Comprehension not condemnation
The Egyptian anti-film riots reveal a systemic anxiety about US-Egypt relations
by Hannah Wilkinson
Monday 1st October 2012, 11:26 BST
The images flooding the media in past weeks have been enough to strike fear into the heart of any observer. Flags burning, Molotov cocktails: the riots in reaction to the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ film have invited a simplistic portrayal of a religion ready to fly into a violent tantrum at the slightest provocation.
Even those conscious to distinguish the peaceful majority of Muslims and those participating in the violence would be excused for feeling deeply uncomfortable at the thought that such a mindless film could provoke so extreme a reaction across the world. Those who believe in freedom of speech accept that religion must be open to criticism. For them, discomfort as a result of the riots might well translate into anxiety regarding Islam’s openness to public debate in the future.
The debate about where the line between provocation and free speech should fall must not be ignored. But equally we must not allow it to frame our understanding of these riots.
Deciding where a line ought to be drawn is never easy. The more we learn about the genesis of this film, the more it looks like a deliberate attempt to provoke a violent reaction. Although its origins are still ambiguous, it appears to have been created primarily by the charity ‘Media for Christ’ and a man named Nakoula Basseley. Nakoula, through whom it has been linked to Coptic Christians living in the US. Its producers spent months attempting to distribute the film in the most provocative manner to the right audience before they finally got the reaction they were looking for.
But accounts by local newspaper reporters who spoke to protestors, especially here in Egypt, suggest many were unaware of the film’s precise origins when they took to the streets. Given this lack of information, the targets for violence and recrimination in Egypt tell more about the deep-seated tensions within a country than of the state of a world religion.
Across the Middle East the main target has been the US. As a foreign student in Cairo who often gets mistaken for an American, I can say from experience that I felt no small concern about the possibility of random attacks on expats. But despite my apprehension I never encountered any recrimination. Since the riots began, people have made a concerted effort to reassure me that I was in no danger. Similar stories of Egyptians making clear the difference between expat and enemy have been circulating student networks in the city.
These enemies are not randomly selected. The chosen targets of the riots are symbols of the US government (embassies and consulates in particular) even though there has never been even an alleged connection between the film and the US government itself.
The anger witnessed on the streets of Cairo is partially rooted in a profound anxiety about Egypt-US relations. It has laid bare the impossible situation of Morsi’s government, which cannot reconcile its relations to the US with anger many Egyptians feel about elements of US influence in their country.
The protests have highlighted an anxiety felt by everyone, about a situation in which no one knows which direction relations are going to go. On such a topic consensus is very difficult; the situation is tense and the government is caught in the middle. On the 13thSeptember, the Newspaper Al-Ahram reported that the Muslim Brotherhood’s English twitter feed seemingly condemned the riots, whilst its Arabic feed actively encouraged Egyptians to ‘rise to defend the prophet’. In the same week Obama labelled Egypt as ‘neither an enemy nor an ally’, summing up the dangerous ambiguity of the situation perfectly.
The Coptic connection is also crucial. That Diaspora Copts were linked to the film’s release stems from a long history of Coptic activism in the Diaspora which has on more than one occasion given rise to Islamaphobia.
The causes and their implications of these riots have to be framed in terms of geopolitics. This must not become an opportunity to judge Islam innocent or guilty.