Dear Commons Community,
Ross Douthat makes the case today in his New York Times column that the recent Arab protests are much more than a response to a film mocking fun at Islam and its founder.
“THE greatest mistake to be made right now, with our embassies under assault and crowds chanting anti-American slogans across North Africa and the Middle East, is to believe that what’s happening is a completely genuine popular backlash against a blasphemous anti-Islamic video made right here in the U.S.A.
There is a cringing way to make this mistake, embodied by the apologetic press release that issued from the American embassy in Cairo on Tuesday as the protests outside gathered steam, by the Obama White House’s decision tolean on YouTube to take the offending video down, and by the various voices (including, heaven help us, a tenured Ivy League professor) suggesting that the video’s promoters be arrested for abusing their First Amendment liberties.
But there’s also a condescending way to make the same error, which is to stand up boldly for free speech while treating the mob violence as an expression of foaming-at-the-mouth unreason, with no more connection to practical politics than a buffalo stampede or a summer storm.
There is certainly unreason at work in the streets of Cairo and Benghazi, but something much more calculated is happening as well. The mobs don’t exist because of an offensive movie, and an American ambassador isn’t dead because what appears to be a group of Coptic Christians in California decided to use their meager talents to disparage the Prophet Muhammad.
What we are witnessing, instead, is mostly an exercise in old-fashioned power politics, with a stone-dumb video as a pretext for violence that would have been unleashed on some other excuse…”
Today’s wave of violence, likewise, owes much more to a bloody-minded realpolitik than to the madness of crowds. As The Washington Post’s David Ignatius was among the first to point out, both the Egyptian and Libyanassaults look like premeditated challenges to those countries’ ruling parties by more extreme Islamist factions: Salafist parties in Egypt and pro-Qaeda groups in Libya. (The fact that both attacks were timed to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks should have been the first clue that this was something other than a spontaneous reaction to an offensive video.)
The choice of American targets wasn’t incidental, obviously. The embassy and consulate attacks were “about us” in the sense that anti-Americanism remains a potent rallying point for popular discontent in the Islamic world. But they weren’t about America’s tolerance for offensive, antireligious speech. Once again, that was the pretext, but not the actual cause.
Just as it was largely pointless, then, for the politicians of 1989 to behave as if an apology from Rushdie himself might make the protests subside (“It’s felt,” he recalls his handlers telling him, “that you should do something to lower the temperature”), it’s similarly pointless to behave as if a more restrictive YouTube policy or a more timely phone call from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the anti-Islam film’s promoters might have saved us from an autumn of unrest.
What we’re watching unfold in the post-Arab Spring Mideast is the kind of struggle for power that frequently takes place in a revolution’s wake: between secular and fundamentalist forces in Benghazi, between the Muslim Brotherhood and its more-Islamist-than-thou rivals in Cairo, with similar forces contending for mastery from Tunisia to Yemen to the Muslim diaspora in Europe.
Navigating this landscape will require less naïveté than the Obama White House has displayed to date, and more finesse than a potential Romney administration seems to promise. But at the very least, it requires an accurate understanding of the crisis’s roots, and a recognition that policing speech won’t make our problems go away.”
Douthat has it right!