The politics of outrage is still an irresistible temptation

Issandr El Amrani writes: One of the hopes – for me at least – of the Arab uprisings is that they will lead to a qualitative change in the substance of Arab politics. I mean this not just in the sense that undemocratic regimes will be undone, replaced by real politics with real stakes and rotation of power. I also mean that I hope the uprisings can short-circuit some old tropes of regional politics, about identity, wounded pride and angry impotence.

Alas, this week’s embassy protests and senseless killings show there is still much farther to go.

Protests and incitement about books, films or statements deemed insulting to Islam have for decades been a staple tool of Islamists, and of both religious and secular governments in the region.

Consider the 2005 Danish cartoon crisis, when thousands took to the streets against offensive cartoon depictions of Prophet Mohammed – months after they had been published. This was fomented in good part by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which, at a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, refocused the region’s attention on a newspaper published four months earlier.

That resulted in protests (apparently backed by both governments and the Islamist movements with which they usually fought). In Syria and Gaza at least, governments apparently allowed several European embassies to be raided. The Danish embassy in Pakistan was also bombed. By early 2006, over 100 had died either as a result of the attacks or because of the efforts to control the riots worldwide.

Other examples quickly come to mind, from the 1988 fatwa by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s campaign in 2000 against Syrian novelist Hayder Hayder’s Banquet for Seaweed.

These usually served political purposes – no doubt Khomeini used the Rushdie fatwa to distract Iranians from the consequences of the terrible war with Iraq he prolonged; the Muslim Brothers loved to embarrass the government for having published Hayder’s book. And in 2005, the Mubarak regime made use of the Danish cartoon crisis just as it was coming under increased domestic and external pressure to democratise.

Islamist movements (even if they are not alone in this) have shown that they excel in using an insult (real or perceived) as part of their culture wars: the tactic is to portray themselves as the sole defenders of the faith. In this week’s case, they chose to do so even though the film in question was released only online and no one would have heard of it or paid attention to it without their efforts. [Continue reading…]

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