Films Don't Start Riots

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Earlier this year I wrote about how Egypt’s "soccer violence" wasn’t really about soccer. Well, now of course, "a movie insulting Mohammad" is being held responsible for US Embassies coming under attack, and the deaths of the US ambassador to Libya and four staff.

You see where this is going, right?

These attacks are no more about a film than the Cronulla riots were about protecting the Surf Life Saving movement. The film, which is at least as serious an offence against cinema as Islam, is probably a less significant indicator of true motive than the date of the events: September 11.

If that thought makes you shudder, it should. This is very serious. After a period of disorientation and marginalisation, fundamentalist Islamists are re-grouping and attempting to reclaim the narrative.

Protesters stormed the US Embassy in Cairo and the black flag of al-Qaeda was raised (and the stars and stripes torn down). Across the border a much more serious terrorist attack by armed men on the US consulate in Benghazi seems likely to be the work of fundamentalists.

There is an obvious comparison to be made to the events at the American embassy in Iran during 1979, where radicals playing on popular resentment of the United States rushed ahead of the new government, pushing them towards confrontation. This is a foreign policy issue primarily, and should not be confused with the question of internal theocratisation.

That does not mean these events will not badly affect the domestic sphere in both countries. Even in terms of relations with the United States, these events are likely to have a relatively muted effect, just as the storming of the Israel embassy last year and the growing militant threat in Sinai have not upset strategic arrangements with Israel. 

Neither Israel nor America can afford to lose Egypt as an ally, and the Egyptian government cannot completely ignore popular will, lest it find expression in more extreme voices which could then rise to power. Washington even seems to be adapting somewhat to this reality.

The mob assault in Cairo and the military assault in Libya could be taken to represent two different strands within Salafi thought: those who believe in violent Jihad, and those who believe in influencing others through example and preaching, through Dawa.

But in reality the distinction is far from clear. Mohammad Zawahiri, the brother of al-Qaeda leader Aiman Zawahari, also a hardline Islamist, was present at the Cairo rally-cum-embassy-storming. He lives freely these days, according to rumour in the same comfortable suburb as me.

A Salafi Sheikh I interviewed last year not long after the death of Osama Bin Laden told me that, overall, he considered Bin Laden a good man. The courage he had shown in fighting those invading Afghanistan outweighed the wrongness of his attack on civilians. The argument was very similar to, though much  stronger than, our rationalisation of civilian "collateral damage".

More surprisingly perhaps, some of the Egyptian guys I know, the ones who drink and fuck and haven’t been to mosque in years, also expressed mixed feelings about Bin Laden’s assassination. Here was a man, they thought, who at least stood up to the West — who braved the guards and gave the naked emperor a bloody nose. Go watch the movie 300 and pretend the Spartans are Muslim and you should get it.

What was shocking about September 11 was not the scale of the violence, but its direction. The same is true about the killing of diplomats in Libya. Compare the outrage to the relative quiet greeting the death of 11 civilians in Yemen not two weeks ago.

The "Clash Of Civilisations" narrative is far older than Samuel Huntington’s bad arguments; the view of global politics as a struggle for world domination between, depending on the version, some combination of Islam, America, secular West, Christianity, the Freemasons, or the Jews and the Shapeshifters, still has its followers here, just as in the West.  Here however, less twisting of reality is needed to make the fairytale convincing, as US and allied military hardware dominates the region, wreaking havoc.

A holy war against the infidel makes sense from the point of view of people who have been at the pointy end of Western aggression and domination for generations.  Understanding this perspective, as the cliché goes, does not mean that you agree with it. This thinking however, if it is to be of use, must go beyond simply not putting me on a terrorist watch-list for expressing understanding, even empathy, with the enemies of the west.

It means ditching the silly habit of expressing our disgust, stamping our identity, according to the formula of: "I cannot understand… how people can be so [racist/stupid/naive/arrogant] as to [support/oppose] person/policy x".

If you don’t understand it, how do you know it is wrong?

If I said I don’t understand quantum physics, or Keynesian economics, that would not be an argument against its validity. Any argument against these theories would have to be grounded in deep understanding of them. This might sound odd, but it is important to remember that both racism and religious fundamentalism have at their core a set of claims about how the world works. They are theories that people cling to out of their need to make sense of the world.

The Muslims are mad at us, with good reason, and attempts to deliberately pick a fight, which is what this movie seems to mainly be, will likely get a reaction. Even without them, however, the anger would still be there, smouldering away. We can keep pretending we don’t get it, but we aren’t doing ourselves any favours in the long term.

Some of the sensitivities and difficulties of the issue were nicely made explicit in an argument that erupted on the Facebook feed of a fellow expat friend of mine. He had posted:

"So a private citizen makes an amateur movie and the embassies get attacked by people who clearly don’t know how the internet works, demanding that the movie somehow gets ‘removed’. Shit guys…"

This triggered the following response from a usually chilled out diving instructor:

"I can’t really believe you said that they clearly don’t know how the internet works!!! so my friend, these people are from the country where you are living now! you earn money from this country, you eat! you drink you even shit in this country so if you don’t have respect for those people, then please get yourself out of here and find another place to live."

The West has for decades wielded power over the Arabs, a rightly proud people who, struggling to deal with this, have become very sensitive to insult. Shitting on someone from a great height generally produces little in the way of positive results. 

As I write this, my friend who posted first on Facebook is in a bar, Horeyya (freedom), drinking beer with fellow expats and less observant Egyptians, only a short walk away from the American Embassy where around a thousand protesters are reportedly still gathered. In Benghazi a protest against the attack, and terrorism generally took place. The kingdom of god is not upon us yet, and this conflict may be far less intractable than it seems. America and Vietnam now get on fine. It is important for us to remember that our common humanity is stronger than our cultural biases and phobias. 

In the ironic words of one Arab tweep: there are only two kinds of people in this world, those who produce offensive movies and those who blow up embassies.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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