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3 Questions: Violence and protests in the Muslim world

MIT political scientist Fotini Christia talks about the attacks on U.S. and Western embassies in North Africa and the Middle East.
Fotini Christia
Fotini Christia
Photo: Donna Coveney

The world has been roiled by violence in North Africa and the Middle East in recent days. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was killed in an attack this week, while violent protests were launched in many countries following the release of a video insulting the Prophet Muhammad on the Internet. MIT political scientist Fotini Christia, who studies multiethnic conflict in rebuilding nations, talked to MIT News about this complex and fluid situation.

Q. The proximate cause of many of the violent protests occurring right now is this video that was released online. But probably many of these demonstrators have not even seen the clip. To what extent should we think of these events as being caused by the video, and how much do they hinge on longer-term tensions?

A. I think the video is largely a trigger, as were the cartoons about Muhammad printed in Denmark some years back [in 2006]. The reality of the matter is that there are huge levels of latent anti-Americanism in the region, and despite the supportive role of the Obama administration in the Arab Spring [of 2011], the general population is largely anti-Western and anti-American. So these things can be very potent triggers, in getting people in the street. And, of course, some clerics readily use them as ways to mobilize people. We have had attacks in Tunis, in Yemen, in Khartoum against the Germans, so it is spreading.

It’s very disturbing, particularly in Egypt. … The Libyan government condemned the attacks, saying they wanted to bring the perpetrators to justice, while in Egypt the reaction of President Morsi was basically to say people should rally against the video. It was only later, after he got reprimanded by President Obama, that he basically accepted the fact that nobody should be getting attacked.   

Q. If the circumstances are different from country to country, do these events represent one big problem for the U.S. government, or does this represent a series of specific problems that need to be addressed in different ways?

A. I think the connecting thread throughout is definitely the lingering latent anti-Americanism. The way it manifests itself may differ, as may the government’s response to the demonstrations. In Libya, it seems there were two types of attacks: one was spontaneous and the other was targeted, which is quite alarming. On the other hand, given that the government recognizes that if it weren’t for the U.S., Qaddafi would not have been overthrown, there may be less concern about Libya, or Tunisia for that matter, than about Egypt. There, the Muslim Brotherhood feels it has to do this balancing act: catering both to its constituents who [respond to] this anti-American rhetoric, especially the more extreme elements like the Salafists, who are linked to the Brotherhood, versus recognizing that the Obama administration basically supported them and is giving the country huge amounts of aid that they absolutely need. … They were sending messages on Twitter that were different in Arabic and English, thinking the U.S. Embassy would not be reading the Arabic stuff, but they were, and the U.S. actually called them out on that, which I thought was brilliant.

So I would agree that these places look different, but the thread of anti-Americanism is there for all, and what it means is we’ll see different responses to the demonstrations, and different efforts to prevent them. For instance, in Afghanistan, the government tried to block the video as a way to prevent any violence from happening. In Egypt now, better late than never, they were hoping to just [create] a symbolic demonstration in Tahrir Square, rather than more violent actions.

Q. This has to be a frustrating turn of events for government officials, in the sense that people can now cause serious problems just by posting videos online, and we can’t anticipate exactly when such things will happen. What can policymakers actually do, in these circumstances?

A. We live in an age of digital media, where this type of information has a viral effect in the way it spreads. And in places where people don’t have a lot of access, it leads to a lot of misinformation and spin in how it gets represented. It’s very hard to prevent that from happening. And the thing about Islam is, as we know, there is great sensitivity to the presentations of images, which become particularly exacerbating.

In places where one response to this violence is to prevent viewing of the video, it’s particularly tricky because it speaks to freedom-of-speech issues, especially in places that have been authoritarian for so long, and where censorship was so prevalent. With the Arab Spring, we have been trying to make things more democratic and open. But there is a fine line [in making rulings about] what constitutes hate speech. … If you think you know what is best for the people, then you are not letting them make their own decisions.

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