Mideast riots less religious than political

Posted: September 14, 2012

By Mimi Hanaoka

The chaotic violence that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three American staffers in Libya, and that led to a mob storming the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, has been garbed in religious language and references. That distracts from the real issues: serious domestic political fragmentation in Libya and Egypt in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and America's place in the region.

Media attention has focused on a polemic, anti-Muslim movie trailer posted on YouTube, which prompted protests in Benghazi and Cairo. The film was allegedly produced by Sam Bacile, who has identified himself as an Israeli Jew. In the Wall Street Journal, Bacile called Islam a "cancer" and claimed he raised $5 million from Jewish donors to fund the film, details that intensify its polemic power.

The trailer, translated into Arabic and viewed thousands of times in the Middle East, portrays the prophet Muhammad as, among other things, a child abuser. Florida pastor and provocateur Terry Jones, who burned copies of the Quran in 2011, claims to have screened the film; a self-described Christian militant in California claims to have consulted on it.

The violent response to the trailer in Libya and Egypt will undoubtedly be portrayed as generic Muslim rage rooted in a theology that inspires a special hatred of the West. If more demonstrations erupt in Muslim countries after Friday prayers, there will be further temptation to understand them as primarily religious.

But there are other ways to understand what's going on. The deadly attack in Libya may have been separate from the video protests, planned by extremists. In any case, the anti-American demonstrations are not necessarily exhibitions of generic Muslim theological rage as much as they are outbursts occurring for specific reasons in the particular, destabilized local contexts of the post-Arab Spring Middle East and North Africa. And more protests following Friday prayers in these countries are likely to be as much a sign of newfound political engagement as religious zeal.

The Arab Spring produced a complex matrix of political instability in Libya and Egypt, with enormous economic and social reverberations in those nations and their geopolitical relationships and strategies. The anti-American violence in Benghazi and Cairo is mostly a reflection of weakened central governments in the wake of the toppling of long-standing dictators and amid the jockeying for power of a host of actors and organizations.

If the reaction was generically Muslim in nature, Saudi Arabia, the most notable bastion of Sunni orthodoxy vehemently opposed to any depictions of Muhammad, would be the place where the trailer and the film would be expected to first spark controversy. Yet it wasn't a flash point. Nor have we heard a peep of protest from Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, or Kuwait, Persian Gulf countries with relatively strong central governments that retained a firm grip on power during the Arab Spring.

As the exuberant democracy movements in Libya and Egypt confront the need to establish law and order, the new regimes have to find their feet and their place in the world. The recently elected governments in Libya, Egypt, and other countries will work for many years to reestablish law and order, a task complicated in Libya by the deluge of arms floating around the country after its civil war. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, the entrenched military, and secular organizations and individuals will compete to speak for the new state.

At such a time, using religion alone to explain what's happening is counterfactual and counterproductive. Militants on all sides, in America as well as in Egypt and Libya, will try to dwell on Islam. Easily inflamed mobs in the Middle East may set back democratization efforts and strip the remade nations of the foreign investment, tourism, and support they need. In America, provocateurs will try to influence opinion in divisive times. It's important that policymakers and the media remember that the real issues are mostly local and always political.

Mimi Hanaoka is an assistant professor of religious studies and Islam at the University of Richmond. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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