Last week, on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, riots erupted at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt and a consulate in Benghazi, Libya in response to the poorly-produced American film “Innocence of Muslims,” which slandered Mohammed as a womanizer, cruel vigilante-type and false prophet. Four U.S. officials were killed in Benghazi, including veteran ambassador Christopher Stevens, and American flags were torn down and burned. Many in the U.S. saw these riots as a “betrayal” of American support during the Arab Spring, or worse yet, as celebrating 9/11.
The ensuing violence and ransacking were neither of these, at least by the citizens involved.
In Benghazi, the former headquarters of the rebels who overthrew Gaddafi in the Libyan civil war, a local terrorist group took advantage of the anger incited by the film and brought AK-47s and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher to the consulate.
Four protesters died in Sanaa, Yemen after radical cleric Abdul Majid al-Zindani called on the populace to go along with protests in Cairo and Benghazi. Protests have since appeared in India, Australia, Tunisia, Yemen and Sudan outside U.S. and other Western embassies in the “Muslim world.”
Many journalists and newspeoples have written of “Muslim anger” and asked questions like, “Why is the Muslim world so easily offended?” Answers ranged from complex analyses of post-colonial history to insinuations that it is simply “in their nature” to riot and cause havoc. There have also been comparisons to 1979 when the overthrow of the U.S.-backed autocratic Shah in Tehran led to a hostage-taking crisis in the U.S. embassy for 444 days that helped usher in the rise of the modern Islamic Republic of Iran.
There are many reasons to take issue with such coverage. To start with, the “Muslim world” is a vast generalization for 1.5 billion people in 49 Muslim-majority nations, spanning from Senegal to Indonesia. The “Christian world” is equally diverse and ridiculous as a term. In America, the Islamic ban on depictions of the Prophet is sometimes ignored, as there is greater emphasis on free speech.
Comparisons to 1979 are based off of four major similarities: they are both seemingly spontaneous protests and riots at U.S. embassies; the protests happened during or just after revolutions, some of which kicked out U.S.-backed dictators (Egypt and Yemen, though not Libya so much); and last but not least, both series of protests seem to have been fueled by domestic issues left over from the years of stagnant autocratic rule.
While journalists enjoy this kind of simple comparison which allows them to draw quick and easy connections while ignoring much of the historical complexity behind these protests, such comparisons are limited in scope and cover up larger causes and contexts.
Yet, there is one more important comparison to 1979 and that is the destabilizing effect of revolutionary activity. Overthrowing regimes revives formerly repressed militant Islamists who often often are among a few social organizations that successfully weather mostly secular autocracies with authority and a record of resistance.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its lookalikes, currently in power in Egypt and in other post-uprising Muslim countries, are often moderate Islamist groups from which emerge groups that join global jihadists. The Libyan, Yemeni and Egyptian governments have all issued apologies or guarantees, while YouTube has blocked access to the video in some countries and the security chief in Benghazi has been sacked.
Despite the censorship, as of Sept. 17, protests have continued and even strengthened in some areas after an initial reduction. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Iranian-proxy militant group and Lebanese political party Hezbollah, has made an uncommon public appearance to urge his supporters back onto the streets and to tell them that “the U.S. must understand that releasing the entire film will have very, very dangerous repercussions around the world.”
It is important to note three things in examining this episode of U.S.-Islam relations: freedom of the press blurs distinctions between American policy and our social extremes from afar; the Arab Spring is far from settled and global jihadists are still benefiting; and these kinds of protests are unlikely to end in the foreseeable future.