Radical Islamists or football hooligans looking for a fight?

“You won’t understand the Middle East until you get lost in Cairo.”

That’s a piece of advice I received from a former American ambassador who spent a great deal of time living and working in the Middle East. What he meant is that understanding the Middle East is difficult and things are not always what they seem. To grasp what is going on, sometimes you have to go a lot deeper than what feels comfortable.

With images of violence streaming in from Egypt and across the Middle East, it is understandable that some would respond with anger – anger over the senseless death of one of our ambassadors, members of his team, and the Libyan guards who died trying to protect them. While the events in Benghazi appear to be a departure from the norm (the norm being violent protest at US embassies, but not resulting in the deaths of American personnel), it is hard to understand how anyone can protest on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and continue to do so after the violent attack in Benghazi. I get the sense that there are many who don’t want to “understand,” but rather want to “do something.” To react.

For those who simply want to react, there’s probably not much I can write here that will convince them otherwise. If a person get punched in the face, it is completely appropriate to punch the person back. But nations are not people. Nations have responsibilities that go far beyond the immediacy of emotion and reflex. It would be too easy to declare a simple cause, like “they” hate us or this is “their” religion. It’s easy to reach for that because it requires no extra thought or work. It’s the reaction of ignorance and laziness. It’s a way to cast things in stark contrast to one another. Right and wrong. Good versus evil.

If only things were that simple.

So the rest of this post is intended for those who understand and agree that the world is a complex place.

There are a number of things at play when trying to discern why there is violence against our embassies. Without question, the inflammatory video the “Innocence of Muslims” served as the catalyst for the inexcusable violence. But underlying this is a history of deep mistrust of the US because of foreign policy decisions and interventions of the past, anger over US support for Israel and our inability to mediate an end to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the constant stoking of emotions by leaders in these countries to push blame for almost anything on foreigners and meddling. This does not excuse the violence, but rather lays out that there is no single motivation for the behavior of a violent protestor.

In the case of Egypt, and probably other nations as well, domestic politics are influencing these events to a greater degree than is given credit. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, a “protest culture” has emerged which has proven that massing people for a common cause can effect real change. In Egypt, much of the violence between police and the population is accredited to the “Ultras” who are essentially what we would call football hooligans. Originally I wanted to write this entire post about the ultras, but I’ve found a couple of good sources that do a better job (The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and “Egyptian Ultras Emerge as Powerful Political Force“). And like in London last year, I suspect there are a lot of people that simply come out and do it for the lulz.

Among these protestors, there are radical Islamists. These are most likely the ones who are carrying the flag of al-Qaeda and pushing the violence to more extreme levels.

All of these actors come together with their different grievances and mass them against something they don’t like; in this case, the US (for whatever reason). Someone who protests at the embassy isn’t by default a radical Islamist. She could be an Egyptian college student who is angered by the United State’s refusal to take legal action against the producer of the inflammatory film (the notion of Freedom of Speech protecting even inflammatory speech is not always understood or respected). It can also be a member of a football club who showed up for a good fight. Or it can be a radical Islamist, who seeks to take advantage of a dangerous situation to advance his own agenda.

The point of this post is to hopefully encourage anyone interested in what is happening across the Middle East to dig deeper than the headlines and try to understand what is going on, instead of simply lumping millions of people together into a mush of anti-American radical Islamists.

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