Peter Mandaville, PhD, Director of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Islamic Studies at George Mason University and nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, guest blogs on the recent protests through the Middle East and North Africa.
Recent protests against US and European embassies in a number of countries in the Middle East and Muslim world have been linked to an Internet video containing strongly negative depictions of the prophet Muhammad. While many Muslims have quite legitimately taken offense at this movie, the various demonstrations and acts of violence we have seen of late cannot be explained exclusively in terms of a perceived slight against strongly held religious beliefs.
It is true that Islam has historically frowned upon visual depictions of Muhammad due to the religion’s strong aversion to idolatry, but in this case that particular factor is compounded–if not outweighed altogether–by the deeply offensive portrayal of Islam’s final prophet in the film in question. Muhammad is shown as an opportunistic womanizer and homosexual who connives in acts of pedophilia and murder. In this sense, the current video represents the latest installment in a chain of such depictions over the past 25 years–such as the Danish Cartoon Crisis of 2005 and the Satanic Verses Affair of 1988–that have given offense to Muslims.
But like these other events, there is far more going on in these most recent protests than just angry Muslims lashing out against those who have defamed their prophet. The Satanic Verses Affair, for example, cannot be fully understood without paying attention to a wider set of grievances related to perceived discrimination and blocked social mobility within Britain’s South Asian communities in the 1980s. Similar factors were in play with respect to the Danish Cartoon Crisis two decades later, and many of the international protests associated with the latter–in countries such as Pakistan and Syria–later turned out to have been whipped up by local groups and even governments looking for a pretext to attack the West or to distract their populations from problems closer to home.
Likewise, these recent demonstrations need to be understood as multifaceted in terms of the various layers and registers of grievance that are in play. No doubt many involved in these protests took to the streets out of a genuine sense of injury to their religious dignity. But we must not lose sight of the fact that these demonstrations broke out most readily in a set of countries currently undergoing complex and uncertain processes of political transition.
For Yemen and Libya in particular the security situation had been dicey for some time, and both countries contain fringe groups only too keen to seize on any opportunity to attack the U.S. In Egypt the hardcore football fans, known as “ultras,” who played a lead role in breaking into the US Embassy compound were likely motivated in good measure by the fact that–rightly or not–they held Washington to blame for various instances of violence and insecurity in the immediate aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s downfall last year.
Inevitably–and to some extent quite appropriately–much of the conversation around these events will continue to focus on the boundaries of tolerance and blasphemy in Islam and the motivations and agenda of those who produced the film. But we keep the discussion confined exclusively to those issues at the risk of missing the crucially important bigger picture.
Guest posts on our blog are written by individuals with whom we collaborate externally. We publish them to stimulate discussion and debate by exploring ideas. The opinions expressed in them do not necessarily reflect the official position or views of the British Council.