By David Firester
January 3, 2013
In the Arab world, promoting violence against the West has long been a tool of both secular dictators and Islamists. As the most recent 9/11 conflagration extinguishes itself in Libya and Egypt it leaves in its wake a smoldering question: why do Middle Eastern protests turn to riots, which in turn direct violence and lethality toward the West? One possible answer, in part, is that there is a large segment of society who are likened to a powder keg filled with a flammable litany of complaints about Western domination. The convenient argument is that this combustible concoction is set ablaze by unpardonable Western depictions of Islam. The ignition, however, is not what you might think it is. It’s not spontaneous rage, but a carefully planned and politically driven activity from within. The former viewpoint is that of the Obama administration, whereas the latter is the focus of this column.
So, what were some of the antecedents leading up to the events of 11 September 2012? A film trailer for “Innocence of Muslims”, which mocked Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, had debuted on youtube.com in July 2012. Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, had ensured that attention was granted to it on 9 September. It was later broadcast on Egyptian television’s Salafist station, Al-Nas, with Arabic subtitles. This “information operation” appears to have been part of a mutual effort between the Egyptian Salafist Nour party and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood party in Egypt to outmaneuver each other. Salafist soccer club allies, dubbed the “Ultras”, also vociferously promulgated the video on the internet (on 10 September) and called for a march on the American embassy to take place on 11 September. Protests, riots, murder and a planned assassination in Libya followed.
The grossly oversimplified explanation offered by the Obama administration is that such anti-Western violence is the result of Western insensitivity. The West is often promoted as a target for the sake of domestic power consolidation. Arguably, there are external triggers, but the people who pull them are of domestic origin. Therefore, it is no surprise that Arab rage is focused externally rather than internally. Recently, however, the so-called Arab Spring has created a space for Arab introspection and consequently a “battle for the soul of Islam” (the title of a recent book by Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, A Battle for the Soul of Islam: an American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save his Faith, [New York: Threshold Editions/Simon & Shuster, 2012]). The Islamists are currently exploiting this, while consolidating their domestic power in promoting the external bogeyman.
Political Islam is engaged in a bout between co-religionists: the right wing (Muslim Brotherhood) vs. the ultra-right wing (Salafists). As Jytte Klausen points out, in the past the secular dictatorships could evoke the rage of the far right (as long as it focused on an external threat to Islam) in order to come out victorious. This enabled power consolidation in two ways: (1) By producing the conditions for enacting repression, (2) thereby casting Islamists in the light of a dangerous threat to peace. Now it appears that the so-called “moderate” Islamists (The Muslim Brotherhood) are committed to a similar tactic with their extreme Islamist opponents (Salafists).
According to Bernard Lewis (The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, [New York: The Modern Library, 2003]; p. 31), it has long been the tradition that Arab Muslims view the world as being divided between the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the House of War (Dar al-Harb). The two are now colliding in the Maghreb. In other words, as Arab Muslims struggle to rid themselves of secular dictatorships, they must have a war within their civilization.
The danger of appearing to appease Islamists, is that their internal dispute will not undergo the sort of transformation necessary to separate Mosque and state. The appropriate American response to the latest Middle East violence should be to signal to liberal Arabs that freedom of speech cuts both ways. One cannot disentangle this central concept from the principles of democracy. What the Obama administration should not be doing is apologizing for an Egyptian Coptic Christian (the producer of the anti-Islamic film, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula), who resides in the United States and used a constitutionally derived freedom of speech to promote his disdain for Islam. So far, the Obama administration has been sending the opposite message.
Through apologies, a reluctance to call Islamic terrorism by its name, and cozying up to Islamists, President Obama, Ambassador Rice, and Secretary Clinton have repeatedly showed a weakness that this country cannot afford. Now, Secretary Clinton will claim amnesia and Ambassador Rice will use the cover of simply following orders. President Obama will likely maintain the plausible deniability, which all presidents ensure they enjoy, in light of evidence pointing toward plausible guilt.
David Firester is a former Intelligence Analyst for the U.S. Army and a former police officer. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the CUNY Graduate Center. He holds an MA in International Affairs. His areas of focus are the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the Intelligence Community.