Politics Magazine

Demonstrating for Dignity: Why Are Muslims SO Enraged?

Posted on the 14 September 2012 by Mfrancoiscerrah @MFrancoisCerrah

Muslims eh, they just cant seem to take a joke can they? It would be very easy to cast, as many ‎commentators have, the latest riots in response to the islamophobic film, as another example of ‎intolerant Muslims lacking a funny bone. The Rushdie affair, the Danish cartoons, the murder of ‎Van Gogh – surely the latest saga fits neatly into a pattern of evidence suggesting Muslims are over ‎sensitive and violent. After all, critics will argue, Christians are regularly derided through the arts ‎and media and they don’t go around burning embassies and killing people. Only the situation is ‎hardly analogous. The power relations in which a dominant majority can be perceived as insulting ‎and humiliating a disgruntled and feeble minority, cannot be ignored in the analysis of Muslim ‎responses to offensive art works. But the truth is, the protests across the Arab world are about ‎much more than the usual ‘free speech’ Vs ‘Islam’ blah would have you believe. ‎

Firstly, although the film may have been the catalyst for the riots, it would be wrong to assume ‎that all the riots have exactly the same cause. This is hardly the first demonstration of anger against ‎Western targets in any of the countries at hand, it is only possibly amongst the most mediatised ‎because of the spin placed on the story, represented as it has been, as some sort of reflection of ‎the fundamental intolerance of Islam – reigniting that every juicy story of “Islam vs West”. ‎

For those with a short memory, it was only last month that a pipe bomb exploded outside the US ‎embassy in Libya and both the Red cross and other Western aid organisations have come under ‎fire there in recent months. It is certainly a misnomer to think that NATO intervention in support of ‎the rebels against Gaddhafi somehow erased deep-seated grievances against the US, not least the ‎sense of humiliation of the Arab world against decades of Western domination. Sure, we may have ‎helped get rid of Gaddhafi when it was expedient, but for a long time, we traded quite happily ‎with the man whilst he brutally repressed his people. In some cases, we even helped him do it. A ‎recent Human Rights Watch report, Delivered into Enemy Hands: US-Led Abuse and Rendition of ‎Opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya details the stories of Libyan opposition figures tortured in US-run ‎prisons in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and then delivered back to Libya, with full-awareness that ‎they were going to be tortured or possibly killed. Even in the “new Libya”, not all sections of the ‎Revolution feel the outcome of the elections was truly representative of popular feeling. Not to ‎mention Egypt, where Mubarak, whom Hilary Clinton once described as a “close family friend”, ‎tortured and killed innumerable dissidents in a US backed dictatorship which had been the second ‎largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel since 1979. To think the elections which happened ‎just months ago would transform popular opinion concerning the US’s role in the region is ‎ludicrous. And that’s before we even get to Iraq.‎

It is no surprise that some of the worst scenes of violence come from Yemen, where US policy has ‎resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, fueling anger against a regime whose brutality and ‎corruption has left the country ranking amongst the poorest in the Arab world. Given that it is also ‎one of the countries where people have the least access to computers and the internet, it is also ‎entirely likely that many protestors never even saw the film. What they did see was a further ‎humiliation from an American source. Broken by poverty, threatened by drones, caught in the war ‎between al Aaida and the US, to many Arab Muslims, the film represents an attack on the last ‎shelter of dignity – sacred beliefs – when all else has been desecrated. ‎

The film is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back – to stand in consternation at the fact a ‎single straw could cripple such a sturdy beast is to be naïve or wilfully blind to the accumulated ‎bales which made the straw so hard to carry. ‎
Across the Arab world, symbols of America, its embassies, its schools – even KFC – have not been ‎the unwitting target of frustration over a film – rather the film has provided an unwitting focal ‎point for massive and widespread anger at US foreign policy in the region. If the Arab revolutions ‎let the dictators know exactly how people felt about their repression, these demonstrations ‎should be read as equally indicative of popular anguish with the US’s role in the region.‎

This is not an attempt to minimise the offense caused by the film – Mohamed is a man whose ‎status in the eyes of many Muslims, cannot be overstated. When your country has been bombed, ‎you’ve lost friends and family, possibly your livelihood and home, dignity is pretty much all you ‎have left.‎
The producers of the film may have known very little about film-making, but they knew lots about ‎how to cause a stir. Despite its obscure origins, mediatised references to an “Israeli” director living ‎in the US, to a “100 Jewish donors” who allegedly provided “5 million dollars”, to a hazy “Coptic ‎network” – all played into a well-known register.

When 2 out of five Arabs live in poverty, a 5 million ‎dollar insult has more than a slight sting to it.‎

Those who sought to bring winter to an Arab spring and possibly destabilise a US election, were ‎keenly aware of the impact those words would have, situating the film within on-going tensions ‎between Israel and the Arab world and stirring up the hornet’s nest of minority relations in a ‎region where they remain unsettled.‎

In a tweet, the Atheist academic Richard Dawkins decried the events by lambasting “these ‎ridiculous hysterical Muslims”. In so doing, he, like others, not only failed to read these events for ‎what they are – political protests against US meddling, but he also failed to recognize the basic ‎humanity of the protestors. To dismiss deep anger as mere hysteria is to diminish to decades of ‎oppression experienced by many Muslims, particularly in the Arab world, often with US complicity.‎
If you deny any relationship between the systematic discrimination of Muslims and stigmatization ‎of Islam and the overreaction of the Muslim community to offensive jokes, or films, or cartoons, ‎then you are only left with essentialist explanations of Muslim hysteria and violence. These ‎protests aren’t about a film – they’re about the totality of ways in which Muslims have felt ‎humiliated over decades.‎

Reporting on the “incident” as somehow indicative of Islam’s essential incompatibility with the ‎West not only conveniently omits the realities of Muslim oppression globally, but also reinforces ‎them in many ways. Before we start searching for the nebulous network behind the film, or the ‎reasons why “Muslims are so prone to getting offended”, we would do better to actually search ‎for the conditions that have contributed to rendering the mass dehumanization of particular group ‎of people socially unobjectionable and to recognize the truism that Muslims are people whose ‎anger can be explained just as rationally as anybody else’s. ‎

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