February 04, 2006
Why do the Syrians burn embassies but the Iranians don't?
Of course, the gunmen in Gaza and the West Bank and the burning embassies in Damascus make the headlines and evening news, since they're the most outrageous images available to journalists. What bothers me in the coverage of the protests, however, is that nobody seems to analyze these protests not only within the global but also their local context, that they are all subsumed under the general "Muslims protest the defamation of the prophet Muhammad" heading.
Doesn't anybody find it at least noteworthy that the Danish & Norwegian embassies were torched in - out of all places - Damascus? That there were only small demonstrations in Cairo? That there were almost no demonstrations at all in Iran? That the number of Muslim demonstrators in Europe was - given the overall numbers of Muslim inhabitants - ridiculously low?
I cannot answer all those questions. But the main issue at hand - that the protests have ALSO to be understood in their local/regional contexts - seems to be more important than most, if not all, of the commentators so far have realized. And at least in the region about which I do know a bit, the picture is a very complex one.
One should have noted that the gunmen blocking/storming various offices (of European countries' missions or E.U. offices) in Gaza and the West Bank are from the Al-Aqsa Brigades. They are not from Hamas or Islamic Jihad, the Islamist groups. Supposedly the Al-Aqsa Brigades are connected with Fatah, itself a secular group. Why would a "secular" militia protest violently against the defamation of the prophet Muhammad, when at the same time the Islamist militias don't do it? There are two reasons:
1st - Hamas' gunmen are organized under a very tight command. The leadership did not give out the order to storm any European offices and no Hamas gunman would dare to do it on his own. The "Al-Aqsa Brigades" is, for all intents and purposes, nothing more than a label given to a plethora of armed groups who do not belong to either Hamas or Islamic Jihad and who may or may not have, at some point, split from Fatah's own militia, the "Tanzim". While there is, in general, overall coordination among the various Al-Aqsa groups, they are not under an enforceable, single command. Each group decides what they do. That means that, even if Fatah or a majority of the groups gives out the directive to not do anything against a European office, there's nothing they can do to prevent a couple of hotheads with AK 47's to smash a few windows, block a street, take over a building for a few hours or even a day. Fatah has neither influence nor control over the Al-Aqsa groups in Gaza.
2nd - After the recent elections, a lot of non-Hamas gunmen, and particularly a lot of P.A.-employed security personnel, are very pissed off about not being on the winning side. They are afraid of what will happen to them in the future. They are mad at the Fatah-led P.A. for having betrayed the Palestinian people, for having failed to deliver on pretty much any of their promises. They are also increasingly pissed off at the "West" for - in their eyes - always staying at Israel's side and not actually understanding (or even "really" wanting to understand) the Palestinian plight. And a lot of it is perceived along notions of "honor", "respect", etc. The religionization of Palestinian culture now has led to a situation where even "secular" Palestinians are increasingly drawn into a religious worldview. And thus a defamation of the prophet Muhammad actually reverberates, since it is - again - a "they denigrate us" issue. The humiliation of Arab, Muslim Palestinians by "Western", Jewish Israelis at the checkpoints and the defamation of the Arab, Muslim prophet Muhammad by the "Western" (& - as EVERYONE KNOWS - "Jewish-controlled") European media are, in the eyes of a lot of Palestinians, pretty much the same thing. And since these shabaab ("male youth", i.e. "the guys") have grown up in a culture of violence, they protest in a violent way.
All-in-all ... not really that strange. But, particularly in the context of the Palestinian elections and the big "what's gonna happen now?", it's noteworthy - and more rooted in its local context than a "global clash of civilizations".
The news from Damascus, however, should've made many a regional observer to reach for the alarm button. Syria is one of the most tightly controlled societies in the region. The secret services (that's a plural) either know everything, or at least the population thinks that they do. Either one is sufficient to keep 99.999997% from doing something the government doesn't want them to do. There is NO demonstration in Syria that is not approved or even organized by the authorities. And there's no way that anybody would get even close to an embassy without the security apparatuses (again - plural) consciously deciding to letting it happen. In other words - at the bare minimum, the Syrian government let an angry mob burn those two embassies. Others will even claim that there was no angry mob, but it was all orchestrated by the regime itself. In either case (or those others in between) the question is: Why would the Syrian government let this happen? I mean - protests are one thing, but burning an embassy is quite something else.
Again, I think that the answer lies in the local context. Syria is currently under "Western" pressure. Its ruling regime is afraid of "Western" attempts to end the "reign of the house of Asad", maybe even through (military) force. The regime, and foremost its head - "Duktuur" Bashar al-Asad -, have argued that, should they be deposed, Syria would tumble down the path towards an Iraq-style chaos. They have also - using the latest elections in Egypt and Palestine - argued that "if we don't hold the Islamists at bay, then they will take over Syria as well". The Syrian public, while not particularly liking the regime, has embraced the regime's shift from personality cult to patriotism (I blogged about it here) and one should also not forget that political brainwashing actually works, i.e. the vast majority of Syrians does believe that the "West" is bad & "out there to get them". In this context, it is noteworthy that the slogan the protesters chanted was the generic one throughout the region - "Bil-ruh, bil-dam, nafdiik, ya (fill in the blanks: Bashar, Saddam, or - today - Muhammad), meaning "With (our) soul, with (our) blood, we defend you, oh ...". Anger at those "Danish cartoons" is as genuine among Muslims in Syria as anywhere else, but in Damascus it is compounded by a very locally-specific feeling of being under pressure and possibly attack any moment now. The Syrian authorities might very well have let the burning of those two embassies happen for a number of their very own reasons:
1st - By letting popular anger vent itself, the regime maintains (& maybe even gains) legitimacy. After today you can say what you want about Bashar al-Asad & his henchmen, but you can't accuse them of protecting the "Western" blasphemers against "popular sentiment".
2nd - By letting "an angry mob" burn those two embassies, the regime can show the "West" just how potentially dangerous "religious fanaticism" can be, even in such seemingly peaceful and secular places like Syria, and bolster its own credentials as "the secularist dam stemming the Islamist tide".
As far as the MENA region is concerned, I would argue that the violence in Palestine & Syria is extraordinary, and in each case more rooted in the particular local situation than in an "Islamic rage". (I simply don't know enough about Indonesia to make any meaningful comment about the violence there.) In all other countries of the region, the protests were/are peaceful: boycotts, recalling ambassadors, demonstrations ... but nothing violent. And that's not because Egyptians, Turks, Iranians, etc. are inherently "not as violent" as Palestinians and Syrians. The governments in those countries simply didn't allow any violence against European institutions.
For example, the Lebanese government is the weakest in the region - but the ISF (Internal Security Forces) would rather shoot at demonstrators than letting them damage an embassy ...
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Tracked on February 5, 2006 06:30 PM
Thanks Raf Bey.
I was going to cover this myself, and I absolutely agree. If there is a significant and reasonable criticism to be made of Western (and general) news coverage, it is this.
The numbers in the demos appear to be small, globally and specifically.
The real idiocies are happening in specific places for very specific reasons. The generic idiocy on the part of "Muslims" (and I do assert most of hte active upsetness is on the part of the 'pre-offended' looking to turn up the heat) in bothering to be upset about some idiotic drawings some besotted Danes scribbled (again we can thank my JV partner for this angle) is one thing.
The specific activism has Salafi fringe shit-stirring written all over it, combined with other factors (e.g. when I saw the Emb. burning was in Syria, my first thought was that our little Optometrist needed a saftey value and a bit of show extremism).
However, lazy journalism is feeding the Salafi agenda. Understandably lazy journalism, but nevertheless.
Our little 'Aqoul should focus on this nexus, if I may be so bold.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at February 4, 2006 10:53 PM
raf* - you make some interesting points, especially regarding regional context. Yet you imply that the reason nothing "serious" happened in, for example, Egypt, was that the government wouldn't allow it, which is probably also a legitimate point. Do you think, if the gov. was more lax, things could have gotten out of hand?
Posted by: Lazarus at February 5, 2006 01:40 AM
You guys, it is really great to read all these intelligent articles about the whole Danish cartoon controversy. AFter a whole weekend watching appalled as it got worse instead of better and not having any context in which to evaluate the Syrian torching of the embassies it is a real gift to have someone who knows more about that particular country than I to explain what is really going on. I thought this would die down really fast. It is appalling that the people that are supposedly offended by these damed drawings are proudly showing them to everyone they can find in the MENA - what idiocy - if they were so offended by them they would not circulate them now would they.
Posted by: Anna in Cairo at February 5, 2006 01:42 AM
To answer for Raf Bef, yes, were not the Egyptians keeping things tight certainly Cairo might have seen nastiness.
However, 'out of hand' presumes that what happened in Syria was a mere accident. Raf quite clearly does not think so, and I don't think so. It was certainly deliberately allowed to happen (with just enough plausible show of police to give plausible deniability), and in many ways was probably egged on. No, make that certainly egged on, although whether the regime had a role or not seems open to me.
As I have stated elsewhere, the entire basket of protests is rather clearly part of the Salafiste fringe working on trying to fan flames of hate and drive for separation - seperating 'good Muslims' from the temptation of kufr - and generally Western influence.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at February 5, 2006 02:14 AM
i have to revise the last sentence of my post: the Danish embassy in Beirut seems to have been torched as well. I was right about the ISF, though ...
Posted by: raf* at February 5, 2006 05:55 AM
Back in the 1999 period or so, for some reason I forget, a Syrian mob trashed parts of the US embassy (I saw the broken glass in the commercial annex). Buzz on the street was: 1) naturally the government allowed and encouraged the demonstration, 2) the government did not expect it to go that far and were unprepared for the extra show of violence, 3) the mob was also expressing its anger at their own government vicariously and spontaneously (safety valving). In this case, perhaps something like that, perhaps not.
Posted by: matthew hogan at February 5, 2006 09:22 AM
Great. Unfortunately, having just watched a mob of gun-toting shabeb rampage past my street, shooting into the air shouting 'la illah illalah', trashing cars and attacking two churches on their way to torching the Danish Embassy in Beirut this morning and, oh yes and setting ablaze two fire-engines when they attempted to prevent the blaze from spreading to nearby buildings, and then attacking the police who tried to prevent them from rampaging around the rest of my infidel neighbourhood, your 'regional context' means a little less to me than two farts in a bottle.
Perhaps when you have stopped being clever and contextual, you'll get around to denouncing this for what it is - appalling behaviour. So much for 'dialogue', eh boys?
Posted by: Furious in Ashrafiye at February 5, 2006 10:02 AM
Appalling behavior is an understatement.
Posted by: matthew hogan at February 5, 2006 10:25 AM
first - as far as i understand, "'aqoul" is a site for commentary & analysis. so seem to have either not read or misunderstood the articles on this site. this is not the website of the "western intercultural dialogue with muslim fanatics institute". i suggest you read the "about" page before you get all up in arms about something.
second - you do not know who i am. you do not know nor have any way to estimate what my emotional ties to ashrafiyeh might be. it might turn out that the mob of gun-toting shabaab didn't just rampage past your street.
third - it is precisely because "my" regional context means less to you than two farts in a bottle (now, would that be al-maza or kefraya?) that i am writing about it. somebody should. you won't. so i do.
fourth - i am under no order to have to explain my personal disgust and condemnation of everything that's wrong in this world.
fifth - what exactly are YOU doing so that lebanon becomes a country where such an appaling, atrocious act of mob violence will never happen again?
Posted by: raf* at February 5, 2006 11:07 AM
Ah poor baby Furious. Had your first introduction to urban mobs, eh?
As for "getting around to denouncing" you're obviously a reading comprehension impaired knee-jerking dimwitted subliterate moron, as rather clearly this site has been 'critical' of the idiot response to the cartoons from the get go.
Thankfully, as we have a few brain cells to spare, and have enough experience so as not to start wetting our pants, we also know enough to step back, use our brains and said experience, and note some important differences.
Dialogue? Dialogue's your cretinous word, but not 'so much for dialogue' (who the fuck with, I am not clear, the abstract "Muslim world" you drooling idiot?) - young urban idiot mobs probably egged on by various parties is nothing new in the world and hardly something to throw entire global communal relations into a tiolet.
Now fuck off, stupid drooling git.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at February 5, 2006 01:05 PM
L: agreed and seconded.
All: to lighten the mood, i suggest reading this article http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/769FBF1F-5251-41DF-AC6F-596CFC72D214.htm
from what i can make of it, in my very hungover state and still with a syriana-test-passed woman (of mixed Danish, Norwegan, and Swedish decent, no less) very much passed out in my bed, i do believe that fish has "Mohammed" spelled out on its side. also, it seems some jewish fish keeper at an aquarium in the UK had a dream and then discovered the fish in the aquarium.
anyone care to comment on the fish?
Posted by: drdougfir at February 5, 2006 01:36 PM
That is one wierd story.
If you look long enough I guess the orange pattern kinda looks like Mohammed (in Arabic letters).
Well, obviously a fish is a sign everyone should stop fighting and have a big fish couscous together.
Or maybe we should protest fishing.
For those wanting this in English, the Guardian original: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1700465,00.html
Posted by: The Lounsbury at February 5, 2006 02:01 PM
i'm so glad there are no more pressing news for both the guardian and al-jazeera to cover than oscar the fish who has "allah" (supposedly, although i couldn't see it) and "muhammad" written on its side.
on related news and at the danger of asking for the umpteenth time - what IS the syriana test???
btw - i just saw our dear abu aardvark on the doha debate. he/it was good. i still don't get how anyone can get bested in a debate by tim sebastian, though.
Posted by: raf* at February 5, 2006 02:08 PM
The Syriana test was explained somewhere else, the last time you asked. I am sure you recall where.
As for besting, is that not faint praise?
Finally, Oscar, well at least he is pious fish. Or a lucky fish.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at February 5, 2006 02:30 PM
Saw the debate myself and Mona's nose does not look remotely smaller on the big screen.
Anybody, any suggestions as to why Lebanese interior ministers resign and Syrian ones don't? (rhetorical, for the intellectually challenged)
Posted by: Meph at February 5, 2006 05:14 PM
Look, there were apparently people being bused in to do the burning of the Danish embassy in Lebanon. So I think we can be clear about this being orchestrated. Now what group tends to bus in people for demos and the like? Hmmm....
Posted by: praktike at February 5, 2006 10:41 PM
i agree with L. we should all sit down to some good fish couscous.
raf*: the Syriana test is truely worth your while to learn about. anyone intillectually capable of watching that moive will certainly be well worth your while.
Posted by: drdougfir at February 5, 2006 11:39 PM
Really, confirmed bused in?
I saw Roula Khalaf's note many were Syrians....
Yes, sit down with fish couscous.
The Syriana test of course is a reginally specific one. Or maybe not.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at February 6, 2006 12:10 AM
The Syriana test is hardly regionally specific. Anyone with half a brain should be able to follow the plot. Case in point: my current female friend has absolutely no experience nor knowledge RE: MENA aside from general tabloid journalism of major american and european papers yet she was able to follow the entire movie and discuss it intelligently afterward with a minimum of typical unenlightened rubbish often found in uneducated and uninitiated western circles. if that doesn't spell love at first sight, then i don't know what does!
let's face it boys and girls, intelligence, as determined by the Syriana test, is sexy!
and to bring this comment back to the semi-topic of this post...
interesting op-ed piece from the Boston Globe. i dont necissarily agree with large portions of it, but i've got a feeling that similar sentiments will be expressed in the coming week from a wide swath of western society.
Posted by: drdougfir at February 6, 2006 01:45 AM
'Bussed in' seems to be a common practice/excuse in Libnan. I was confidently told on the morning of the big Hizbullah demo in Beirut in March last year that half of 'them' had been bussed in from Syria; granted some of 'them' had placards bearing Bashar's mug, but I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of the demonstrators were local. They may have shared buses from south Beirut, but so what; must they all have cars to be authentic?
Unless the 'bussed in' explanation refers to the lamentable state of public transport in Lebanon...
Posted by: simon at February 6, 2006 04:18 AM
no, the point about being "bused in" is that these things are highly organized and *funded*.
Posted by: praktike at February 6, 2006 05:49 AM
My goodness, an interest group organizing, funding or busing people in for a demonstration! My gosh, that never happens in a free civilized country; everyone just shows up simultaneously and spontaneously without any organization or planned transport.
Posted by: matthew hogan at February 6, 2006 06:07 AM
Yah, everyone, from all parties, used busses (and smses, and whatever else was at hand) to organize the many "spontaneous" demos 11 months ago in Lebanon.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at February 7, 2006 11:03 AM
I think they threw firebombs and stuff at the Danish embassy in Iran as well. Plus I heard that they set fire to the gate of the Austrian embassy in Iran.
Posted by: showtime at February 7, 2006 01:51 PM
Those who can play chess or bridge will be able to follow it. One I knew who was White King and who was Black King I was able to follow 80% of it.
Posted by: blown cue at February 7, 2006 05:35 PM
Great reading, keep up the great posts.
Posted by: JiggaDigga at April 7, 2006 12:54 AM