So. I assume the most recent disappointment in humanity’s string of failures to live up to its potential has crossed most people’s radars, but just to be safe, a rundown before I add any thoughts:
A few days ago, a disgustingly offensive video shitting on Islam and the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) started making its way around the internet. We now know that the man responsible is an Egyptian Coptic Christian (sigh) named Nakoula Basseely Nakoula who lives in Florida, but he initially used a false identity, calling himself Sam Bacile (SIGH), saying he was Israeli-American (SIIIIGH). The video resulted, as I’m sure Nakoula knew it would, in riots, protests, and violence. A lot of people outside the US either aren’t familiar with the First Amendment or have a hard time taking it seriously, having lived all their lives under state-controlled media and some degree of thought policing, so the leap to “how could the Americans allow this” isn’t as far as you’d think. [Update: it seems a lot of people here have assumed it’s a legit Hollywood movie and—bigger assumption—that Americans are just lapping it up. Can’t say I blame them for the assumption, given the kind of crap that does unfortunately happen in the US from time to time, but I wish people would verify these things before getting their riot on. I know, what a hilarious and unlikely notion.] The American ambassador to Libya is dead, along with three others. The embassy here has been the site of major protests; protesters climbed the embassy walls and tore down the American flag. 224 injured protesters is the reported total so far. (The police, who never should have let anybody get to the point of climbing the damn walls, seem to be back on the usual beat of bashing protesters.)
So. Here we are. As I mentioned a while ago, the attempt at misdirection in making up not only an Israeli-American false identity but also uniformly Jewish backers for the film is itself damaging in several ways. It’s the kind of thing that’s laughably obvious to a regular observer of regional politics but will live in conspiracy theories and sidewalk conversations for years. The fact that this guy is an Egyptian Copt honestly makes me want to throw up my hands, give homo sapiens a time out and go home. (His pathetic codename makes me feel like Nick Fury confronted by an incompetent. I’m so beyond unimpressed I can’t even get mad.) Copts’ safety is fragile enough here. There have been anti-Coptic attacks before. It can happen again. If—and this is a big if—the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) decided to extract revenge? I would be hiding Copts in my house and telling them to leave the country. Now, I don’t see that happening in an official or concerted way, but that doesn’t mean that way down the ranks, a leader can’t put a couple of words in some eager-to-please hotheads’ ears and cause a lot of trouble. Or that said hotheads wouldn’t just do it on their own initiative.
So far, the Ikhwan seem to be trying to toe the line between acknowledging the offense enough to satisfy their supporters and themselves, and saying to the outside world (and particularly the US), “We’re safe. We can play in the cool kids’ sandbox with you.” Hence Khairat al-Shater’s NYT op-ed. This is smart strategy for them, though the government—which, while full of Ikhwan, is still not identical with that organization—should really be doing more to make nice with the States. The US gives them an awful lot of financial support and they’ve got a very important conversation with the IMF coming up. At any rate, the Ikhwan’s fence-straddling strategy would work better if they didn’t cock it up like teenagers who haven’t figured out that those facebook pictures will affect their job prospects. Basically, the Ikhwan account was tweeting lots of nice, sympathetic things in English, and expressing outrage/calling for protests/generally agitating in Arabic tweets. Eventually, the American Embassy tweeted at them and said, “You know we can read your tweets in Arabic too, right?” Setting aside my delight at seeing the US embassy and the Ikhwan get into a slap fight on Twitter, and my longing to have been in the room for the diplomatic conversation that approved the sassafras tweet, for the Ikhwan this is bush-league. Please, guys. Better fence-sitting.
The last thing I want to say about this is how profoundly sad it all is. So often I meet Arabs who want to claim some ancestry, any ancestry as long as it’s not Arab (French, Phoenician, Greek, etc). It’s more common among non-Muslims. This is the level of internalized Orientalism and racism that exists. Add in religious tensions and, as you see, it gets ugly. This is the only explanation I really have for why Nakoula seems to have tried to tear the house down. And for what, in the end? As this piece (that one is by an Egyptian—fancy that—and is really, really worth your time) sums up, the upshot of this whole mess is ultimately a step backward:The result is the same: the image of Arabs and Muslims as produced by the Arab Spring is painted over with the old racist/Orientalist brush of the clash of civilizations.