Muslim Protestors in the Middle East: What's Wrong with This Story?

Perhaps I should begin with what's right with the media coverage of the attacks and protests taking place across the Middle East. What's right is how well the media has captured the almost universal consensus among politicians, religious leaders, and ordinary people around the globe that the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, leading to the deaths of the U.S. Ambassador and several staff members, are abysmal, abhorrent, and appalling, as are some of the other violent responses witnessed in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.

What's wrong with this story is some of the shoddy journalism taking place when it comes to how to frame the larger protests and how these protests are confusingly conflated with the attacks that led to the deaths of Americans in Libya.

The melding together of the two events is perhaps "natural" in light of the dominant media narrative in the West that Islam itself is prone to violence, extremism, and intolerance. Not much care has been taken to examine and analyze the protests themselves apart from the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Libya.

Perhaps such an examination is unnecessary, you might say. After all, the headlines have been crystal clear on this point. Muslims from Cairo to Tunis are angrily protesting the offensive anti-Islam film, made in the U.S., whose trailer was made available on YouTube. But the headlines themselves, not to mention the content of the articles, overwhelmingly reinforce a "clash of civilizations" narrative pitting "us" (Americans) against "them" (the Muslim world). Not only that, they reinforce the narrative of a religion that is inherently incapable of tolerating free speech and knows no other response to criticism than to protest, get angry, and, if necessary, react violently.

A prominent example is an article from the Associated Press that appeared on many news websites recently called "Perceived Insults to Islam Trigger Muslim Anger." It framed the recent events in the Middle East as the continuation of a long list of episodes from the past several decades that demonstrate the intolerance of free speech that Muslims have when the West critiques Islam. The episodes include the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1988), the assassination of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (2004), and the Danish Cartoon backlash (2005-2006).

This is exactly the kind of framing that has the potential to do considerable harm. The cataloging of Muslim violence over perceived insults, and the extraordinarily shallow conclusions drawn by the media and many politicians about the current protests, do little more than fan the flames of Islamophobia. In the meantime, little energy is expended on analyzing and contextualizing these protests in light of the significant political instability and social anxiety that has emerged from the Arab Spring after many decades of oppressive, autocratic governments.

The same can be said for efforts to come to terms with the varied and complex sources of frustration toward U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern political affairs, including past U.S. support for some of these autocratic regimes, and how this frustration is contributing to the anti-American sentiment that is surfacing in many of these protests. The danger, it would seem, in engaging in these types of analyses is that it opens one up to the charge of "blaming America first." It might be portrayed as unpatriotic and weak.

We've got to do better. We must take this opportunity to ask deeper, more substantive questions. Chalking the protests up to intolerant Muslims who are unable to handle freedom of expression misses the point. As protests sweep across countries from Libya and Egypt to Tunisia and Yemen, we must ask ourselves why these protests are happening in these particular places, and why they are happening now. After all, there are close to two billion Muslims globally, almost all of whom have not appeared in news stories because they have had no reaction to this movie, or if they have an opinion, they have kept it to themselves.

Muslims not reacting to inflammatory movies does not drive traffic on news websites or inflammatory blogs, nor does it increase ratings for cable news programs or the readership for print media. Who cares about the diversity of Muslims and their many diverse reactions and non-reactions to this anti-Islam movie?

But we should. We should because it would help us to ask much better questions about what is going on in the Middle East right now. Is this really a question of Muslims protesting only because they feel insulted by one of countless pieces of anti-Islam propaganda that you can find on the Internet? Is this anti-Islam film really that "good"? Must we not also ask why these protests are the most intense in areas that have suffered the most from decades of autocratic rule? Must we not ask why Muslims are protesting in Cairo, but not Chicago or Cologne? After all, don't Muslims live in all of these places too? Shouldn't they also be protesting if the litany of violent acts noted in the AP article reflects something about how Muslims are programmed to react when Westerners insult Islam?

We must go beyond the facile media explanations about intolerant Muslims and start to explore the complex political, economic, historical, and cultural circumstances that have contributed to these particular protests that are taking place in these particular geographies. And we must not be afraid to ask uncomfortable questions about how all of these circumstances have contributed to some of the frustrations and disillusionment that many in the Middle East have when it comes to their perceptions of the U.S. and its involvement in the region. To ask such questions is neither to blame America first nor to sanction the violent actions emerging out of some of the protests. But it is a huge step forward in the quest for peace. Any U.S. endeavor to contribute to a peaceful resolution to these protests in the Middle East must begin with trying to understand the many sources of unrest there.

I do not claim to have the answers to all of the questions I have raised. But these are the conversations we need to have. These are the questions we need to ask. And now is the time for journalists to take the lead in helping us to ask them before the tragic killing of Americans in Libya becomes the prelude to much larger tragedies.