Mimi Hanaoka '02 on the Motivations of Middle East Violence

The Los Angeles Times: Beyond Religion in the Middle East

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. ...

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. ...

Mimi Hanaoka '02 is an assistant professor of religious studies in Islam at the University of Richmond.