More blood has been spilled, American and other, in Benghazi, Cairo, Tunis and elsewhere in the so-called Arab and Muslim “worlds” in recent days. (I say so-called because, as others have pointed out, to speak off-handedly, especially to Americans, of an “Arab world” or a “Muslim world” is to dangerously conflate nations and societies whose differences are generally more important than their similarities.) A torrent of ink and electrons has already been loosed on the curious, the convinced, the credulous and the occasionally cretinous, and this before many critical facts are in about what has happened and is happening still. I want to speak briefly less about what happened, that being already very well known, and more about what it means and what has been said of it. Lastly, I want to make a general point about an ur-source of such sadness, which keeps pouring itself out like a serial nightmare draped over the collective history of our species.
The violence that has broken out across much of the Arab world and beyond was touched off by the appearance of an Arabic translation of a scurrilous film attacking the Prophet Muhammad. The 14-minute video, “Innocence of Muslims” in Arabic translation first appeared in Egypt and spread thereafter around the region. But the film is the catalyst, not the cause, of the violence.
The cause of the violence, as captured by Robert F. Worth in the New York Times, is the cultural war going on in most Muslim-majority societies. Insults real or imagined emanating from the West about Islam function as props in this struggle, and the various reactions, especially of the nativist elements, are calculated as tactical assaults in that culture war. That well describes the pre-9/11-era affair over Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses, the famous Danish cartoons incident, 9/11 itself, and these most recent events. Islamist nativists, employing religious symbols to fight a contemporary culture war, are primed to quickly leverage any perceived insult into a weapon against their local adversaries. By far the most sophisticated analysis of this general phenomena that I know of is contained in the series of two essays written many years ago in The American Interest by Anna Simons (here are parts one and two).
That said, I do not exonerate in any way the evil men (and possibly women, for all we know) who were involved in the production of this scurrilous attack on the central symbol of Islam. The film seems to be the work of some tiny group of right-wing evangelicals in Southern California, but the involvement of some radical Coptic Christian émigrés living in the United States also seems likely, at least in preparing the Arabic translation and its dissemination to Egypt. I would not go so far as to accuse these nutbags of direct responsibility in the death of American diplomats in Libya, but they are certainly indirectly responsible for them.
It’s important, too, for non-Muslims who are not especially well tutored in such subjects to better understand why traditional and otherwise post-modernly pious Muslims get so irritated when anyone attacks the integrity of the Prophet. This is not a result of mere cultural pride or a standard defense of a revered figure. Nor does it have anything to do with Islamic law as such. Rather, as Lawrence Rosen explained in “Protecting the Prophet: Understanding Muslim Reactions to the Danish Cartoon Controversy”, a chapter in his book Varieties of Muslim Experience, it has to do with the way that intentions are ascribed to those who make potentially blasphemous utterances or otherwise portray others, not least sacred figures, in socially harmful ways.
Muhammad is understood by Muslims not just as a prophet but as a triple master: a tribal head, a war chief, and an arbiter. His unique qualities to this day resonate very deeply in Arab cultures: Muhammad is a model of personal emulation, the quintessential symbol of piety, compassion, dignity and leadership. All of this is described in detail and at length in the sira literature, the epi-biographical narratives about the life of Muhammad. It is the duty of all Muslims to learn as disciples from their masters, whether in divine matters or in everyday matters. Therefore, to attack Muhammad personally is to attack all of these values, and to threaten not only to the truth of his role as God’s messenger, but his role as the ultimate legitimizer of the master-disciple relationship that helps define the Arab social order.
I think it is reasonably safe to say that the aforementioned nutbags who made this disgusting film are, shall we say, insufficiently sensitive to this analysis. In a way they remind one of a twit who pulls the emergency lever in a 747 over the middle of the Pacific Ocean without the slightest inkling of the consequences.
It is also worth pointing out the difference between the official Libyan and Egyptian reactions to the events of recent days. Libyan officials have been sincerely sorrowed by what has happened, and there is no reason to doubt their resolve in wanting to help us find and bring to justice the perpetrators of the attack on our consulate in Benghazi. The problem is not their resolve but their capacity. It is good that we are deferring symbolically to the Libyan government’s taking the lead on this case, but given the anarchic state of affairs in Libya, with dozens of heavily armed militias running around, most of them more powerful than government forces, the chances are that American special forces will in the end have to do the heavy lifting here—and, of course, the sooner the better.
If that’s the way it must be done, then that is the way it must be done. The United States cannot afford not to find and punish those responsible for what has happened. Everyone in the region is watching, and we dare not encourage a sense of our impotence. That will only produce a feeding frenzy against our interests across the whole region and beyond on the part of unfriendly governments and “streets” alike.
The initial reaction of Egyptian officials, however, was unconscionable. They “understood” a little too easily the sentiments of the mob, and had little to nothing to say initially about the need to respect foreign diplomatic legations. For that reason President Obama telephoned President Morsi and, according to press reports, had an intense twenty-minute conversation with him.
There is a larger lesson here, however, and it is not the obvious one reported in the press: that the current Egyptian government needs to play to the sentiments of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as keep reasonably healthy its relationship with the United States. That’s sort of obvious, isn’t it? No, the larger lesson here is that the U.S. government should not expect its alliance with Egypt to remain even remotely on a level with that of the past three or four decades. Yes, the United States and Egypt retain some important interests in common, but an alliance touches on the softer part of international relationships, too. The differences in basic outlook between President Morsi and President Obama are so wide as to be unbridgeable, and the two of them stand as exemplars of an underlying division between Egyptian society and American society (not that either is entirely monolithic). There has been much talk in recent days about coolness at the top in relations between the United States and Israel, much of it brought on by some foolish public remarks initiated by the Israeli Prime Minister. But that relationship is vastly more convivial in broad social terms than the one that is emerging between the United States and Egypt, and that fact matters.
It matters particularly when strategic relationships are not dominated entirely by elite exchanges. And in that regard, Egypt has changed, and so therefore has the way the alliance, such as it is, is going to work. But it doesn’t help matters that that Western press exaggerates and oversimplifies this change. To hear the media tell it, we’re supposed to sympathize with the alleged fact that President Morsi’s dilemmas have supposedly been brought on by his having to operate in a democratic setting. The press has now decided that because Egypt had an election, it is a democracy. The basic gist here is that because Morsi got elected, he must be a devoted democrat in a democratic environment. This is true only in the most desiccated sense imaginable. Morsi is no democrat, and democracy in Egypt, if it can be said to exist at all, is at an infantile stage of institutionalization. The official Egyptian reaction to the anti-American violence of recent days is something we need to get used to, because we’re bound to see it again and again and again as long as a Muslim Brotherhood-supported government exists in Cairo. Indeed, as I have suggested before, the more democratic (read, populist) Egypt becomes, the less we’re bound to like it.
When it comes to what has been said in the past few days about the terrible events of Wednesday night and Thursday, the breakdown is fairly typical. There are those who can only focus on the human-interest side of the story and who know little and care less about the wider context. It’s as though what happened was like a hurricane or earthquake. There are those intent on using the tragedy for parochial or partisan purposes, whether those purposes are surgically discrete or more broadly accusational. We are used to this cacophonous dribble by now, or should be.
But I have to say that the way this tragedy dropped into the presidential campaign produced a reaction by Governor Romney that is unique for its maladroitness. The first reaction the GOP candidate had, after 10 p.m. on Wednesday, went like this, even before all the basic facts were collected: “The Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
This statement is not even remotely borne out by the facts. Nothing the President or the Secretary of State said can be even halfway reasonably construed in such a fashion. At a press conference the next morning, Governor Romney was given an opportunity to retract or to conditionalize or soften his statement, and he demurred. The point to be taken here is that even if such a statement described a truth, it still would have been unseemly and politically counterproductive to say it. At times of national tragedy, we gather round the flag and stand together, and any politician on the make who doesn’t get the message and marches off to the beat of a different drummer ends up marching off a cliff. It remains to be seen how much this strange statement will hurt him, but my suspicion is that, on top of the extremely awkward remarks he made in London about Olympic security, it’s going to hurt him quite a bit. The Governor has now given ample evidence that he is diplomatically tone deaf, and some voters, at least, are not going to forget this between now and November 6.
Finally, as promised, a general observation about this sort of tragedy. Those who made this disgraceful film and those in the Middle East and beyond who have reacted to it with murderous violence have something most unfortunate in common: They cannot seem to distinguish individual actors and behaviors from the larger groups with which they are identified. So there are some Muslims, a vanishingly small minority, who have fanatical and murderous intentions toward Americans. And there are some Americans, a vanishingly small minority, who hate Muslims and disparage Islam. And what we have witnessed in recent days is an example of what happens when those among these vanishingly small minorities think that their opposite numbers are in fact majorities. Muslim fanatics imagine that basically all Americans and Westerners hate Muslims and Islam and that the U.S. government is at war against Islam. Anti-Muslim fanatics in Southern California and presumably elsewhere imagine that all Muslims have fanatical and murderous intentions toward Americans. These two bizarre beliefs join in a dance of death, a dialectic of insanity that produces bombed-out consulates, dead diplomats and Lord-know-what else to come.
I remember being warned off this kind of “thinking” in Virginia when I was about 11 or 12 years old. The lesson went something like this. There was a black neighborhood called Hall’s Hill sandwiched between more affluent and completely white neighborhoods. It turned out that there were at one point a lot of bicycles stolen from the white neighborhood, and it turned out that pretty much all the thieves were black. Note that when I was 11 or 12 years old this was 1962 or 1963, not all that long after desegregation had been enforced, and there were still a lot of confused and very hard feelings all around, at least among adults. The conclusion that a lot of whites reached as a result: Blacks are thieves. But if you think about it for about five seconds, you understand that the fact that the vast majority of bicycle thieves in that neighborhood were black did not mean that the vast majority of blacks were thieves—as in all spoiled apples are apples but not all apples are spoiled. This was a lesson in basic logic, yes, but it was also a lesson meant to protect against ambient bigotry.
I took to this lesson without a lot of trouble because I had already understood some of the social anatomy of anti-Semitism in Europe before the Holocaust. Some Jews in certain professions dominated by Jews (like the jewelry trade, for example), comprising a few percent of the whole community, practiced “sharp” business tactics. That did not mean that all Jews were sharpsters, but some entrepreneurial bigots proved quite successful in effacing that logic, and we all know what happened next. Ah, mutatis mutandis, I got the point.
Unfortunately, certain amateur filmmakers and certain Muslim fanatics have yet to get the point. And every time something like what happened earlier this week happens again, they get ever further from getting the point, because they interpret reality as confirming their delusions.Whether this is because they are emotionally disturbed or just dumb as dog shit, or some combination of the two, I don’t know. Maybe, probably even, they never will get the point. And that’s a tragedy for all of us.