In the recent PPGR post, “Behind the Scenes of the ‘Innocence of Muslins’”, Freshta Raoufi asked why the protests and demonstrations in reaction to the film Innocence of Muslims became so pervasive. She provided two ‘key policy factors’ as answers: the United States government’s response and (in)action, and the power of private entities in undermining global cooperation.
I do not wish to invalidate Raoufi’s argument – I agree that both the United States government’s inaction and the unwillingness of private companies to remove the videos helped fuel the protests. Instead, I hope to demonstrate that by focusing on these two Western-centric factors, Raoufi has not examined the more nuanced reasons behind the protests in each individual country. To illustrate this, I’ll draw on Egypt and my personal experience.
At the moment I live fairly close to midan Tahrir, the now infamous revolutionary square near the centre of the city. I didn’t witness the initial storming of the embassy on the evening of Tuesday, September 11th, but I kept up (mostly via twitter) as events on the streets surrounding the embassy continued into Wednesday and Thursday. It’s important to keep in mind though, that while the small number of individuals continued hurling rocks and homemade explosives close by the embassy, life went on as usual outside of this very insulated area.
On Friday (the first day of the weekend in Egypt) the Muslim Brotherhood called for a protest in Tahrir after midday prayers in response to the film’s insult to Islam. I stopped by the outskirts of the midan with a friend and chatted with some of the people gathered on the sidelines. My friend and I were open about the fact that we were American and those we spoke with had some very reasonable questions about the film and what we thought of it. At no point, however, did we feel unsafe. According to the signs and banners in Tahrir, people were protesting not just against the film but also over domestic concerns (police brutality, the role of SCAF, etc.), general American foreign and economic policy, and global misunderstandings of Islam. These people, marching in a coherent, organized manner, were not the same individuals as those outside the nearby American embassy, most of whom were angry youth that had not actually even seen the film and seemed to be looking for an excuse to riot.
On Friday evening the emails from relatives and friends in the US and Canada began to pour in: “Are you okay??”, “Do you need to leave Egypt?”. I was a bit dumbfounded by their distressed tones. How was all of this being portrayed in the Western media? I had been following mostly Egyptian newspaper articles up to this point and when I began to look at some of the American reporting I understood their concern. The Western news wasn’t distinguishing at all between those protesting in Tahrir (for the most part, peaceful Muslim Brotherhood supporters and others genuinely outraged by the film) and those next to the embassy. Conflating these two groups made the situation seem much worse than it really was. So what were the broader ramifications of this type of reporting, and what was the ‘West’s’ reaction?
Glenn Greenwald wrote an excellent article for the Guardian responding to the idea circulating through American media that Egyptians were acting ‘ungratefully’ for the (alleged) diplomatic and ideological support lent to them during their revolution. He asks, “Did you know that the USA helped ‘free’ Egyptians from their murderous dictator?” and remarks, “That it was the US who freed Egyptians and ‘allowed them’ the right to protest would undoubtedly come as a great surprise to many Egyptians.” It’s exactly this sort of Western mentality that led disgruntled Egyptians to ascend the flagpole of the American embassy in the first place.
And this is where I disagree with Raoufi’s analysis. The protests over this film do not point to the importance of redefining the role that America can play in the region, but instead point to America’s declining influence in Egypt and elsewhere. Look back to the treatment of Hillary Clinton during her visit to Cairo this summer when her motorcade was booed by Egyptians lining the streets, chanting ‘Monica, Monica.’ I would feel badly about this sort of treatment if it weren’t for years of hypocritical American foreign policy toward Egypt. The U.S. helped suppress the Muslim Brotherhood for decades, and now that Morsy has been elected to power Clinton is forced to demonstrate her support for the party, if only to bolster the highest of American ideals – the ‘democratic process.’ The whole episode speaks to the frustration Egyptians feel with toward the (floundering) American hegemon, as well as changing global power dynamics.
But instead of capturing this pervasive discontent when reporting on the embassy protests, Western media focused on the ‘rage,’ tapping into Orientalist notions of radical, uncontrollable Islamists. To be fair, even those reporting on the ground in Egypt came to vastly different conclusions about the motivations for the protests. An English version of the popular Al Masry Al Youm daily paper sent reporters to Tahrir and the embassy area to write their respective articles and then gathered them together the following week to discuss the different angles each reporter chose. Defending their interpretations, one of them argues that it’s a reporter’s obligation to relay the facts as observed, doing one’s best to remain objective and unbiased. The other reporter claims that it’s critical to think about the broader context and to include this in the article, even if it means ‘fishing’ for the responses one is hoping to find. Regardless of which approach better adheres to journalistic standards, these are the sorts of decisions made by those on the ground, whose interpretations are then funneled through various syndicates and wires, eventually reaching the major Western distributors. Agencies like CNN and MSNBC are thus only partially to blame for the one-sided reporting of the protests, though this fact doesn’t excuse the sort of ‘America as savior’ attitude that Glenn Greenwald takes issue with in his Guardian piece.
I realize that the protests in other countries like neighboring Libya were much more violent than Cairo, so my analysis may not have any bearing on those events. But this is precisely the point. While I can only speak to one country (and tentatively at that), I wanted to use Egypt – the situation I witnessed somewhat closely – as a means to illustrate that each protest was inspired by unique, domestic factors. In the same way that the term Arab Spring is an overused misnomer, the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ protests is also a blanket term that attempts to describe far too many disparate events.
I’ll conclude by agreeing with Raoufi’s claim – that public policy and decisions have influence over the way people behave, regardless of borders – but with a caveat. Domestic politics, and thus borders, also matter, and in the wake of the nationalism that many of the revolutions of the past year and half brought about in this region, local factors matter immensely. Ignoring these nuances and making sweeping generalizations about Muslims and/or their reasons for protesting prevents us from understanding the factors beyond the film itself that caused individuals to take their grievances to the streets.