Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 September 2012
Issue No. 1114
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hani Shukrallah

Conspiracies of convenience: what's behind the film fracas?


On both sides of the ongoing clash of bigotries and stupidity, the Prophet Muhammad is incidental to the true motives of the antagonists

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I strongly sense conspiracy in the whole sordid "film maligning the Prophet" fracas, which, in a few hours, claimed the lives of three American diplomats and delivered a devastating blow to the Arab revolutionary upsurge, and to the new democratic and pluralistic awareness that both lay behind that upsurge and was its most precious product.

Let me hasten to explain, however, that I use the questionable term, conspiracy, not in the sense that everyone from the makers of the film to the hysterical demonstrators that attacked the American missions in Cairo and Benghazi are in cahoots; nor do I base my argument simply on "who benefits most", which almost invariably is the conspiracy theorist's most crucial analytical tool.

What I really mean by "conspiracy" here is that the Prophet Muhammad is in fact wholly secondary to the real motives of the various parties to the ugly and bloody brawl. Yet, somewhat like the conspiracy theorist, I base my argument more on a reading of the events and their context, rather than on concrete, tangible facts.

To use detective story parlance, what I present below is largely "circumstantial" evidence, leaving it tothe readers to judge for themselves whether such evidence is sufficiently compelling.

My first suggestion in this respect is that the makers of the film had deliberately set out to goad Muslims into just such violent and irrational reactions as we have seen in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.

It's been tried andtested many times before, and even if we can't blame the instigators forthepenchant of certain influential political and ideological forces among us for ignorance and stupidity, we can still argue that those who set out to trigger such responses are in possession of a very unambiguous manual setting out just how to do it, and the broad outlines of expected outcomes.

We need only recall the 2005-6 Danish cartoons episode. The insignificant Danish newspaper that triggered the hullabaloo had been transparently out to trigger a reaction from Muslims, and a reaction it got. Nor do I have the least doubt that the Christian fundamentalist preacher who publicly set a copy of the Qur'an on fire was also deliberately out to goad Muslims into a reaction.

The obvious, outward motive of such attempts is not difficult to discern: to show Muslims as irrational, violent, intolerant and barbaric, all of which are attributes profoundly inscribed into the racist anti-Muslim discourse in the West.

And, it's a very safe bet that there will be among us those who will readily oblige.

I can guess at two additional motives, one of an immediate, narrowly targeted nature, and the other considerably more general and strategic in nature.

America is hurtling towards presidential elections in which Barak Hussein Obama is running for a second term. For large sections of the American Christian Right (closely allied to rightwing Zionism), Obama is, if not the anti-Christ, then at the very least a Muslim mole planted in the White House.

For his part, Obama, from the very start of his presidency, had set out to douse the fires of the "clash of civilizations", then still raging curtsey of Messrs Bush and Bin Laden, among others. An editorial in the New York Times commenting on Obama's famous address to the Muslim world from Cairo University, lauded him for having "steered away from the poisonous post-9/11 clash of civilizations mythology that drove so much of President George W. Bush's rhetoric and disastrous policy."

To reignite "the clash" in some form serves to bolster the American Right as a whole, the American Christian Right (which is a mainstay of the Republican Party) in particular, while at the same time undermining Obama, who at best had acted to bring this clash to an end, and at worst is "a bloody Muslim" himself.

A much broader motivation, which does not exclude Obama as target, is to tarnish, even to deny the very existence of an Arab Spring.

Among the dramatic effects of the historic revolutionary upsurge of the Arab world during the past two years had been a sweeping reimaging of the Arabs in the eyes of the world at large, including the West.

For nearly two decades the bete noire of the world community, represented by vicious madmen such as Saddam and Bin Laden, or by nasty decrepit dictators a la Mubarak, the revolutions brought forth a new and heroic Arab, whose face is that of the wonderful young men and women of Tahrir. So much so that Tahrir Square became an icon of democratic protest the world over, and the Egyptian revolution provided the self-conscious symbols of rebellion to protesters from New York to Tel Aviv.

Certainly, this image had paled already, with disappointment, even disillusionment being felt widely both at home as overseas. With Islamists either taking over or becoming a major force in the new political configurations in post revolutionary Arab states, pundits in America and Europe reverted to type, proclaiming this the "Islamists moment".

Yet, for the most part, the Arab spring continued to get "good press"; both the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Elnahda in Tunisia were for the most part very favorably portrayed in the Western media, and well liked by governments in Europe and the US.

I can't claim that the film's backers had counted on a Libyan mob actually killing American diplomats, and this in the very city that was about to fall victim to a Gaddafi bloodbath had it not been for the military intervention ñ albeit belated ñ of the US and Europe. Nor could they have counted on the Egyptian police (which had just recently defended, with customary excessive and deadly force, a Nile-side Cairo mall against peaceful protesters), would leave the fortress that is the US embassy in Cairo easy prey to mob attacks, even to the extent of allowng the scaling ofits walls and invasion of its grounds.

Yet, there is little doubt that the provocateurs had counted on an irrational and violent reaction, and they got it, possibly beyond their most optimistic expectations.

The result is the same: the image of Arabs and Muslims as produced by the Arab Spring is painted over with the old racist/Orientalist brush of the clash of civilizations.

The tarnishing of the Arab Spring is also yet another blow to Obama's electoral chances. After a failed attempt to salvage the Mubarak regime, Obama had opted, as an American friend described it, to put US policy in the region "on the side of history", declaring in an impassioned speech US support for the overthrow of the Egyptian dictator.

In an article I wrote for Al-Ahram Weekly just before the film fracas erupted, I tried to explain what I went so far as to describe,the "love-fest" between the Obama Administration and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. (Following the eruption of anti-US protests, I tried to pull the article from Al-Ahram Weekly, fearing it was in in bad taste, but it had already gone to print. It will be published here only as a link to this piece.)

Now, Obama's detractors can claim that his banking on the Arab Spring was a major blunder; Muslim Arabs will be Muslim Arabs, and the Islamist governments in post-revolution Arab states are as much enemies of America as Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri.

Netanyahu's Israel, of course, is the greatest beneficiary of all this. Whether the film is a Mossad operation or not is beside the point, and such a claim cannot be made on the basis of conjecture, but tangible, solidinformation.

What may be argued with full confidence however is that Netanyahu's Israel has from the very start seen the Arab spring as a direct threat, claimed ñ even as the millions of protesters in Tahrir were chanting for freedom and equality ñ that these were Islamist, ultimately anti-Western revolutions bent on Israel's destruction, and exerted intense pressure on the American administration to save Mubarak's regime by any means possible.

As for the image of Arabs and Muslims as fanatical, violent and irrational, that ñ it almost goes without saying ñ is a fundamental premise of Israel's continuing enslavement and dispossession of the Palestinian people.

But what about our side of the squalid equation?

A well know Arab proverb says that "the faithful will not be bitten from the same snake pit twice", and presumably when someone sets you the same trap over and over again, you will have learned to avoid it.

Certainly, there are political and ideological forces in our midst for whom ignorance, stupidity and bigotry are mother's milk, which tends to render experience, however repeated, relatively ineffectual.

(I've been trying to explain to some of my overheated contacts on facebook and twitter that there is a thing in the US Constitution called the First Amendment, which makes freedom of expression - however repugnant what's being expressed - practically sacrosanct. Indeed, America's founding fathers made freedom of expression considerably more sacred than any of the sacred religious beliefs held by Americans themselves.)

I hate to say that, for many,such arguments fell on deaf ears.

But it is my contention here as well that the real motivation behind what on the surface appears an irrational, indeed stupid and self-defeating reaction,is in fact quite rational, goal oriented and, for its culprits, highly advantageous.

Again, here we have to maneuver between the very broad and strategic, on one hand, and the immediate and narrowly targeted on the other.

In the broadest sense, there are forces in the Arab and Muslim worlds whose very reason for existence is the assumption of a clash of civilizations, an eternal and ongoing battle between the faithful and the infidels allegedly bent on their destruction.

More concretely, however, the Arab revolutions, especially the Egyptian revolution, had shown in glaring and magnificent ways that millions among us - the most courageous, noble, politically aware and self-sacrificing among us - march to the beat of a wholly different drummer. They spoke of freedom, democracy and fundamental human rights, they spoke of brotherhood and equality, and shoulder to shoulder they battled with tremendous heroism, men and women, Muslims and Christians and atheists.

Yet, no sooner had Mubarak been overthrown than the process of undermining these ideals had begun, ideals which I'd come to call the "Tahrir platform", while a friend of mine of a more scholarly bent, informed me recently that she called them the"Tahrir narrative".

Religion, and in particular the manipulation of anti-Christian bigotry ("the clash" has had a local anti-Coptic dimension for many years) was taken up soon after 11 February 2011 as a favored tool of attacking, even voiding the Egyptian revolution. Anti-Coptic pogroms, in which Islamist extremists, Mubarak's state security police, as well as the latter's network of thugs happily joined hands to lead the usual mobs of the most backward and ignorant among the population to attack Coptic homes, businesses and houses of worship.

Even the ruling military, backed by its media flunkies, tried its hands at playing the anti-Christian bigotry card. Chomping at the bit to deliver a devastating blow to the ongoing revolutionary energy on the Egyptian street, the ruling Supreme Military Council found what it thought was the ideal opportunity in an October 2011 Coptic protest (triggered by one of the mini pogroms mentioned above). The protesters who, joined by many Muslim supporters, gathered before the state TV building in downtown Cairo were subjected to a massacre unprecedented since the first days of the Egyptian revolution, leaving some 30 dead, and several hundred badly injured.

And as the tanks and armoured trucks and gun slinging soldiers and thugs were murdering protesters by the dozen, Egyptian state TV was calling on Muslims in their homes to rise to defend the heroic Egyptian army against Coptic attacks.

To the military mind, making an example of the Copts, couched in sectarian terms, would be more easy to get away with, while at the same time serving to show the extent of viciousness of which they were capable.

Which brings to mind the bewildering failure of the Egyptian police to provide any protection to the US embassy in Cairo. Was this failure merely an expression of the ineptitude of a demoralized and shattered police force, was it the result of intimidation by the religious frenzy unleashed by the film, or was it yet another example of the dirty tricks thishalf rogue body has been engaging in persistently since the revolution?

As for the Salafists, Jihadists and various other Islamist extremists, the film was the answer to a prayer. Not only did it provide a golden opportunity to strike against the revolutionary values they abhor as atheistic Western imports, it also gave them renewed access to the nation's political stage.

Having convinced themselves, along with the Muslim Brotherhood and Western pundits, that this was "the Islamist moment", they feel cheated by the now ruling Brotherhood, which not only grabbed the lion's share of post-revolutionary political power, but has also ñ in typical Brotherhood fashion ñ reneged on many of its promises to its various Islamist allies, as indeed it did to the many non-Islamist political forces in the country.

The furore in defence of the Prophet would also serve to undermine the rule of the reasonable, pragmatic Brotherhood, in favour of the more radical, more regressive, tendencies within Egyptian Islamism.

Striking a blow against Brotherhood-US relations is from this perspective also tantamount to delivering an effective blow to the very foundations upon which the Brotherhood is able to maintain an uncontested upper hand in the configuration of political power in the country.

For its part, the Brotherhood lacks either the imagination or the courage to hit back. Rather, it seems to have opted for the path of least resistance, the tried and true Mubarak regime tactic of outbidding the radical Islamists by appearing even more radically Islamist.

This is not surprising. The Brotherhood's behaviour since its accession to political preeminence, first in parliament and then the presidency, gives one the feeling that over the 30 Mubarak years the group's leaders were not so much opposing as taking notes.

And it's a free for all. Even leaders of the non-Islamist political parties are rushing to condemn American attacks on Islam, some calling for the severing of diplomatic ties.

Reason, for the most part,has gone out the window; the values of the revolution are being trampled underfoot.

And, for the time being at least, the clash of bigotries, ignorance and stupidity is back centre stage.

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