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Myriam Francois-Cerrah Headshot

Demonstrating For Dignity: Why Are Muslims So Enraged?

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Muslims eh, they just cant seem to take a joke can they? It would be very easy to cast, as many ‎commentators have, the latest riots in response to the islamophobic film, as another example of ‎intolerant Muslims lacking a funny bone. The Rushdie affair, the Danish cartoons, the murder of ‎Van Gogh - surely the latest saga fits neatly into a pattern of evidence suggesting Muslims are over ‎sensitive and violent. After all, critics will argue, Christians are regularly derided through the arts ‎and media and they don't go around burning embassies and killing people. Only the situation is ‎hardly analogous. The power relations in which a dominant majority can be perceived as insulting ‎and humiliating a disgruntled and feeble minority, cannot be ignored in the analysis of Muslim ‎responses to offensive art works. But the truth is, the protests across the Arab world are about ‎much more than the usual 'free speech' Vs 'Islam' blah. In fact, at the ‎heart of the unrest is a powerful current of anti-Americanism rooted in imperialist policies and ‎bolstered dictatorships.‎

Firstly, although the film may have been the catalyst for the riots, it would be wrong to assume ‎that all the riots have exactly the same cause. The murder of American embassy staff in Libya ‎appears to have been the work of an Al Qaida fringe which had been plotting the revenge of one ‎its senior leaders and used the protest against the film as a smokescreen for its attack. What ‎brought regular Libyans to the embassy was undoubtedly initially, opposition to the film. However ‎there and elsewhere, the anger of the masses has appeared to morph into something much ‎broader - a reflection of anti-American sentiment grounded in the USA's historically fraught ‎relationship to the region.‎

This is hardly the first demonstration of anger against ‎Western targets in any of the countries at hand, it is only possibly amongst the most mediatised ‎because of the spin placed on the story, represented as it has been, as some sort of reflection of ‎the fundamental intolerance of Islam.

For those with a short memory, it was only last month that a pipe bomb exploded outside the US ‎embassy in Libya and both the Red cross and other Western aid organisations have come under fire there in ‎recent months. It is certainly a misnomer to think that NATO intervention in support of the rebels ‎against Gaddhafi somehow erased deep-seated grievances against the US, not least the sense of ‎humiliation of the Arab world against decades of Western domination. Sure, we may have helped ‎get rid of Gaddhafi when it was expedient, but for a long time, we traded quite happily with the ‎man whilst he brutally repressed his people. In some cases, we even helped him do it. A recent ‎Human Rights Watch report, Delivered into Enemy Hands: US-Led Abuse and Rendition of ‎Opponents to Gaddafi's Libya details the stories of Libyan opposition figures tortured in US-run ‎prisons in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and then delivered back to Libya, with full-awareness that ‎they were going to be tortured or possibly killed. Even in the "new Libya", not all sections of the ‎Revolution feel the outcome of the elections was truly representative of popular feeling.

Not to ‎mention Egypt, where Mubarak, whom Hilary Clinton once described as a "close family friend", ‎tortured and killed innumerable dissidents in a US backed dictatorship which had been the second ‎largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel since 1979. To think the elections which happened ‎just months ago would transform popular opinion concerning the US's role in the region is ‎ludicrous. And that's before we even get to Iraq.‎

Broken by poverty, threatened by drones, caught in the war between al Aaida and the US, to many ‎Arab Muslims, the film represents an attack on the last shelter of dignity - sacred beliefs - when all ‎else has been desecrated. ‎

It is no surprise that some of the worst scenes of violence come from Yemen, where US policy has ‎resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, fuelling anger against a regime whose brutality and ‎corruption has left the country ranking amongst the poorest in the Arab world. Given that it is also ‎one of the countries where people have the least access to computers and the internet, it is also ‎entirely likely that many protestors never even saw the film. It also seems unlikely anyone ‎believed the film was actually produced by the American government. Though many might have ‎believed the US government could act to restrict the film's diffusion, censorship being altogether ‎common in many of these countries, the focus on American symbols - embassies, American ‎schools - even KFC - suggests the roots of popular anger, is not hurt religious pride. These ‎symbols of America were not the unwitting target of frustration over a film - rather the film has ‎provided an unwitting focal point for massive and widespread anger at US foreign policy in the ‎region. If the Arab revolutions let the dictators know exactly how people felt about their ‎repression, these demonstrations should be read as equally indicative of popular anguish with the ‎US's role in the region.‎

The film is merely the straw that broke the camel's back - to stand in consternation at the fact a ‎single straw could cripple such a sturdy beast is to be naïve or wilfully blind to the accumulated ‎bales which made the straw so hard to carry. ‎

This is not an attempt to minimise the offense caused by the film - Mohamed is a man whose ‎status in the eyes of many Muslims, cannot be overstated. When your country has been bombed, ‎you've lost friends and family, possibly your livelihood and home, dignity is pretty much all you ‎have left.‎

The producers of the film may have known very little about film-making, but they knew lots about ‎how to cause a stir. Despite its obscure origins, mediatised references to an "Israeli" director living ‎in the US, to a "100 Jewish donors" who allegedly provided "5 million dollars", to a hazy "Coptic ‎network" - all played into a well-known register. When 2 out of five Arabs live in poverty, a 5 million ‎dollar insult has more than a slight sting to it.‎

Those who sought to bring winter to an Arab spring and possibly destabilise a US election, were ‎keenly aware of the impact those words would have, situating the film within on-going tensions ‎between Israel and the Arab world and stirring up the hornet's nest of minority relations in a ‎region where they remain unsettled.‎

In a tweet, Atheist academic Richard Dawkins decried the events by lambasting "these ‎ridiculous hysterical Muslims". In so doing, he, like others, not only failed to read these events for ‎what they are - political protests against US meddling, but he also failed to recognise the basic ‎humanity of the protestors. To dismiss deep anger as mere hysteria is to diminish to decades of ‎oppression experienced by many Muslims, particularly in the Arab world, often with US complicity.‎

If you deny any relationship between the systematic discrimination of Muslims and stigmatization ‎of Islam and the overreaction of the Muslim community to offensive jokes, or films, or cartoons, ‎then you are only left with essentialist explanations of Muslim hysteria and violence. These ‎protests aren't about a film - they're about the totality of ways in which Muslims have felt ‎humiliated over decades.‎

Reporting on the "incident" as somehow indicative of Islam's essential incompatibility with the ‎West not only conveniently omits the realities of Muslim oppression globally, but also reinforces ‎them in many ways. Before we start searching for the nebulous network behind the film, or the ‎reasons why "Muslims are so prone to getting offended", we would do better to actually search ‎for the conditions that have contributed to rendering the mass dehumanization of particular group ‎of people socially unobjectionable and do well to remember that the right to protest, angrily even, ‎is just as central to the concept of free speech, as the right to make offensive movies.‎