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Egyptian protesters tear down the US flag at the US embassy in Cairo, Egypt, on 11 September during a demonstration against a film deemed offensive to Islam. Photo: AFP (AFP)
Egyptian protesters tear down the US flag at the US embassy in Cairo, Egypt, on 11 September during a demonstration against a film deemed offensive to Islam. Photo: AFP

Identifying the root cause

A democratic culture that respects freedom takes time to build, particularly when it has never been allowed

Tahrir Square was quiet when we drove to our hotel facing the Nile. Without the demonstrators and banners, with its shops shuttered and the sidewalk clean, with the cars driving around uninterrupted, it looked like any other orderly square late at night. But then what about the volatile image on television, where it became the epicentre of Arab protests, like a volcano from which “Muslim rage" kept pouring out, unstoppably?

Cairo is not Damascus, but it is not Geneva either. There is rage, but it isn’t necessarily “Muslim". It is directed at the “establishment", which isn’t always American. And the Cairene want a better life, though it isn’t necessarily different from aspirations other people have, elsewhere.

The disconnect between the images on TV, which are indeed real, and what I see, which too is real, is stark. Images of burning embassies and violence following the screening of the badly-made, poorly-acted, appallingly-directed, and amateurishly-written trailer of the film, The Innocence of Muslims, had prepared me to expect a city under siege, a city which might erupt, with burning tyres and shattered glass on the road. A diplomat in Cairo during that tumultuous week had not been able to leave her embassy at all. And yet yesterday, I walked with an ambassador from his embassy to a hotel through the by-lanes of the affluent enclave of Zamalek, unescorted by guards, and it all went uneventfully.

Were my impressions wrong? Did the cameras lie? Neither, in fact. Each represented a part of the reality. And when we see a region as complex as “the Middle East" in slices, and not as a set of ever-changing images of a kaleidoscope, it is easy to reach facile conclusions: such as the assumption that there is a unified Muslim outrage over the video film spilling out against America and “the West".

Not all Muslims are cut from the same cloth, nor do all take offence in the same way. As Steve Coll points out in The New Yorker: “The notion that a generalized Muslim anger about Western ideas could explain violence or politics from Indonesia to Bangladesh, from Iran to Senegal, seemed deficient. It was like arguing that authoritarian strains in Christianity could explain apartheid, Argentine juntas, and the rise of Vladimir Putin."

Photographs of angry Muslim men waving banners and glaring at cameras make arresting visuals. But many more go about their daily lives,unconcerned. An Egyptian academic told me that young people sent to protest at the US Embassy were handed American flags, and they stood there, holding them, not knowing what to do next—they did not know what they were protesting about. (I am not naming the diplomat or the academic because neither knew I was planning to write about our conversation).

Muslim outrage is not the issue; manufactured outrage is. Remember, that ridiculous little film whose production qualities are worse than an Indian mythological from the 1960s, was available since June; the demonstrations happened a few months later, just as had been the case with the cartoons Jyllands-Posten published. Likewise, it was nearly five months after The Satanic Verses was published that Ayatollah Khomeini declared his fatwa. Clerics who stand to gain from riots wait for an opportune moment to incite people, who then pour out their anger on an obvious target, even though it does not deserve to be one.

Faith is an idea; it can be criticized; the sources of those faiths—gods or goddesses, singular or plural—are supposed to be sterner, meant to protect the faithful, and not the other way around. This isn’t an easy discussion where the response can easily be violent. So figure out the problem first. As Egyptian lawyer Ahmed Kamal Abu El Majd said at the seminar I’m attending here: “Treat the problem as a doctor would. Ask the patient what ails him; identify the root cause. Don’t prescribe medication without diagnosis." And the root cause can oddly be found in documents like the Arab Human Development Report (in particular, the 2009 edition)—lack of political and economic freedoms.

Patience will also help. When the Princeton historian Bernard Lewis wrote What Went Wrong?, he saw the roots of Islamic discontent in the sense of humiliation people felt, because of the decline of what he called “a once-mighty enterprise" that led economic development, literacy, and scientific achievement. Blaming the outsider became the easy option; freedom, he thought, would change that.

Some Arab countries are now free, to varying degrees. But a democratic culture that respects freedom takes time to build, particularly when it has never been allowed. The holding of elections, the appearance of opposition parties in parliaments, the freedom that newspapers enjoy, the emergence of a civil society demanding justice, are all good things, but they also appear unstable. And countries look messy immediately after a revolution. Building free societies will take time, but it can’t be abandoned merely because someone has rented a crowd shouting slogans loudly.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com

To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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