Sunday, September 30, 2012

Beyond Muslim Rage

What often lies at the center of media attention isn’t necessarily the aspect worth our consideration and thought. The media coverage of the recent anti-US demonstrations in the Middle East is a good case in point. It focused on the details of the anti-Islamic film "Innocence of Muslims" (an obscure film which mocked Islam and its Prophet Muhammad), and the furious, in some cases violent, response of Muslims, but ignored other more important aspects.

To a large extent, the protestors, the real actors on the stage, have disappeared from the radar of political commentary. While still recognizing the significance of analyzing states, institutions, and power games among nations, the individual remains a crucial unit of analysis mostly overlooked by today's mass media as they feverishly compete with each other to hunt for dramatic news, in order to increase their ratings and attract more viewers and advertisers.

Infotainment, merging information with entertainment, distorts the news and doesn’t dig deep to provide thorough coverage and in-depth analysis. The commercial, profit-driven newspapers and TV channels reduced the anti-film protestors to unthinking thugs, who are full of hatred, and who intend, if given the chance, to inflict harm upon non-Muslims.

These negative, racial stereotypes are misleading. There are many other perspectives that sound journalistic coverage can use to analyze the behavior of the angry protestors who stormed US embassies in Egypt, Libya and other Muslim countries recently.  

First, protestors were not only furious because they felt their faith had been insulted. This is just a fraction of the truth. The film was, undoubtedly, provocative and disrespectful of Islam. The deep-rooted resentment of US foreign policy weighed heavily, whether consciously or not, on the minds of those who burned the US flag and threw stones on its embassies in Cairo and Benghazi. US support of Israel, its apparent indifference to the plight of the Palestinians, and its overall hegemonic policies in the Middle East have bred hostility to the US and deep suspicion of its intentions. Had the film been produced in, say, Ghana, Ukraine or Brazil, countries whose past interactions with the Muslim world haven’t been marred with distrust and ill-feelings, the response of Muslims would have been muted.  
Secondly, the violent clashes that lasted for days in the Egyptian capital cannot be understood without taking into consideration the decades-long popular enmity with the security forces. Egypt's gigantic security apparatus has had a shameful record of intimidation, torture, and misconduct for decades. The eruption of the 2011 revolution on January 25, National Police Day, came as no surprise. During the revolution, moreover, hundreds of mostly young Egyptians were brutally killed at the hands of the police. The painful moments of their death cannot be easily erased from the memories of their families and friends.   

Accordingly, going into battle with security forces has become a national hobby to many of Egypt's disgruntled youth who seek retaliation. As the footage of the recent clashes show, what started as a protest against the insult to Prophet Mohamed quickly turned into a collective fight-or-flight response with the police.  

Thirdly, the overwhelming sense of defeat as a civilization felt by Arab people left a deep scar on their collective psyche. Despite several ambitious development attempts in the past two centuries, progress has generally eluded the Arab world, as its people watched Western nations and Asian tigers make great leaps in economic development and scientific innovation.  

The contrast between a glorious past and a miserable present led Egyptians to ask a number of vital soul-searching questions, such as: Why is the scientific and economic gap between us and the First World so enormous? And why has it widened over the past years? People normally seek spiritual solace in times of crisis. Many Egyptians resorted to Islam, finding comfort and consolation in the teachings and promises of their faith.

To be sure, the question of identity figures prominently in the actions, reactions, attitudes and worldviews of young Arabs and Egyptians. The aversion to Western culture, particularly consumerism and sexual liberties, is commonplace in the Middle East. Westernization has been on the rise for many decades. It has permeated nearly all aspects of life, including culture, education, and lifestyle. Islamists perceive this as a threat to the unity and purity of the Muslim community and act accordingly. Interestingly, the Sudanese protestors broke into the German embassy, not the American, for they perceive the West as superior, homogeneous and hostile. An attack on Islam is seen as a direct attack by the 'other' on their safe spiritual haven that must be resisted.

Shallow media coverage perpetuates stereotyping and prejudice. We should expose it, challenge it, and change it.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Global Times (China) on September 26, 2012.