I must admit to feeling thoroughly depressed at the violence accompanying protests across Libya, Egypt and Yemen. Watching video previously posted by murdered Ambassador Chris Stevens describing his enduring relationship with the Arab world only serves to emphasise the nihilistic aspect of his death.
Certainly the US lacks the moral high ground in the Middle East, a fact that many in the West need to be reminded of, but a reality of common currency amongst the region’s populous for decades. To be clear, from an Arab perspective US foreign policy is synonymous with perpetuating despots and arming a belligerent Israel, either in the cause of economic self-interest, strategic advantage or domestic political expediency.
Comments posted following editorial on the protests don’t bode well. The usual zealots splutter, up to their necks in a rising tide of bile, yelling from opposing shores of a sea of ignorance. Then, perhaps more worryingly, there are the ideologues, trenchant, calm and annoyingly confident. Why? Because God is on their side you silly… And finally, liberal voices from Christian and Muslim intelligentsia, preaching understanding, trying to build bridges across the religious divide – though it’s impossible not to ask yourself who is responsible for the divide in the first place?
Certainly the provenance of the straight-to-video film, ‘The Innocence of Muslims’, cited as a catalyst for the embassy protests is far from clear. The ‘producer’, one ‘Sam Bacile’ (too close to ‘imbecile’ to be true) doesn’t exist. ‘Jimmy Israel’ and ‘Steve Klein’ are also quoted as being involved, at this rate it won’t be long before ‘Donald Duck’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’ are credited as Associate Directors. In common with most of those involved in the protests, I haven’t seen the trailer or the film, if it even exists – the actual insults it contains, whether scripted or dubbed have transcended news to become unassailable articles of faith.
The angry reaction by the young men of the Arab Street is as frightening and tedious as it is predictable, but mobs are never pretty. ‘Death to Obama!’ – really guys, given the Republican alternative, be careful what you wish for.
Who benefits from this polarisation? Revolutionary change in North Africa came not as the result of radical Islamic epiphany. Though the incomplete nature of some ‘revolutions’ is rightly questioned, in the first instance it was Arab youth, energised by information and secular idealism that kicked out long-entrenched bogey men. However, years of repression have stifled the growth of democratic political structures, and post-revolution the mosque and the military are left as the only functional national organisations, the latter weakened by association with the ancien regime. In 1979 the Iranian middle classes didn’t help oust their corrupt and dictatorial Shah in order to become subject to an equally corrupt and humourless religious cabal – but it happened, and too easily democracy can become theocracy.
I’m reminded of an encounter I had in May 2011, in a suburb of Benghazi known as Ras Abaydah. Sipping coffee in a ‘neighbourhood watch’ tent I spoke to local teacher Abu Farris. ‘None of the Arab leaders know the meaning of freedom,’ he declared, ‘None of the Arab leaders know what ‘people’ mean. None of the Arab leaders know what a President is, they just read it, they have no respect at all for this word “freedom”, everybody feel it.’ Though his delivery already verged on the polemic he was just getting started… My cup was topped up, Abu Farris left his untouched, ‘You know, I believe that the West planted this… this creature (Gaddafi) in Libya in 1969. All Arabs believe that these leaders were planted by the West. This is why Al Qaida, Bin Laden or somebody the same makes a lot of trouble. Not because we hate the West, but because we know that the West planted these leaders. It is now their duty to throw these leaders away. Just let us get rid of them, once we get rid of them, then the West will be forgiven by the Arabs.’
I hope he was right.