Cutting through the anti-Muslim propaganda

Deepa Kumar, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, examines the media coverage of protests across the Middle East--and points up the lies and caricatures.

Protesters gather outside the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, YemenProtesters gather outside the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, Yemen

PROTESTS OVER the vile racist film Innocence of Muslims that began outside U.S. diplomatic institutions in Egypt and Libya have spread across the world, from Bangladesh and India to Iran, Iraq and Morocco.

The mainstream media in the U.S., from Fox News to National Public Radio, have framed these protests through the simplistic lens of "anti-American violence in the Muslim world." This framing communicates an entire world view that is taken for granted.

First, it discredits protest against the U.S. by painting the demonstrators as violent. This focus on the violence and on the sensational allows the media to conveniently skip over the complex reasons why people in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa might be angry with the U.S.

This particular racist film--which portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, a pedophile, a bumbling idiot, and a bloodthirsty fanatic and anti-Semite--is the tip of the iceberg. It has become a symbol of the disrespect with which the U.S. holds people in Muslim-majority countries, and it has brought to the fore deep-seated grievances over how the U.S. conducts itself in the Middle East and elsewhere. Yet this complexity is left out in favor of simplistic explanations and caricatures.

Second, by using the term "Muslim world," the media invite us to look at people in Muslim-majority societies primarily through the lens of religion. While sections of the demonstrators are there to express outrage at the film, the focus on Islamist involvement in the protests to the exclusion of other voices casts this as a religious rather than a political confrontation. Thus, the protesters are presented not as political actors, but religious zealots.

Third, what follows from this is that the U.S. is an innocent victim--a misunderstood champion of democratic rights, secularism and free speech under attack from the irrational fanaticism that we have come to expect from "those Muslims."

In short, what is a political clash is turned instead into a cultural conflict and the "clash of civilizations" between the secular West and the religious and backward "Muslim world."

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SPEAKING ABOUT the Libya attacks, particularly the deadly assault in Benghazi, which was the capital of the rebellion against former dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "I ask myself, how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?"

Fully 11 years after the events of 9/11, the same question is being asked about why people in the Middle East might be angry with the U.S., and the same ridiculous explanations are on offer--it is a clash of values, a clash of civilizations.

In 2001, George Bush explained: "They hate...a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

A few days ago, Clinton said: "All over the world, every day, America's diplomats and development experts risk their lives in the service of our country and our values, because they believe that the United States must be a force for peace and progress in the world, that these aspirations are worth striving and sacrificing for. Alongside our men and women in uniform, they represent the best traditions of a bold and generous nation."

The difference between the two statements, it seems, is that the "clash of civilization" rhetoric has developed in these 11 years from a supposed hatred of our freedoms right here to a hatred of our soldiers and diplomats over there.

What has also changed is that the "self-appointed leaders" Bush refers to have faced challenges from the uprisings that began in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011. U.S.-backed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt were swept from power by people's movements and a reluctant U.S. went along with the changes, backing counter-revolutionary forces in an attempt to control the outcome.

You wouldn't know that to hear the new "buyer's remorse" for alleged U.S. support of the "Arab Spring." The protests today are being presented as the inevitable outcome of an unruly people when the iron hand of the dictator has been removed. The logic of course is that "some people are just not ready for democracy."

At first, Clinton, in an effort to win Arab public opinion, said that the Libya attacks were the work of "a small and savage" group, and that Libyans in general are good. The familiar lines were redrawn between "good Muslims" and "bad Muslims," and a slew of "good Muslims" were trotted out on television to sing praises to the U.S. effort to "bring democracy" to the "Muslim world," and to apologize for the acts of the fundamentalists.

The formula is so predictable it might as well be a soap opera.

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THE SECOND episode of the soap focused on distancing the film Innocence of Muslims from overall U.S. values. Hillary Clinton declared: "The United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message."

The White House then asked Google, the owner of YouTube, to "review" its posting of the film. The assumption here is that when Muslims watch such caricatures of their religion, they leap up like crazed fanatics and go out and kill people and destroy property. After all, they are not civilized enough to appreciate our values of free speech.

So what begins with a focus on "bad Muslim" and "savages" then becomes generalized to the whole childlike population that must be protected from themselves. As the poet Rudyard Kipling put it over a century ago, the colonized is "half devil, half child." The "half child" must be taught to appreciate our civilized values.

As the liberal commentator E J. Dionne put it on NPR: "I think this situation is particularly complicated for our country because we believe both in free speech, even for vile speech, but we also believe in religious toleration and respect for the faiths and non-faith of others. And I think we have a problem because a lot of people in Muslim countries aren't used to a government that doesn't have to approve all speech."

What gets omitted from this picture is that Innocence of Muslims is a product of the far right in the U.S. It is not an anomaly in an otherwise secular and tolerant nation. Rather, it joins a slew of similar films and other propaganda--such as the Third Jihad, which was shown to NYPD recruits as part of their training--produced by a well-funded Islamophobic network.

The main producer of the film, Steve Klein, is an anti-Muslim bigot who, as Max Blumental writes, emerged from the same axis of Islamophobia that produced Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing terrorist responsible for a mass murder that cost 77 lives. There is a well-funded international network of anti-Muslim groups that are just as reactionary as the most hardline Islamic fundamentalists.

In the U.S., the Islamophobic network attacked mosques and incited fear and hatred. Just last month, a mosque in Joplin, Mo., was burned to the ground, and six Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wis., were killed by a neo-Nazi. Since 2010, there has been a 50 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes.

The far right everywhere has a proclivity to burn things down and kill people, it seems--but don't expect to see this portrayed in the mainstream media. While there will be continued reporting on the shady dealings of the people involved in the production of this anti-Muslim film, we are unlikely to see systematic coverage of the far right in the U.S., much less a reference to these vile people as "savages."

That would upset the soap-opera formula, because then the land of liberty, free speech, democracy and apple pie would be just as complex a society as Muslim-majority countries where a range of political attitudes occupy the spectrum.

It would mean admitting that there are extremists right here who stand for more or less the same things that the Islamic fundamentalists stand for. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that there are over 1,000 far-right hate groups in the U.S.

But the protests in the Middle East and North Africa since the Libya incident should not be reduced to a "clash of fundamentalisms" either. It is not simply the U.S. far right provoking the Islamist far right to respond. Rather, thousands who have come out to demonstrate against U.S. embassies and diplomatic missions in the region are expressing their frustration against the part the U.S. government has played in propping up counter-revolutionary forces in the region.

When the Arab uprisings began in late 2010 and early 2011, the U.S. believed that its dictator ally in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, would hold on to power. The Obama administration didn't take a position against Mubarak--in fact, it even stood by him. After the first rounds of protests, Clinton emphasized the need for an "orderly" and "peaceful" transition"--in other words, time for the U.S. to find a suitable pro-U.S. replacement for Mubarak.

While the Obama administration rhetorically welcomed the "Arab Spring," the strategy was to control the outcome of the uprisings so that the example of Tunisia and Egypt, and the model of mass uprising for social change, would be limited to the spring of 2011.

The U.S. has consequently supported the forces of counter-revolution. In 2011, the U.S. sent three shipments of weapons to the Egyptian military that were used to lethally attack protestors. It has also stood by the counter-revolutionary efforts of its allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is headquartered, Saudi troops were brought in to drench the uprising in blood--and the U.S. turned a blind eye.

This is not the first time the U.S. has played such a role. In the 1950s, workers' struggles in Saudi Arabia were defeated by the Saudi monarchy with the help of the American oil company ARAMCO. A "free princes" movement to bring about very rudimentary democratic reforms in that country was similarly squelched with U.S. assistance.

Democracy and oil don't go together as far as the U.S. elite is concerned--as the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup to depose the democratically elected Iranian head of state Mohammed Mossadegh shows.

Could this history of U.S. involvement be behind the anger and protests that have swept the region? Such explanations are hard to find in the mainstream media. While the New York Times admitted that the "broadening of the protests appeared to reflect a pent-up resentment of Western powers in general" in a front-page story on September 15, the images that cover more than half the page are of angry bearded Muslim men, fire and ashes, and burning U.S. flags.

Reminiscent of the coverage of the 1979 Iranian revolution, political actors with legitimate grievances are reduced to angry Islamic mobs.

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EPISODE THREE of the unfolding soap involved an attempt to control the spread of protests. The U.S. sent troops to Yemen and Sudan, with Clinton stating, "The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob," distancing the protesters from the rest of the population who are to be "rescued" by the U.S.

She also called on the "good Muslims" to act. As she put it, "Reasonable people and responsible leaders in these countries need to do everything they can to restore security and hold accountable those behind these violent acts." What it means to be "reasonable" is to shut up and fall in line behind the U.S.

Perhaps she misses Mubarak, whom she has referred to in the past as a "family friend," and who would have known how to use ruthless violence and torture to subdue political dissent.

Also absent from the mainstream media discussion is the part played by the U.S. in funding, arming and training Islamists during the Cold War. The Holy Warriors who fought the U.S. proxy war against the USSR in the 1980s were assembled and trained by the CIA and Pakistani ISI. The key recruiter to the Afghan war was none other than Osama bin Laden, a valued CIA asset, who would go on to form al-Qaeda.

Yet there is nary a peep about the part played by the U.S. in strengthening these forces.

Eleven years after 9/11, the media are still asking the same question: Why do they hate us? And the same tired answer is being provided, but this time by the liberal imperialists wielding the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric with perhaps greater skill than their neocon predecessors.

First published at Empire Bytes.