A Universal Message In The Middle East Protests – OpEd
By Paul Woodward - War in Context
Reuters reports: Protesters enraged by a film mocking the Prophet Mohammad battled with police in several Asian cities on Monday and vented their fury against the United States, blaming it for what they see as an attack on the Muslim religion.
Police fired in the air to break up a crowd marching on the U.S. consulate in the Pakistani city of Karachi while in Afghanistan and Indonesia people burnt U.S. flags and chanted “Death to America”.
Indonesian police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of demonstrators who massed outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, capital of the most populous Muslim nation.
In Kabul, protesters set fire to cars and shops and threw stones at police.
“We will defend our prophet until we have blood across our bodies. We will not let anyone insult him,” said one protester in the Afghan capital. “Americans will pay for their dishonor.”
Thousands also marched in Beirut, where a Hezbollah leader accused U.S. spy agencies of being behind events that have unleashed a wave of anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim and Arab world.
The demonstrations were the latest across the world ignited by a short film made with private funds in the United States and posted on the Internet that depicted the Prophet Mohammad as a fool, a womanizer and a homosexual.
The situation saddles U.S. President Barack Obama with an unexpected foreign policy headache as he campaigns for re-election in November, even though his administration has condemned the film as reprehensible and disgusting.
In a torrent of violence last week, the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in an attack in Benghazi and U.S. and other foreign embassies were stormed in cities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East by furious Muslims. At least nine other people have been killed.
Washington has sent ships, extra troops and special forces to protect U.S. interests and citizens in the Middle East, while a number of its embassies have evacuated staff and are on high alert for trouble.
A White House spokesman said Obama spoke by telephone to senior diplomats at the weekend to reassure them of his support.
“He called the chiefs of mission in Sudan, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen to let those diplomats know that he was thinking about them, that their safety remains a top priority of his, and it is something he will remain focused on,” spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Despite Obama’s efforts early in his tenure to improve relations with the Arab and Muslim world, the new violence adds to a host of problems including the continued U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear program, the Syrian civil war and the fall-out from the Arab Spring revolts.
The renewed protests on Monday dashed any hopes that the furor over the film might fade despite an appeal over the weekend from the senior cleric in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest shrines, for calm.
In the Kabul demonstration, protesters shouted “Death to America” and burned the flags of the United States and of Israel, a country reviled by many Muslims and Arabs because of the Palestinian issue.
As many have asked: why are Muslims across the world protesting against a crude anti-Islam movie and not against the thousands of Muslims being killed by the Assad regime?
I don’t think it’s because of indifference or apathy about the plight of Syrians. One issue is seen as an attack on Muslim identity while the other isn’t. Assad is killing his own people, not because they are Muslims but because they have risen up to throw him out of power. His actions don’t fall within the wider context of what has long been perceived as a war on Islam waged by the U.S., Israel and their allies. (This is not to deny that Assad is a worthy target of protests, both in the Middle East and across the world.)
Even so, the religious dimension should perhaps be seen as merely a veneer than rests on top of a more fundamental issue — one which explains why the Palestinian issue has for so long been at the center of Middle Eastern rage.
Do Muslims across the region care more about Palestinians than anyone else? Almost certainly not. But the treatment of Palestinians by Israelis is regarded as emblematic of Western contempt for Muslims. In this perception, Israel’s allies have been willing to tolerate the daily abuses which Palestinians suffer, not because the West bears a particular hostility towards Palestinians but because it regards Arabs and Muslims in general as inferior people.
If those protesting against the Innocence of Muslims are screaming in rage about an insult to the Prophet, their passion reveals perhaps more about the experience of being insulted.
Those who suffer frequent insults either internalize them and come to believe that the lack of respect they are shown reflects the lack of respect they deserve, or, they stand up to defend their dignity.
Strangely, the dignity of ordinary people is something more in evidence in traditional societies than modern ones.
In societies that see themselves as the most advanced, we have an abundance of material reasons to feel superior to others, yet woven into the Western way of life are so many indignities that we have come to see them as normality.
We are slaves of commerce who feel insecure unless suitably branded. We treat the fabrications of Hollywood as the ideals of social status and good looks. We take for granted that our elected representatives rarely represent our interests. We accept that the grind of monotonous work is a necessity for economic survival. And we live in socially fragmented communities in which in so many of our dealings we are strangers living invisible lives among strangers.
All of this results in a loss of dignity and a loss of appreciation for its value. And that loss has reached a point where when we witness Muslims making vociferous demands for respect, we all too easily dismiss this as nothing more than the expression of religious fanaticism.