As protests outside US embassies and businesses in Muslim-majority countries continue into their second week, news outlets are now attempting to mine deeper into some of the underlying factors behind the protests. Lamentably, publications like Newsweek have now begun to join the usual cabal of conservative demagogues in sensationalizing the role of Islam, as a religion writ large, as the driving force behind the protests.
Newsweek 's deplorable new cover, shown to the right, has already received a fairly thorough denunciation, ranging from the serious to the satirical, for its grossly generalizing characterization of Islam and its furtherance of disturbing Islamophobic stereotypes through its portrayal of Muslim men. The cover fronts a similarly problematic article by noted anti-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who attempts to explain to readers that, far from being a fringe movement, the protests of the last week represent "the mainstream of contemporary Islam."
To be sure, the role of a violently fundamentalist form of Islam in the past week's deadly protests cannot be ignored. But what is missing from articles like Hirsi Ali's, and from the coverage of virtually every other mainstream news source as well, is not only a push back on the mistaken idea that these protests somehow represent "the mainstream of contemporary Islam," but even the most cursory discussion of the United States' direct role, along with many our of Western allies, in creating the conditions that have allowed for deeply conservative fringe elements within Islam to take root in the first place.
Talking heads from the conservative blogsphere to the State Department are scrambling to define the week's protests as the work of irrational, nigh on psychotic individuals driven by a murderous religious ideology - just try to count the number of times "senseless violence" has made it onto the airwaves in the last week. But despite the reactionary nature of the protests and their potentially murderous consequences, such as the tragedy at the US consulate in Benghazi, attempts to reduce the motivations of the protests to a simple denunciation of Islam not only perpetuate a classically Orientalist view of the Muslim world - uncivilized, irrational, hyper-sensitive, overly emotional - but additionally serve to wholly exculpate the West, the erstwhile opposite to this Orientalist construct, of any part in the creation of the social and political conditions that provide the context for the recent protests. For at their core, the videos of burning tires and tattered American flags, the very images of 'Muslim Rage' being piped into our homes from across the Muslim world, cannot be disentangled from the disastrous legacies of Western colonial and Cold War gamesmanship across the Muslim world.
Before attempting to address these deeper issues, let's take one moment to address the misguided notion that these protests represent, in any way, the "mainstream of contemporary Islam." The best evidence against this claim is, as President Clinton would have it, arithmetic. No news outlets have reported crowd sizes larger than a few thousand at any protests to date. In a world containing more than 1.5 billion Muslims, the statistical value of those individuals turning out in violent protest over the last week is quite literally almost nil. Take the crowds in Cairo, for example. In a city of more than nine million inhabitants, no more than a few thousand turned out for the embassy protests, which The Nation's Sharif Abdel Kouddous suggests have been "relatively small in comparison to the continued demonstrations and strikes across Egypt over more hard-pressing domestic issues."
Kouddous' observations hint at a deeper, more complex understanding of what is currently taking place across the Muslim world. The violent protests of the past week are irreducible to a purely ideological conflict between the West and the rest, including in particular the discredited 'Clash of Civilizations' theory that posits irreconcilable differences between the West and an artificially constructed, monotonic conception of Islam. Extremist religious ideology is obviously a factor in the continuing protests, but beneath the ideological veneer of fundamentalist Islam lie a host of fundamentally material concerns, themselves often the result of decades of Western incursion into the internal social and political affairs of Muslim countries.
Exploration of these material factors and their relationship to violent fringe elements of Islam require, especially for those of us living in the United States or other Western colonial powers, what Marx termed a "ruthless criticism of the existing order." In a letter to German philosopher and political writer Arnold Ruge, Marx elided on this 'ruthless criticism' as "ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be." Because to truly understand what is taking place in the streets from Benghazi to Jakarta, we need to begin with a good, long look in the mirror.
For the better part of a century, the United States' legacy in the Muslim world has been one of fundamental paradox and hypocrisy. At its core lies the tension between the ostensible values of Western liberalism - including individual liberty, equality, and rights; democracy; pluralism; and an abiding commitment to free-market capitalism - and the depths to which the West has been willing to betray these values in order, so we are told, to vouchsafe their future.
With today's neocons all abuzz at the prospect of political Islam's increasing influence in regional politics - the Muslim Brotherhood's recent election in Egypt, the continuing hold of Hamas on the open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip - it may come as a shock to many that the United States spent several decades in the mid-twentieth century doing its darnedest to help destabilize key secular governments across the Muslim world in the name of advancing the self-same values trumpeted in the last decade during our disastrously misguided invasion of Iraq.
Secular nationalism, often with an explicitly Arab focus within the Middle East, was one of the Muslim world's most potent political forces through the mid-twentieth century. But, much to the dismay of the power brokers in Washington and London, in many Muslim-majority countries this nationalism often contained a deeply ingrained anti-colonial bent, a preference toward international non-alignment, and a profound mistrust of the corporate capitalism which had effectively replaced colonial governments as the primary agents of resource extraction from the wealth of natural resources resting, quite inconveniently, under the soil of newly sovereign Muslim-majority nations. So in order to quash any potential communitarian leanings in these fledgling states, one unacceptable result of which tended to be the nationalization of these natural resources, the United States initiated a systematic campaign of regime change across the Muslim world, replacing revolutionary, leftist, and center-left secular governments with some of the twentieth century's most repressive political figures and regimes.
In Iran, the CIA-backed coup of 1953 - itself a response to the nationalization of Iran's vast oil resources, hitherto controlled by the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), and since re-branded as BP - not only restored an absolute monarchy, complete with a bloodthirsty new state security apparatus, but it effectively shattered the political power of Iran's leftist and center-leftist communist and social democratic movement. Some two and a half decades later, the inevitable blow-back from the orchestrated collapse of Iran's leftist political organizations and the brutal autocracy of the reinstated Shah's regime assumed the form of the deeply anti-colonial, radical Islamist revolution of 1978. The Iranian Revolution fundamentally transformed the nature of political Shia Islam, resulting in a dramatically re-constituted approach to political change that substituted armed insurrection for the ballot box.
In Egypt, the United States' initial suspicion of President Gamal Abdul Nasser's eponymous brand of Arab Nationalism devolved through the 1950s and 60s into outright hostility. The United States' strategic alliance with Israel resulted in a failed bid for what Nasser considered to be adequate US military and economic aid to Egypt, signaling the beginning of the end for the Nasserist preference for non-alignment, and pushing Egypt's government closer to the Soviets. The Soviet's ready willingness to arm Egypt, combined with U.S. underlying concern over Nasser's role as a figurehead for Arab Nationalism, prompted the United States' policy of seeking to undermine Nasser's government in favor of a more cooperative regime. After Nasser's death in 1970, Egypt's new president, Anwar Al-Sadat, sought closer ties with the United States by embracing a policy of non-aggression toward Israel, and welcoming foreign investment in Egypt through a dramatically realigned and increasingly capitalist economic model. Sadat's realignment away from the Soviet Union initiated an era of steadily increasing military aid to Egypt, which continued through the fall of Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. Both Sadat and Mubarak continued a policy of brutal repression of radical Islamist elements within Egypt begun under Nasser, but during Sadat's tenure in office, as Egypt began to shift from a Soviet to a US-oriented foreign and domestic policy, Sadat began to systematically cultivate relationships with more moderate Islamist elements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to provide a buffer between himself and leftist opposition movements within Egypt.
In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, the United States was directly complicit in the deposition of president Sukarno - whose political philosophy of Nasakom attempted to wed anti-colonial nationalism and communism with political Islam. During the slaughter of at least a half million people in the anti-Communist purges that followed, the American Embassy in Jakarta supplied the pro-Western Indonesian military forces with lists of up to 5,000 suspected Communists.
And after the establishment of the Marxist-Leninist government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and the subsequent Soviet invasion to quell Islamist resistance, it was none other than the United States who directly armed and financed loosely aligned groups of Afghan mujahideen, including Osama Bin Laden and elements that would eventually comprise the Taliban, through one of the longest and most expensive covert operations in the CIA's history.
The legacy of this deplorable history of US meddling in the internal affairs of Muslim-majority nations is the creation of the social, political, and ultimately the material conditions in which the disparate ideologies of radical, fundamentalist Islam have been able to thrive. Pundits and politicos who see, flanking a burning US consulate or screaming from the front cover of Newsweek, the faces of irrational, ideological psychopaths, fail to grasp the material realities that have led us to this point, spurred on by time and again by the political gamesmanship of the ultimate political embodiment of advanced capitalism.
As Terry Eagleton eruditely explains in Reason, Faith, and Revolution:
It was the West which helped radical Islam flourish by recruiting it as a force against so-called communism - a label used to describe any country which dared to espouse economic nationalism against Western corporate capitalism. It was the West, too, which be ensuring the overthrow of those secular governments in the Muslim world that either tolerated communists or refused to align with the West (Sukarno in Indonesia, Nasser in Egypt), or which preached even a mild form of economic nationalism (Mossadegh in Iran), narrowed the space for secular politics in such societies and thus assisted the emergence of Islamist ideology.This criticism of the United States' role in the eventual collapse of secular leftist regimes in the Muslim world should not be taken as a full-throated endorsement of the politics or policies of the regimes the US replaced. Nor should the secularizing tendencies of among these movements, and the Arab nationalist movement in particular, be considered wholly the provenance of the political and religious left. Several early currents with the broader thrust of Arab nationalism, such as the Syrian Ba'ath Party and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, were influenced by the fascist movements arising in Germany and Italy, for example.
And yet, despite the strains of authoritarianism, internal repression, and intermittent wars with Israel that hallmarked some, though certainly not all, of these deposed governments, the regimes installed by the United States have proven themselves across the board to be willing to stray even further from the ideals of Western liberalism in order to assure their continued hold on power. Similarly, the moderate secular, leftist, and revolutionary governments systematically ousted to suit the West's political and economic ends can't hold a candle to the brutally repressive, xenophobic, patriarchal theocracies either decried by the US - such as the Taliban or the current Iranian regime - or, as is the case with Saudi Arabia, implicitly sanctioned by the United States for its willingness to play nice with its oil reserves.
The solution to violent religious fundamentalism, to paraphrase Eagleton, lies in the enactment of secular justice. Thanks in large part to the machinations of Western powers, secular, leftist, and revolutionary forces within the Muslim world have proven unable to test the ultimate ends of their political experiments in achieving the justice for which so many continue to hunger.
In a very real sense, the Arab Spring should be heralded as a possible vanguard of the resurgence of viable moderate, secular, and in some places openly liberal political actors in the Middle East. But as long as the United States and its allies continue to treat the Muslim world with an out-moded colonial mindset - as little more than an inconveniently combustible repository of our rightful natural resources, or as a theater for proxy wars with other great powers - we are doomed not only to witness further outbreaks of this 'Muslim rage,' but to forever fail, at the most fundamental level, to recognize the fact that the West bears an undeniable responsibility for the social, political, economic, and ultimately the material circumstances that allow violent ideologies of this sort to flourish on the margins of the world's religions.