Middle East embassy riots: All your questions answered

By Simon Allison 17 September 2012

Protests and riots have exploded across the Muslim world in response to a highly derogatory film about the prophet Mohamed. At least a dozen people have been killed in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and the disquiet has spread as far as Afghanistan, Australia, Indonesia, Kashmir and Nigeria. SIMON ALLISON has been following the situation closely.

So, why are the Muslims riled up this time? First, it’s important to understand that there’s no such thing as “the Muslims”. Just as there are hundreds of branches and sects of Christianity, so Islam is not a homogenous religion. The men and women on the streets and attacking embassies are a tiny fraction of the Muslim world, and not at all representative. Having said that, most Muslims would be offended by the film said to have sparked the recent unrest, and with reason.

How offensive is this film? While we still don’t know who made The Innocence of Muslims (all we know for sure is that an Egyptian Coptic Christian named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula has been questioned in relation to it), it is obviously very insulting to the Muslim faith. I’ve only seen a trailer for it – in fact, no one’s really sure if the whole film exists – but there’s plenty in that 13 minutes of amateur, low-budget footage that is deliberately provocative and just plain wrong. The clip opens with a shot of the Prophet Mohammed, on his haunches, drooling over an enormous haunch of meat, and goes rapidly downhill from there. According to this depiction, the most important man in Islam is a slow-witted, savage barbarian who talks to goats and sexually molests children.

Sure, but there’s plenty of films and articles and drawings that might offend Muslims – why has this one caused such a stir? Good question. There are two reasons I can think of. First, the timing. It’s no coincidence that the trailer surfaced shortly before 9/11, a symbolic moment in the US and in the Middle East, although for slightly different reasons. In the Middle East the date marks the start of waves of violence inflicted on the Muslim world by the West, from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to the current drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, and is always a time when anti-Western sentiment is high. The film fueled these fires, as it was surely intended to do. 

Second, the film provided a useful excuse for fundamentalist Islamist groups in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to further their own agendas, at a time when they’re fighting for their own political futures. In many of the affected countries, protests to mark 9/11 were scheduled anyway; the controversy just provided a useful focal point to channel people’s anger and frustration into bigger and more violence demonstrations.

Hold on, I’m confused. I thought the Islamists were in charge of Egypt and Tunisia already, and were doing well in Libya too? There are Islamists and there are Islamists. Egypt’s elected leaders are the Muslim Brotherhood, a relatively moderate Islamist group that has historically eschewed violence. They’ve promised to respect and work together with Egypt’s Christians and have a strong track record of providing social and welfare services to neglected areas during Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The Islamists in Libya and Tunisia have also positioned themselves as centrists and moderates.

In contrast, the Islamists said to have instigated and coordinated the attacks in Egypt and Libya are Salafists. They are often known as literalists, for their strict and unyielding interpretation of the Quran and receive funding via private channels from Saudi Arabia, which practices a similar brand of Islam.

Just how popular are these Salafists? They are still a minority group in most Arab countries, but analysts have been taken aback by their popularity in the wake of the Arab Spring. In Egypt, for example, the Salafist Al-Nour Party won 24% of the vote. This political power is amplified by their strong cross-country and cross-continental links; this is a well-funded, transnational movement (a fact that might explain the global extent of the demonstrations).

What exactly are they agitating for? At its simplest, the Salafists want to impose strict Islamic Sharia law in Muslim countries, of the style seen today in Saudi Arabia and previously in Afghanistan under the Taliban. This makes the Quran the sole source of law. Their specific concerns in post-revolutionary countries like Egypt and Libya, where the state is being fundamentally re-imagined, is that Islam is the foundation of the new state. But there’s more to it than that; many commentators believe there is a cultural battle being waged between various Islamic groups over who gets to speak for and lead the religion, and the Salafists are at the forefront of this conflict.

Do the Salafists have anything to do with al-Qaeda? Not really, although it is complicated. Al-Qaeda is still struggling to recover from the death of Osama bin Laden, and is often described as being in terminal decline. This might be overstated, but it remains true that it is a shadow of the group that organized the 9/11 attacks. A more recent phenomenon is that groups sharing al-Qaeda’s theology have claimed partnerships or used the al-Qaeda brand-name to heighten their own threat (groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Shabaab); this has in turn made al-Qaeda seem stronger than it really is. The threat of al-Qaeda, meanwhile, is a useful scapegoat for everyone trying to find someone responsible for new outrages – hence their name being dragged into the embassy attacks, despite there being no evidence to prove their involvement. This connection is helped, of course, by the coincidence (or perhaps not?) that one of the leaders of Egypt’s Salafist movement is the brother of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Either way, it works in favour of all the protagonists. Being linked to al-Qaeda suits the Salafist groups looking to send shockwaves through the world; it suits al-Qaeda, which appears scarier than it really is; and it suits governments, both in the Middle East and the West, which need a scapegoat on which to pin responsibility for their security failures.

Talking of security failures, why didn’t the American ambassador have better protection? American diplomatic missions are usually modern-day fortresses. You’re right, and the Americans are asking themselves a few tough questions about why their security was so lax. On Friday, the Independent revealed that intelligence services had received credible warnings that American diplomatic missions would be targeted, yet did nothing to beef up their protection or even reschedule potentially dangerous trips, such as the Ambassador’s badly-timed visit to Benghazi. Worse, it appears that the attackers there knew the location of the supposedly-secret American safe house in the city, as they targeted that after diplomats fled the consulate building. Predictably, now President Barack Obama is being criticised by his political opponents for being too soft on security and foreign policy issues.

Oh yes, it’s election season in America. Do you think this could influence the vote? It’s already had an impact. Republican challenger Mitt Romney has drawn all kinds of negative headlines after a no-holds-barred attack on Obama’s handling of the situation. Romney was criticised for using the tragedy of American deaths to score cheap political points, but his attack might stick if Obama can’t find a way to contain the unrest. Foreign policy is one area where Barack “Bin Laden slayer” Obama had a definite edge over the gaffe-prone Romney, but the humiliation of American diplomats in the Middle East – under Obama’s watch – could well erode that gap, in much the same way that Jimmy Carter’s perceived bungling of the Iran hostage crisis destroyed his credibility. More dangerously for the Middle East, a public outcry at home about Obama being too soft on terrorists might encourage Obama to prove he’s not, with potentially disastrous results. The two American warships that have just been dispatched to Libya (because an increased naval presence will prevent another consulate attack, apparently) fall into this category.

Warships, riots, fundamentalists; so much for the Arab Spring. More like the Arab winter of discontent. The seismic changes that happened last year in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia – and are still happening in Syria – did not usher in a bright new future of freedom and democracy. Not yet, anyway. There’s still time for that to happen, but first those countries need to figure out exactly how they want to be ruled and who gets a seat at the table. This process is proving to be messy and violent. Disturbingly, we’re only just getting started. DM

If this conversation between Simon Allison and his less-informed alter ego doesn’t answer all your questions about the embassy riots, please leave a question in the comments section (using your real name) and the author will respond.

Read more:

  • “Middle East’s bloody round two,” on Daily Maverick 
  • “‘Clash of civilisations’: nothing more than a backward blackface minstrel show,” on Daily Maverick 
  • “US agents quiz fraudster over links to anti-Islam movie,” on the Guardian  
  • “Top 10 likely consequences of Muslim anti-US embassy riots,” on the Informed Comment blog  
  • “Cairo’s many shades of protests and what they reveal about how the new Egypt operates,” on TIME Magazine 
  • “The politics of outrage is still an irresistible temptation,” on the National (UAE) 
  • “Influence of Salafists grows after Arab Spring,” on Al-Ahram (Egypt) 

Photo: A Shi’ite Muslim wears a headband during a protest march towards the U.S. Consulate during an anti-American protest rally organized by the Imamia Students Organization (ISO) and Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM) in Karachi September 16, 2012. Some hundreds of protesters gathered to take part in the protest march towards U.S Consulate to condemn a film produced in the U.S. that insults Prophet Mohammad. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro 


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