The perception that the present wave of anti-US protests sweeping through the Muslim world has been solely wrought by an amateurish, shoddy, ersatz —but incendiary and offending—video clip, is only part of the complex story. In reality, the video is only the spark that lit the powder keg of growing discontentment against the West in general and the US in particular.
This resentment has been building up since the beginning of the year starting in Afghanistan also with a YouTube video of four US marines urinating over the bodies of Taliban insurgents; the burning of copies of the Koran by US troops at Bagram airbase; and the shooting spree by a seasoned US sergeant, which left 16 civilians dead. Anger against these episodes also spread to other parts of the Muslim world, notably those countries in transition under the so-called Arab Spring. The expansion of drone strikes into the Middle East, particularly Yemen and Somalia, further fuelled public fury.
Coupled with this was the discernment that newly-elected governments, many of which are facing violent challenges from minority extremist groups, had been left to fend for themselves. This is particularly the case in Libya, where a relatively moderate government has been confronted with Salafist-led attacks against Sufi shrines. The West and the US, increasingly distracted by their own economic crises (and in some cases elections), distanced themselves from post-conflict peace-building responsibilities. For instance, the May G-8 summit declaration, instead of offering a concrete reconstruction package merely noted rhetorically that the “international community remains committed to actively support the consolidation of the new Libyan institutions”.
By June, public opinion had decidedly turned against the US, as evidenced by the Pew Research survey, which noted that in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey, the approval for President Barack Obama’s international policies dramatically dropped from 34 to 15%. In particular, strong disapproval was voiced on two aspects of US policy: first, Obama’s drone-centric anti-terrorism strategy and second, unmet expectations, particularly on the Palestinian issue.
The former was epitomized by the killing of al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Abu Yahya al-Libi, in a drone attack in Pakistan in June. On the latter the survey revealed that while in 2009 only 32% of the respondents felt that Obama would not be fair with Israelis and Palestinians, this figure shot up to 59% in 2012. (While the Mitt Romney camp has claimed that the Middle East would not have flared up on his watch and hinted that the Palestinian issue might also have been resolved, his solitary outing to Israel and the sharp criticism from Palestinian leaders has belied this assertion.)
Interestingly, although the inflammatory video Innocence of Muslims was reportedly posted on YouTube in June, it only went viral on the eve of the eleventh anniversary of the 11 September attacks, when it was translated into Arabic and shown on an Egyptian television channel. This coincided with al-Qaeda’s confirmation of al-Libi’s death and calls to avenge his killing and set the stage for the worldwide attacks and protests starting with the assault on the US Consulate in Benghazi.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the ongoing discontent underlines that the US is not being criticized for its support of the democratic movements in the Middle East but for not being sufficiently supportive once democracy has taken root. As another Pew Research Center survey revealed, most Muslims in the region desire democracy as well as a greater role for Islam in political life while rejecting extremist groups. The survey also noted that the US is not seen as promoting democracy in the Middle East. It is a lesson the US should heed even as protests begin to wane and as Washington ruminates the future of Syria. Otherwise the hope of democracy will wither away in the autumn of discontent.
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