Beyond religion in the Middle East

An Egyptian protester tries to raise an Islamic flag at the U.S. embassy during a protest, in Cairo, Egypt on September 11, 2012.
(Khaled Elfiqi / EPA)

The chaotic violence that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three American staffers in Libya, and that resulted in a mob storming the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, has been garbed in religious language and references. However, the religious rhetoric from all corners distracts from the real issues: serious domestic political fragmentation in Libya and Egypt in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and America’s place in the region.

Media attention has focused on a polemic 14-minute movie trailer for “Innocence of Muslims” posted on YouTube, which prompted protests in Benghazi and Cairo. The film was allegedly produced by Sam Bacile, who has identified himself as an Israeli Jew. In the Wall Street Journal, Bacile called Islam a “cancer” and claimed he raised $5 million from about 100 Jewish donors to fund the film, details that only intensify the film’s polemic power.

The trailer, translated into Arabic and viewed thousands of times in the Middle East, portrays the prophet Muhammad as, among other things, a child abuser. Florida pastor and provocateur Terry Jones, who burned the Koran in 2011, claims to have screened the film; a self-described Christian militant in California claims to have consulted on it.


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As news reports, punditry and Internet reactions fly, the violent response to the trailer in Libya and Egypt will undoubtedly be portrayed as generic Muslim rage rooted in a theology that inspires a special rage and hatred against the West. If more demonstrations erupt in Muslim countries after Friday prayers, there will be further temptation to understand any protests as primarily religious in nature.

But there are other ways to understand what’s going on. The deadly attack in Libya may have been separate from the video protests, preplanned by extremists. In any case, the anti-American demonstrations are not necessarily exhibitions of generic Muslim theological rage as much as they are outbursts occurring for specific reasons in the particular and destabilized local contexts of the post-Arab Spring Middle East and North Africa. And more protests following Friday prayers in these countries are likely to be as much a sign of newfound political engagement as religious zeal.

The Arab Spring produced a complex matrix of political instability in Libya and Egypt, with enormous economic and social reverberations in those nations and their geopolitical relationships and strategies. The anti-American violence in Benghazi and Cairo is mostly a reflection of weakened central governments in the wake of the toppling of long-standing dictators and amid the jockeying for power of a host of actors and organizations.

If the reaction was generically Muslim in nature, Saudi Arabia, the most notable bastion of Sunni orthodoxy vehemently opposed to any depictions of Muhammad, would be the place where the trailer and the film would be expected to first spark controversy. Yet it wasn’t a flash point. Nor have we heard a peep of protest from Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman or Kuwait, Persian Gulf countries with relatively strong central governments that retained a firm grip on power during the Arab Spring.

As the exuberant democracy movements and revolutions in Libya and Egypt transition to the painstaking reality of establishing law and order, the new regimes have to find their feet and their place in the world. The recently elected governments in Libya and Egypt and other countries will work for many years to reestablish law and order, a task complicated in Libya by the deluge of arms floating around the country after the brutal civil war. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, the entrenched military power holders, and secular organizations and individuals will compete to speak for the new state.


At such a time, using religion alone to explain what’s happening is counter-factual and counterproductive. Individuals, mobs and militants on all sides, in the United States as well as in Egypt and Libya, will try to dwell on Islam. Easily inflamed mobs in the Middle East may set back democratization efforts and strip the remade nations of foreign economic investment, tourism and the geopolitical support they need. In America, provocateurs will try to influence public opinion in divisive political times. It is important that policymakers and the news media remain clear-headed that the real issues are instead mostly local and always political.

Mimi Hanaoka is an assistant professor of religious studies and Islam at the University of Richmond in Virginia. She is at work on a book about early Islamic identity in Persia.