What have we learned from “The Innocence of Muslims”? As so often, too much and too little. We’ve learned that Muslims get enraged when Muhammad is ridiculed, but they don’t get too enraged even though their rage is justified. Just not so much by the ridicule of the Prophet of Islam as by the terrible economic and political conditions in which they live or possibly by American policies of bombing, one-sidedly supporting Israel, or using drones to kill suspected terrorists. Or possibly Western Islamophobia. It's a little hard to follow everything we've learned.
We’ve also learned that the movie is highly offensive, semi-pornographic, and has very poor production values. Also that, until two weeks ago, the total number of people who had ever seen it numbered less than 100. Oh, and that it wasn’t made by Israeli or American Jews but by five American and Egyptian Christians.
One thing we haven’t heard very much about, at least in the US and Europe, is the context within which the attack on the US Embassy occurred. Or its possible implications for the future of political life. And with good reason: if we heard more about the context and the implications we’d also have to dispense with “the Muslims”, “the Arabs”, and “the West” and focus a bit more sharply on particular people, groups, and interests. And surprisingly enough despite decades of intense discussion about Orientalism, essentialism, and the need for specificity as soon as there’s violence, the default mode is airy generalities and broad simplifications. I’m going to write about Egypt, not Libya. Some day I’ll explain why this limitation is an important theoretical position, but this isn’t the day.
So, how exactly did it come to pass that a movie of whose very existence the world was innocent until three weeks ago became the cause of an attack on the US Embassy in Egypt (as well as more tragic events in Libya which—as I said—I’m not in a position to discuss)? Unlike Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses”, this wasn’t the arrival of a widely anticipated piece of artistic expression and unlike the Danish cartoons it didn’t appear in broad daylight, unbidden perhaps, on the doorstep or at the local tobacconist’s shop. No, you really had to go out of your way to search for this. Far out of your way. Google is of course very helpful and if you do search for “Muhammad” and “child molester” it will return something like 85,000 items but it probably wouldn’t have returned this film before two weeks ago.
So who appears to have gone out of their way? An Egyptian Islamist preacher, Khalid Abdallah who brought it up on his television channel “al-Nas” is one. Abdallah hails from the far reaches of the Salafi world which expresses more than the common prejudice against Christians that many Egyptian Muslims share without thinking about it very much. In Abdallah’s world Christians, a minority of about 10 percent in Egypt, are a threat to the Muslim majority: if not kept in their place they will uproot Islam itself. Abdallah was not alone in exploiting the existence of the previously unknown trailer. Within days other television shaykhs had joined in. Wagdi Ghoneim devoted an hour to the film which is available on You-Tube after its connection to a handful of Egyptian and American Christians had become clear. Beginning with an invocation to “the pigs of the Coptic diaspora” his intervention rapidly descended further downhill. Another religious personality,
For Ghoneim, as for most Egyptians, the revolution has been at once liberating and threatening. It’s liberating because it gave them the possibility of voicing their thoughts without anywhere near as much censorship as in the past. But it’s also threatening because other people also now have the same possibilities. And one of the areas that Egyptians have been thinking about a lot and will be thinking about more in the days to come is very broadly described as the role of Islam and politics. Very specifically how will the new constitution define the role of Islam in relation to law, what institutions (if any) will it endow with the right of defining Islam for the state, and what kinds of policies will governments adopt as they must implement what will also be a constitutional provision mandating the equality of Egyptians regardless of religion (among other enumerated categories)?
And this brings us back to Ghoneim’s fears. Since January 2011 Egypt’s Christians have been remarkably assertive. Many individuals either ignored or broke with their own church hierarchy to demonstrate in the early days. In May there were some large, sustained and public demonstrations by Christians in Maspero, a neighborhood just to the north of Tahrir Square demanding equality. In October, an armored personnel carrier deployed to break up a protest in that same locale crushed a young activist and a Christian, Mina Daniel, to death. Many younger Muslim activists who had known Daniel from the demonstrations in Tahrir were not only appalled but were adamant that he, as much as Khaled Said, was a martyr of the revolution. Significant media coverage, moreover, attended a meeting between the mother of Khaled Said and of Mina Daniel that was arranged after his death. Innocent (that word again!) as such a claim might seem, it is extremely contentious. For people like Ghoneim, it threatens their control over the meaning of a very basic and highly charged concept. If Daniel, Said, and other victims of repression were all martyrs—without regard to their faith—then the word assumes a markedly secular and political meaning rather than a religious one.
There have also been some terrifying and spectacular acts of violence against Christian communities since January 2011. The most recent one occurred at the beginning of August in the village of Dahshur when a fight between a Christian tailor and one of his Muslim clients escalated into communal violence and the entire Christian community fled. It is not clear exactly what the impact of these acts of mass violence is on the larger Egyptian political landscape. For many (including President Morsi whose comments on the events echoed what former President Hosny Mubarak said about earlier outbreaks of violence in the past) they are simply individual conflicts that spiral out of control. For others they reflect the powerful emotions of the poor, the illiterate, and the rural or semi-rural population. But for some people (Muslims as well as Christians) they are disturbing on their own account and for what they show about the inability of the Egyptian government to promote or even understand what real equality of citizenship will mean. They have also drawn the attention of the outside world in a powerful and unpleasant way to one aspect of contemporary Egyptian reality that its leaders would prefer to avoid.
Also in the background of the conflict over “The Innocence of Muslims” is an ongoing debate in Egypt about movies, movie stars, and the arts more generally. As in the US, politicians associated with religious and conservative causes view the film industry and the arts generally as a socially and politically liberal elite. Just as the demonstrations over the trailer were beginning, Shaykh Amgad Ghanim published an article in which he denounced artists as people who think of themselves as above the law and who face no restraint or censorship whatsoever. This will, of course, come as a shock to authors, directors, and others whose works have been prevented from appearing. This would include the late Nobel-prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz whose “Children of Gebelawi” was serialized in 1959 but then banned from publication in book form (although an imported Lebanese printing was sold).
Artists, including authors and film-makers, are themselves concerned that a government dominated by the Muslim Brothers will be more inclined to censor or otherwise restrict creative activity than the late-stage Mubarak regime. A recent unsatisfactory meeting between President Morsi and a group of artists did not assuage feelings on either side and their have been some pointed attacks on movie-makers recently. These include an earlier campaign against Basma, a popular actress associated with the left whose maternal grandfather, Youssef Darwish, was a well-known communist leader and a Jewish convert to Islam and who recently married the professor and liberal politician, Amr Hamzawi. The popular comedic actor, Adel Imam, was charged with insulting religion although ultimately vindicated on appeal and there is currently a series of attacks on Ilham Shahine, a popular actress. Because both Shahine and Imam supported Mubarak against the protests in early 2011 they face significant political criticism but the legal proceedings against Imam and the assaults on Shahine’s reputation are of a very different character.
Even if we were to accept, as I shall shortly argue we should not, that all Muslim Egyptians were enraged to the point of violence not by the film but by mere knowledge that it existed, why should Abdellah and Ghoneim have spent so much time bringing the matter to their attention now?
The answer, I think, lies in another extremely contentious issue that is about to be brought up for public debate and decision: the language of the new constitution. A committee of 100, of whom a majority politically are from the MB and various Salafi political but which includes judges, legal scholars and a handful of well-known political figures, is about to present the draft of a new constitution. The new constitution will define the powers of the various branches of government, the rights of citizens, and the principles of governance of the second republic. The Salafi and MB delegates are committed to writing their particular (and not completely identical) visions of Islam into the constitution.
While drafts of various portions of the new constitution have been leaked on occasion, the committee has refrained either from publicizing its working document or the discussions that its members are having with each other or with members of the public they invite to various sub-committee meetings. Thus, no one now knows what the language of the new document will be nor does the committee have any idea what a broad range of Egyptians might think about it. What the committee intends obviously is to present the Egyptian people with a document that can be briefly discussed (perhaps for 6 weeks) but which will then be voted up or down in a referendum. As a consequence the constitution itself will not emerge from a national public dialogue but in all likelihood will simply be accepted as given.
Although it is common to think that the major concern of the Islamists is the language of the second article of the old constitution, making the principles of Islamic sharia the source of legislation, their understanding of Islam, the nature of governance, and the relationship between society and the state affects many articles of the new constitution. One such issue is the legitimacy of religious pluralism in Egypt beyond Sunni Islam, Christianity and a nod in the direction of Judaism. It is quite possible that the new constitution will eliminate the possibility of public sites for worship for Bahai’s, Shi’i Muslims, and any who are not monotheists. A related issue is whether the new constitution will more clearly define the personal status of Egyptians (marriage, divorce, inheritance) as a matter of religious law. Another issue is whether the new constitution will assert the primacy of family obligations for women.
Another important issue will be freedom of speech. Insulting the president is, for example, a crime. President Morsi recently and to widespread acclaim eliminated preventive detention in this area but he did not de-criminalize it. Anyone convicted of insulting the president can still be imprisoned. Egyptian law also criminalizes a variety of other forms of expression, including several vaguely defined acts such as “maligning religion” and “inciting religious disorder” (which need not include violence). These laws are not equally applied so that Khaled Abdellah’s destruction of a Bible in front of the US Embassy did not provoke the same legal (or political or social) response as would the destruction of a Quran. That Abdellah has recently been charged with the crime of religious defamation may at least have the virtue of proposing equality of treatment but it still leaves open how restrictive the constitutional and statutory language about speech will be.
It is hard to avoid noticing that the protests have had a significant impact on Egypt itself. The draft language of the constitution leaked in mid-August had considerably stronger limitations on censorship and restriction of publication than the drafts that appeared in mid-September after the protests.
But these laws themselves, which are enabled by self-limiting language of the relevant constitutional provisions, are also political tools. One could argue endlessly their relationship to the Islamic sharia of the past, but their connection to political censorship in the present and the use of the legal system to threaten opponents of the Islamist current are more clear.
The Islamist movements have often claimed that Islam is under threat in Egypt. One way they have sought to reinforce their vision of Islam in society is empowering the Azhar. Islamist movements, including the MB and the Salafis, have proposed freeing the Azhar from state control, and allowing its senior religious professors to elect the head of the vast religious and educational establishment that is also “the Azhar.” This has gone hand in hand with proposals floating around since 2007 to make the religious leaders of the Azhar equivalent, at least symbolically if not practically, to the Supreme Constitutional Court. The MB, for many reasons, has begun to back away from this proposal but the Salafi movements (who also impact a significant section of the MB leaders and members) have not. Basically they believe they could either win or at least powerfully affect such elections.
Lastly, of course, because the language of the new constitution is so clearly associated with the political influence of the MB and the Salafi parties, they will be as anxious to win an endorsement as overwhelming as the 77% they achieved in the March 2011 constitutional referendum or the large majority of seats they won in the parliamentary elections. One thing they will want to avoid is the slim (51%) margin of victory that brought Morsi himself to the presidency.
Electoral politics clearly requires compromise and coalition but it also requires rallying the base. And one lesson of the last two years in Egypt is that among the hottest of buttons is the claim that Islam is under threat. A significant portion of the “yes” vote in the March 2011 referendum was based on the claim that a “no” vote would allow the secularists, atheists and Christians to eliminate Article 2 and, along with it, the role of Islam in public life. Similar claims were certainly made in the parliamentary elections. During the presidential election it was harder to deploy this argument because it risked alienating other voters who Morsi needed to court. But the “The Innocence of Muslims” provided the possibility of deploying the discourse of anger and fear.
For all these reasons and more it is a mistake to see the protests around the US Embassy as the untrammeled and spontaneous emanation of mass anger.
This becomes more clear when, most surprising of all the MB and their political party, the FJP, backed off two weeks ago at the possibility of broadening and deepening the demonstrations. At one point it looked as if they were going to call for a massive Friday march (a “millioniyya”) but in the end they didn’t. And indeed with their unwillingness to underwrite institutionally the protests they—unlike the massive marches of February 2011—subsided. Some observers believe this was evidence of the moderation of the MB; others perhaps that President Barack Obama’s stern warning to President Morsi as well as his comment that Egypt was no longer an ally, at least made for a responsible decision. Morsi is subject to many pressures and both of these explanations may get at a part of the truth.
I want to propose a slightly different possibility, however. There are a set of politically influential preachers such as Abdallah and Ghoneim who cannot influence Egyptian politics through their role in parties. They have discovered, as have ideological leaders elsewhere in the world, that their influence is manifest by mobilizing even small numbers of activists for direct confrontation. This may involve physical violence but it may also be primarily symbolic violence (blockades of abortion clinics in the US come immediately to mind).
Some political leaders welcome this kind of support but others realize that it limits their own freedom of action in the formal political realm. What I want to suggest is that the MB/FJP and President Morsi realized a massive demonstration against the film and the American embassy would probably escape their control. It would have allowed a vocal and undisciplined group of activists on the institutional fringes of politics to dominate the public discourse. And that, in turn, would make it difficult both to deal with the US but also to bring home whatever compromises over the constitution the committee writing it has made. The constitution will include an article mandating the equality of all Egyptians with regard to religion and it appears that it will allow Christians greater freedom to build houses of worship. Passing the political initiative to Ghoneim, Abdellah, and others like them is not going to make that easier.
Sober reflection may also have suggested to the MB that allowing riots to shape the direction of politics will not be in their long-term interest. Students of Indian politics, such as my former colleague Paul Brass, have noted that riots there are not spontaneous affairs. They can be murderously destructive and politically divisive but when they happen it is because an entire apparatus to deploy them has been activated by government officials or political leaders. Egyptian social and political life is likely to be difficult enough without encouraging the growth of regularly constituted mechanisms for rioting. The events in the wake of film were suggestive that there are those who would be pleased to establish such mechanisms. That a group of distinctively Salafi-bearded police officers showed up in uniform to demonstrate at the embassy against the film was indicative of how these kinds of protests can further undermine the already-eroded institutions of public order.
If I have insisted on the relatively small number of demonstrators at the US Embassy, it is not to diminish the degree to which most Egyptians and especially Egyptian Muslims were angered by the film trailer, whether they saw it or not. The film was designed to be offensive by people who have a fairly clear idea of what Muslims would find offensive. And so it was.
Yet, if most Egyptians found the film offensive, it is worth noting how many other protests occurred at the same time that had nothing to do with the film and whose leaders appeared to have very little inclination to join it. Students at Nile University, on the outskirts of Greater Cairo, were also protesting during that week. Baton-wielding police broke up their protest, unlike the one at the US Embassy. Transport workers in Cairo were on strike and in Asyut demonstrators cut the train line to Cairo for five hours. There were, in short, a multitude of other strikes, protests and demonstrations at the same time as the fracas at the US Embassy.
The point about other protests is not that the events at the Embassy didn’t matter or that it was a side-show while the real politics of economic interest or local conflict were overshadowed. Quite the contrary. In Egypt today, and for a very long time to come, there is intense conflict over the national political agenda, over the nature of public discourse, and to define the basic institutions of the state.
These are all challenges that President Morsi, his party, and his movement must face. The generals of the armed forces who he shouldered aside must be pleased that they no longer do.