Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Hello, West? It Really Is About the Movie

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook
September 19, 2012

Hardee's and a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food outlet burns after protesters set the building on fire in Tripoli, northern Lebanon (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).


My friend and tweep, Ramy Yaacoub, penned today’s post. He disagrees with my piece, Mohammed, KFC, and US. He argues that the protests in the Muslim world are actually about an offensive movie and differing worldviews rather than a history of subordination to the West. It’s well done. I’m sure you’ll be hearing from Ramy again. Follow him on Twitter: @RamyYaacoub

The Innocence of Muslims, which depicts the Prophet Mohammed calling for the rape of enslaved women and the pillage of war booty, was followed by burning the American flag, ransacking American and other Western diplomatic facilities, and the killing of diplomats. All this happened in a span of the past week, yet no one saw it coming.

In the midst of chaos, analysts and other observers try to make sense of these unfortunate events and find deeper meanings for them. The death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, a great man by all measures, has skewed the assessment of the now week-long protests in the Middle East and broader Muslim world.

The central question, which has vexed the policy community since the start of the protests and is: What are they really about? Is this really just about the movie?

The answer is, no, but it is not about politics either. The protests are about culture and religion. The fact that a cheap and insulting movie motivated protests is the result of friction between two different worlds with vast cultural cleavages. This runs counter to the new conventional wisdom, which suggests that these demonstrations are a release, a pressure-valve exploding, due to wide discontent with U.S. foreign policy over many decades.

It is important to note that this is not the first time in recent history that Muslim communities from all over the globe have responded angrily to an insult directed toward the Prophet. In 2005-2006, Denmark was the target of worldwide protests and boycott movements when a Danish cartoonist drew and published a caricature of the Prophet deemed highly offensive. It is safe to say that Denmark is not viewed as an imperialist nation with vast interests in the Middle East, unwavering support towards Israel, or global expansionist militaristic expeditions. Yet, the fury toward Denmark and its respect for freedom of speech, even when that speech insults one or more faiths, was unprecedented.

The recent protests highlight the cultural divides between the West and the Middle East. Each side holds certain ideals sacred. In Egypt, nothing is holier than the Prophet, and desecrating his memory is unequivocal blasphemy to all Muslims. Meanwhile, in the West, freedom of speech remains an intrinsic right upheld for all, even those who peddle offensive ideas. The arrest of Alber Saber, 27, on the charge of atheism and for posting the trailer of The Innocence of Muslims on his personal Facebook page, is further proof and an example of the domestic repercussions of the cultural clash between the sanctity of religion and freedom of speech.

The uproar of the past week is a direct consequence of the Salafi satellite television station “Al-Nas” (“The People”), a religious network that publicized the existence of The Innocence of Muslims. For the believers of a faith that prohibits painting or reenacting its Prophet, let alone portraying him in a demeaning manner, the emotional reaction should have been expected, based on religious and cultural parameters, not political ones.

It is highly likely that the religious and political leaders who incited the protests solicited the emotions of keen defenders of Islam with other agendas in mind; however, had the movie not struck a cultural-religious nerve with the masses, such leaders would not have had troops to call upon.

At many points we fail to understand the real causes behind the problems at hand, because even though we might be highly informed about current events, we tend to analyze the situation by applying the same lens, regardless of where these events take place. The history of vilifying “the other” is part of the eastern-western narrative, which also must be considered when reading through such analyses.  However, this was a skirmish in a battle that has only a mild relation to Western values, freedom of speech, and the acceptance of different opinions.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Megha Sharma

    Very well written and insightful.

  • Posted by Imran Riffat

    I strongly disagree with the contention that “the protests are about culture and religion.” It is all about frustration and loss of hope. The movie has nothing to do with the US government but, instead, it is a distasteful act on the part of a person or small group lacking the sense that the right to freedom of expression comes with responsibilities. It is the duty of the governments of countries where protest is being expressed through violence and murder to help their people understand that the real issue is where the next meal is going to come from.

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    Another version of clash of civilizations. The question I want to ask Mr. Yaacoub is if this is the clash of civilization/cultures then where are majority of Muslims. Certainly, few thousand Muslims protesting doesn’t tell you anything about the opinion of more than one billion Muslims. Most of Muslims do feel offended like me but what have they done. Nothing. What to say of killing and attacking Americans, they didn’t go out of their homes to protest and didn’t raise a single slogan. They went about their lives cursing West, just as they curse their governments regularly. A few weeks later, if their is no additional provocation, most of the Muslims will be more critical of their own governments than of West. There are cultural differences but they can managed and this brings the second point.

    It’s all politics, sir. Western countries generally, and US as their leader, are considered oppressors due to imperialism and recent support for Israel and dictatorships. Denmark of course was not a colonial power but it is a part of West and supporter of Israel. So, its interests were also attacked after cartoon controversy. The resentment against the West makes it difficult for Muslims to understand that Western governments cannot do much in these kinds of cases. They have seen West ignoring Muslim interests even when they have power so they are not ready to accept the argument of free speech. Even killing of Muslims would be ignored, if Muslims believe that the government is not inherently against Islam.

    A few years ago, China , where persecution of Muslim minority is a norm, killed hundreds of Muslims. There were news of these killings in Muslim countries but there were not many protests. A few protests that did happen were largely peaceful. Does Islam has more cultural affinity with communist China than with the Christian/secular West? Were these killing less of an issue than hijab controversy, which lead to many more protests? No. The crimes of China against Islamic values are much greater than West, where many millions Muslims live freely, but China doesn’t have a baggage. Nobody believes that China is out to eliminate Islam or Muslims but many millions believe in such theories about the West. These Muslims are a very small minority but they are enough to make the news anchors happy for quite a few days. A majority of the Muslims, however, do believe that West has been unjust. When this opinion is changed (and this can be changed), there will protests against such movies but not against the countries.

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