Protests in the Muslim World Aren't About Hatred -- They're About Dignity

News Abroad


Maurice Jr. M. Labelle is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Saskatchewan’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Culture and Creativity. He is currently working on a book that explores how the United States became an “imperial” power in Lebanese imaginations after independence.

Protest march in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on September 24. Credit: Flickr/vikalpasl.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula’s derogatory and hateful movie trailer, Innocence of Muslims, has generated much discussion in both the United States and the Muslim world at large, and rightfully so. The YouTube clip blatantly demeans Islam, the Prophet Mohammad, and Muslims. In both the United States and the Muslim world, the disgraceful video and proceeding violence have been predominantly denounced non grata.

But Muslim protests against Nakoula’s production have continued. And to the bewilderment, disappointment, and even irritation of many Americans, so did those against Washington, in spite of its clear non-involvement in the production of the offensive film.

There has been much subsequent debate in the United States over the motivation behind the protests embroiling the Arab and Muslim world. Pundits have offered many explanations. Unfortunately, some have even resurrected the repugnant “clash of civilizations” thesis. Others have invoked the myth of Arab exceptionalism, which purports that Arab societies are inherently unsuitable for democracy, let alone receptive to universal freedom of speech. It's hard to escape the conclusion that Arabs and Muslims maintain the same place in the U.S. public sphere that Edward Said outlined eloquently thirty-five years ago. Left out of this conversation, however, is a long-standing issue that is central to understanding not only contemporary demonstrations, but also the historical relationship between the U.S. government and Arab and Muslim societies: that is, popular frustrations toward Washington’s perceived disregard for their human dignity.

Immediately following the release of Innocence of Muslims on YouTube, violent protests in Egypt, and the subsequent tragic killings of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. Foreign Service officers in Benghazi, leading political and religious figures throughout the Muslim world urged their followers to acknowledge Washington’s non-involvement with the video and ultimately exercise self-control. And a vast majority of them did.

Yet the video itself still loomed in cyber space. Sensitive to slights real and perceived from the United States, many of the still-enraged protesters maintain that the very existence of the video violates their human dignity.

In a televised address, U.S. secretary of state Hilary Clinton responded:

Now, I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from seeing the light of day… our country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law, and we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.

While Clinton’s speech clearly condemned the anti-Muslim film as being “’disgusting” and “reprehensible,” the U.S. government’s decision to not publicly petition YouTube and actively promote the withdrawal of Innocents of Muslims from the transnational space of social media exacerbated Muslim frustrations. This alleged inaction in part explains why, from the day after Clinton’s speech onward, mass demonstrations against the United States unfolded throughout the Muslim world. In Lebanon, for example, a handful of assailants set fire to a Kentucky Fried Chicken and Hardee’s in the northern coastal town of Tripoli, while shouting slogans against Washington. Elsewhere, Palestinians in southern Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp burned an effigy of U.S. president Barack Obama. And Hezbollah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, called for a one-week, nation-wide protest against both the hateful YouTube clip and Washington’s perceived unsympathetic approach toward Muslim peoples and their beliefs.

While it is important to question Nasrallah’s true motives and condemn horrible acts of violence in general, one cannot and should not ignore why so many Muslims all over the world demonstrated against Washington this past week, or forget their powerful, long-standing frustrations with the United States. For far too long, they have resented Washington’s failure to take them seriously. Obama’s perceived choice to privilege the freedom of expression of a few U.S. citizens over the human dignity of Muslims conveys a message to the latter that is contradictory to his condemnation of anti-Islamism. Washington’s failure tells many in the Muslim world that the United States perceives them as being inferior, second-class human beings.

Despite Innocence of Muslims’ ludicrous content and message, ongoing calls for its withdrawal from YouTube must be taken seriously by the United States for one simple reason: Muslims have taken it very seriously. They do not want -- or need -- a civics lesson in freedom of expression from the United States. What they ask is that Washington simply display genuine respect toward them and respond to anti-Islamism accordingly.

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