any depictions of Muhammad, would be the place where the trailer and the film would be expected to first spark controversy. Yet it wasn't a flash point. Nor have we heard a peep of protest from Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman or Kuwait, Persian Gulf countries with relatively strong central governments that retained a firm grip on power during the Arab Spring. 
As the exuberant democracy movements and revolutions in Libya and Egypt transition to the painstaking reality of establishing law and order, the new regimes have to find their feet and their place in the world. The recently elected governments in Libya and Egypt and other countries will work for many years to reestablish law and order, a task complicated in Libya by the deluge of arms floating around the country after the brutal civil war. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, the entrenched military power holders, and secular organizations and individuals will compete to speak for the new state. 
At such a time, using religion alone to explain what's happening is counter-factual and counterproductive. Individuals, mobs and militants on all sides, in the United States as well as in Egypt and Libya, will try to dwell on Islam. Easily inflamed mobs in the Middle East may set back democratization efforts and strip the remade nations of foreign economic investment, tourism and the geopolitical support they need. In America, provocateurs will try to influence public opinion in divisive political times. It is important that policymakers and the news media remain clear-headed that the real issues are instead mostly local and always political.
And here is another take in Counterpunch specifically focused on Libya by a friend of mine, Vijay Parshad. He provides a context from local Libyan politics in Humiliation and Rage in Libya:

This is not the first such protest in Benghazi, the eastern city of Libya. Over the course of this year, tumult has been the order of the day. In January, a crowd stormed the headquarters of the National Transitional Council. In April, a bomb was thrown at a convoy that included the head of the UN Mission to Libya, and another bomb exploded at a courthouse. In May, a rocket was fired at the Red Cross office. A convoy carrying the head of the British consulate was attacked in June, and since then the consulate has been abandoned. In August, a pipe bomb exploded in front of the US consulate building. Frustration with the West is commonplace amongst sections of society, who are not Gaddafi loyalists, but on the contrary fought valiantly in the 2011 civil war against Gaddafi. The NATO intervention did not mollify a much more fundamental grievance they have against the US-UK, namely the sense of humiliation of the Arab world against the arrogance of Western domination in cultural and political terms. 
An earlier incident helps to highlight this point. In late 2005, protests across the world took place in reaction to a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, publishing cartoons that demeaned the Prophet Mohammad. This upsurge came to eastern Libya in early 2006. An Italian minister, Roberto Calderoli, wore a t-shirt that bore that offensive cartoon. A demonstration of more than 1,000 people, mainly political Islamists and pious Muslims, gathered in front of the Italian consulate in Benghazi on 17 February 2006. The Gaddafi regime sent in its armed police, who opened fire, killing 11. After the police firing, a section of the middle-class that was not sympathetic to the Islamists turned against the Gaddafi regime. Intellectuals such as Fathi Terbil, Terbil Salwa and Idris al-Mesmari joined a platform to bring justice not only to the families of the slain in 2006, but also for the families of those members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and others who were massacred in Abu Salim prison in 1996. 
To commemorate the slain on the fifth anniversary of the firing, on 17 February 2011, Terbil and others organized a demonstration in Benghazi. It was to block this protest that Terbil was arrested on February 15, and it was to demand his release that the crowds came out in Benghazi inaugurating the major upsurge against Gaddafi in 2011. Gaddafi lost control of the entire eastern part of the country within a week. The social roots of humiliation played an important part in the February Revolution in Libya.
Read the full article here. Vijay, by the way, also has a new book out on Libya: Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.

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