Politics & Economy

Anti-Islam video and Muslim mobilization

Reports suggest that anti-American protests and violence that erupted almost two weeks ago over a poorly-made anti-Islam video spread to nearly 20 Muslim majority countries (hereafter, MMC) and other a few pockets of countries where Muslim live in non-majority status such as Sri Lanka.  Generally speaking, Muslims would define their religion as religion of peace and tolerant. Hence, it is deeply disturbing to witness violence and aggressive reactions from some Muslims to 14 minutes video.

Scholars and activists have raised many questions over Muslim reactions. Some questions aimed at understanding the nature of protests. Some questions have aggressively attempted to ridicule Muslims and their faith.  This peace would attempt to understand the nature of mobilization and roots to gain often neglected side of stories of story.  Popular opinions and writings do not necessarily reflect the history, but it is key to gain some basic understanding to read the trend. Hence, this short paper would attempt to understand Muslim mobilization to 14 minutes, poorly made law budget anti-Islam video? As Ted Robert Gurr has observed, there is no comprehensive and widely accepted theory of the causes and consequences of conflict. Instead, there are many factors that can lead to tensions between groups of people.

General perceptions would blame Muslims for their reaction because they think that reaction was and is seems very disproportionate Muslims reacted disproportionately. Popular opinions that oppose Muslim reactions argue that it is an act of freedom of speech and Muslims need to be civilized to digest dissent.  But every mobilization has politico-social as well as cultural roots associated with deep-seated grievances.  Some mobilizations adopt violence and some do not.  The question is why popular mobilizations in the non-western countries often seek brutal method to send a cross the message?

The absence of 'moderate alternatives'

The roots of tensions between the west and the MMC are actually deeper than what medial and other pundits would explain it, or want us to believe it.  Different societies react different ways to different conditions and to different results.  Studies suggest that economically impoverished and socially not well- connected societies where there is a weak middle class, mobilization often shun moderate alternatives when and if there is a social crisis.  In this absence of healthy middle class and moderate forces, the language of violence and hatred becomes a common major political tool for politico-social actors to pursue their own interests and power-oriented goals. 

Despite the fact that some Muslim majority societies were able to embrace, what is now known as Arab Spring, the region is still deeply struggling with a deep-seated economic crisis and social alienation.  In the post-Arab spring period, there was a huge expectation among the masses in the MMS. Expectations were at a higher level among masses: some, according to my communication with university students from Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, people in Cairo street expected social and economic justice from new rulers.  Such expectations were common in MMS where Arabs were able to overthrow the west backed political leaders. Also, it is important to point that Arab spring provided platform for political forces that would embrace islamization and non-secular social status-quo, for example Egypt and Tunisia.

These Islamist forces know the ground reality and are effectively organized. These forces also know the mood of masses as well as history. Actually, the west in general, and America in particular is deeply unpopular in the MMS streets, particularly among masses.  Critical studies on American foreign policies suggest some interesting reasons for American unpopularity and growing anti-Americanism in the MMS.

The roots of anti - Americanism

The Crusades against Muslims, the Crusaders’ capture of Jerusalem twice between 1099 and 1229, and final recapture of the city by Muslims by the mid-thirteenth century left lasting imprints of distrust and residual enmity between many of the orthodox followers of these religions. The Crusaders were spectacularly severe in capturing Jerusalem in 1100. Although the Muslims eventually dislodged the Crusaders, the whole incident changed the favorable view that Muslims had held so far of Christians, and many Muslims remained wary of them for a long time to come.

Then came the Western colonization.  Western (especially British and French) colonialism penetrated the MMS from the sixteenth century. Rise of the feudalist Western powers solidly paved the way for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. From the eighteenth century, the French, Spanish, Italians and British made inroads into North Africa, the Persian Gulf to secure bases and protect their sea lanes, and as a result all started nibbling away different parts of a weakening Ottoman Empire, especially at the edges. Further, the Russians encroached on the northeast of the Islamic world in Transcaucasus and Central Asia, and the British and Dutch on its southeast extremities in Malaya and the East Indies. Muslims regarded all this Western expansion and domination as painful humiliation as well Christian attempts against their identity, religion, culture and way of life.

The end of Second World War created new world order with the collapse of British Raj. The new order dominated by the two leading camps, led by Washington and Moscow respectively. In this critical juncture, ruling elites from the MMS faced difficult choices. The major goal of Washington is power and interests. Washington decided to support those leaders from MMS as long as they were anti-communist and ready to offer cooperation with the USA to defeat the common enemy.  Successive American administrations, from Truman to current Obama, did not invest sincere attempts to promote true political and social agendas that would aim to meet the interests of the masses in the MMS. American administration claims their interest in promoting democracy in the Middle East before September 2001, but the fact clearly contradicts reality. The USA’s post 1945 preoccupation with the three goals of defeating Soviet communism, controlling oil and other significant natural resources in the MMS, and protecting Israel despite its inherently expansionist and discriminatory nature as a confessional state, led it to become too self-indulgent and self-righteous and disinclined to develop strategies which could win people’s minds and hearts in the MMS.

Hearts and minds or hate and anger?

The US’ political game to maintain it’s political and economy interest and power in the Middle East was one of the major sources that positively encouraged social conditions for the growth of deeper anti-Americanism in the MMS, from Iranian to Afghanistan.  The inception of these radical forces and their powerful symbolic agendas weakened the agendas of moderates who would softly recognize the interests of the west. Needless to say that continuous war activities against the MMS [Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya] from 2001 in the name of defeating terrorism, and ousting bad leaders and promoting democracy did not contribute to win the hearts of people from the MMS. It actually steadily helped grow hatred and anger toward the West.

Political protests and actions are the by-product of social conditions. Political actors often make use of those conditions for mobilization. Societies do not require better logics and super reasons for mobilization. Simple developments such as poorly made video can do a lot to trigger mobilization if there is a political forces out there to manipulate the vacuum. But political forces do not simply win mobilization because of their loyalty to masses. These loyalties make sense and help seek political links if there is a proper political conditions associated with masses.

Moreover, there were expectation among a few scholars that that Arab spring will help develop more cosmopolitan culture among people at popular level, but it is next to impossible to develop such a broader politic-cultural society in the MMS in the absence of healthy middle class and the very presence of foreign troops and their bases.

If 'made in China...?'

The question here is that how Muslims from the MMS should have responded to a video made an ethnic Han-Chinese based in somewhere in China, an emerging power in the new world order? In other words, could we have seen similar level of violence and protests against such video [from China]? If the answer is no, then we need to objectively analyze our past, because it is truly difficult to seek real reconciliation at the ground between two competing civilizations when there is a denial to digest the fact and reality by either party. My communications in the last two weeks with Muslims from the MMS would not suggest similar reactions to Chinese made anti-Islamic video.  But the same sources suggest that Muslims would oppose such move, but a degree of reactions should be different. History suggests that mobilization often does not come in absence, nor do radical activities are just a reaction to romanticism that associated with nasty hatred.  Radical forces often fill both political and security as well as cultural vacuum when dominant and powerful political forces fail to deliver economic and social security.

On the other hand, Muslims need to be true to their proud claim that Islam is a religion of peace.  Recent and their past actions anyway would not support their self claim that Islam is a religion of peace, and Muslims have to realize that Islam does not provide ready-made answers to all their problems. Rather, it provides an ethical and moral perspective within which Muslims must endeavor to find answers to all human problems. Primarily, as individuals and communities, Muslims need to reclaim agency: to elect better political leaders and to understand Islamic sources contextually, to interpret and reinterpret the basic sources of Islam to question what now goes under the general rubric of ‘shariah’ and to declare that much of Islamic jurisprudence is now dangerously obsolete, and to stand up to the absurd notion of an Islam confined by a geographically bound state. Actually, social agents to understand Islamic sources contextually unlikely emerge in a society where 2/3 masses suffer to enjoy good piece of bread and butter.

Challenges ahead

It remains to be seen whether new social movements in the MMS will deliver to the masses in the MMS streets, by reforming state structure and provide solid space for gender equality and opportunities. Or they will seek old tactics to stay in power.  The West in general and America in particular should not try to dictate the fate of the masses in the MMS and their resources. Masses in the MMS need to decide their own destiny, not the West. There is no easy way to calculate human behaviors, but we know that each decision /move has a consequence. Poorly-made 14 minutes anti-Islam videos may help ignite deeper distrust and profound tensions if political forces on both sides take wrong moves and decisions just to pursue their own interests.

Dr. A.R.M.Imtiyaz is a former lecturer in Political Science in the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka and in Nanjing University, China. He currently teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Department of Political Science, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA. He has researched on the symbolic politics of elites and politicization of ethnic differences in Sri Lanka and his recent research examines issues related to the Muslims in Middle East and Xinjiang province, China. | Photo courtesy: vikalpa.org

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Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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