Friday, September 14, 2012

The anti-Muslim propaganda film and protests against America

Anti-American protests seem to be popular at the moment in several Muslim countries. Peter Apps and Matt Spetalnick take a look at the developments in Weeks before U.S. election, Mideast gives Obama perfect storm Reuters 09/13/2012.

Several writers with The Atlantic have been working on aspects of this story. Garance Franke-Ruta put together a helpful timeline of the events of the first day (Tuesday, Sept. 11), focusing on the official statements that Romney and the Republicans have characterized as apologizing for American values and even Obama sympathizing with the attackers: Here's a Timeline of the Confusing Statements on Libya and Egypt 09/12/2012.

On the cultural war aspect, I'm going to plagiarize myself by repeating what I said in a couple of places in Facebook comments the day afterward. The statement from the US Embassy in Egypt which was the target of so much Republican criticism was issued before the attacks and referred to that blithering bigot Terry Jones and the Muslim-hating YouTube video that was the nominal topic of this latest round of attacks.

Jones does have the right to say pretty much any fool thing he wants, and everyone else has the right to say what dang fool nonsense he's talking. And it's perfectly understandable that a US Embassy in a Muslim country like Egypt or Libya that had recently gone through a revolution would and should make it clear that the US government and public aren't responsible for every dang fool thing some loser Muslim-hating bigot in the US says.

Cenk Uygur in 'Innocence of Muslims' Sparks Outrage The Young Turks 09/12/2012 discusses the movie and its strange producer:

I'm enough of a fan of the Enlightenment to say that it's dumb and wrong to get violent over someone thousands of miles away insulting your religion, much less kill people over it. And protesters are using the film as a rallying point.

Still, it's hard to imagine that any significant number of people could be enraged to violence against official American installations just on the basis of some private citizen expressing a nasty opinion of Islam if there weren't larger grievances at work. And it may well turn out to be that its not a significant number who are rallying to this. But strange developments and even unworthy causes can become a focal point for larger grievances. Just from the reporting I've seen so far, public and official reaction in Egypt and Libya have varied significantly. This story from McClatchy's Nancy Youssef and Suliman Ali Zway, No protest before Benghazi attack, wounded Libyan guard says 09/13/2012, discusses evidence "that the assault on the compound that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was a planned attack by armed Islamists and not the outgrowth of a protest over an online video that mocks Islam and its founder, the Prophet Muhammad." The timing may have been related to the date of 9/11 and there doesn't seem to be much indication that protesting the film was even nominally involved in that assault. Nancy Youssef has been doing some of the best reporting on Middle East events in recent years.

I hate to think that the mutual interacting fanaticism of religious extremists thousands of miles away could spark off confrontations that have far-reaching diplomatic consequences. But, as they say, stuff happens.

The Reuters report linked above says:

While Libya's government was swift to condemn the attack there and pledged to work with the United States to find those responsible, it was the equivocal initial response from Egypt's new President Mohammad Mursi - condemning the video but not the Egyptian mob - that infuriated Washington.

Obama pointedly told the Spanish-language network Telemundo that Egypt's Islamist-led government should not be considered a U.S. ally, "but we don't consider them an enemy," he added. Obama later spoke to Mursi and delivered a blunt message that Egypt must cooperate in protecting American diplomatic facilities.
David Kirkpatrick et al report in the New York Times that Obama pushed the Egyptian government for a response more clearly supportive of the US: Egypt, Hearing From Obama, Moves to Heal Rift From Protests 09/13/2012.

And remember, when it comes to understanding news from the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, one of the best English-language sources is the daily blog of Juan Cole, Informed Comment. Here's his summary of the positions of the governments of Libya and Egypt, Obama Plays Hardball and Egypt’s Morsi Folds 09/14/2012:

The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi happened because the Libyan government is still weak, rebuilding after its revolution against Muammar Qaddafi. But there was no doubt that the new government was a friend of the US ambassador who was killed, Chris Stevens, or that it would mobilize to deal with the cells of the Ansar al-Shariah extremists that launched the attack. Pro-America demonstrations regretting the attack on the consulate have been held all over Libya.

The puzzle comes in Egypt, where the government and security forces are strong, but were not deployed in force to protect the US embassy (unlike in the past), and where newly elected president Mohammad Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, did not explicitly condemn the small crowd that tried to invade the embassy grounds on Tuesday and which tore down the American flag.

Morsi was no doubt himself offended by the trailer on Youtube of a movie villifying the Prophet Muhammad, and he was probably concerned to not be outflanked by Muslim forces to his right, the Salafi Nour Party or the Gama'ah Islamiya (formerly a terrorist organization that has given up violence). But his declining to make a firm statement in defense of the sanctity of foreign embassies annoyed the Obama administration mightily.
Joan Walsh looks at Romney's response in Mitt Romney will never be president Salon 09/12/2012. So does James Fallows in Mitt Romney Drops His 3 a.m. Phone Call The Atlantic 09/12/2012.

Glenn Greenwald has written a lot about the problems Americans collectively create for ourselves in not thinking clearly about how US military actions in particular affect public attitudes in other countries. He looks at how those filters on US official, media and public thinking affect our understanding of incidents like the attacks in Egypt, Libya and Yemen in his Guardian blog: The tragic consulate killings in Libya and America's hierarchy of human life 09/12/2012 and US media angrily marvels at the lack of Muslim gratitude 09/14/2012.

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