The Mideast and Abroad
- Published on Wednesday, 19 September 2012 10:54
The narratives spun by various media sources regarding the recent Muslim protests suggest a very simple and essentialist explanation for the reasons behind the demonstrations. This approach unfortunately fits all too well with one of the sadder findings modern cognitive studies have shown: that while we believe that we appreciate diversity and respect others’ points of views, the truth is that we are driven to create and form groups and then believe that others are wrong just because they belong to other groups.
The “illusion of asymmetric insight” is a cognitive bias whereby people perceive their knowledge of others to surpass other people's knowledge of themselves. So, we are more likely to describe our friends in terms of observed behaviors, or actions, but ourselves in internal states like thoughts and feelings. Tom is most like Tom when he is telling a dirty joke. Jill is most like Jill when she is rock climbing. But, not you, you’re more complex. This is why people seem so easy to read for you. It is also what allows you to reject what others say because you already understand their point of view, and are convinced that they'd agree with you if only they understood your point of view. Basically, you think you can understand everyone else and nobody can understand you.
It is even worse in groups. Just take a look at our politics. Group members display a similar bias—they believe their groups know and understand relevant out-groups better than vice versa. So, in this way, Democrats know that while they are nuanced in their approach to issues, the Republicans are all alike and more or less monolithic. The Republicans of course, are no different. This bias also applies in how we essentialize all sorts of other out-groups. So, the essentialist narratives of “fanatical rage over an anti-Muslim video” being the singular cause behind the protests is not surprising—only it turns out these events may not be just about the video. In this way, the simplistic story provided paints Muslims with a broad brush that ignores the vast diversity present among all people and in all faiths. Furthermore, essentialist explanations place us in peril since they ignore the case-by-case complexities that in turn affect our own security.
Yes, the facts are that from Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, Kuwait, India, Iraq, Sudan, and beyond, some people have taken to the streets, and just yesterday, in Tunisia, demonstrators breached the wall of the American embassy where two people died and 29 others were injured. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has insisted that the United States government had absolutely nothing to do with the making of this video—whose sole purpose seems to have been cynical; to provoke anger. But, a more critical and less essentialist take suggests that while the video may have provided a useful ploy for many, it has never been the key issue at hand.
For example, consider the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the tragic deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens, former Navy SEALS Chris Woods and Glen Doherty along with Sean Smith. Though the video was initially thought to have been behind the attacks, reports soon came to light that it was likely to have instead been the premeditated and murderous work of an al-Qaeda affiliate or inspired group, retaliating for an American drone strike in June which had in turn killed an al-Qaeda command leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi. Libyan officials have since taken four men into custody in connection with the attack and Libyan authorities say they want to do everything in their power to help the Americans identify these individuals and bring the perpetrators to justice.
The Libyans themselves say the attack was meant to disrupt the recent relationship between Americans and Libyans and to ‘derail the democratic process’ in Libya. As Libyan journalist, Muhammad Azeemullah, writes in the Tripoli Post, “Definitely it is not the way Americans should be rewarded for what role they have played in the emancipation of Libyan people from the ruthlessness of Qaddafi, and still what role they are playing in the restoration of democracy in the country. But let me voice it aloud that whosoever has committed the crime does not represent the vast majority of Libyan people.”
Of course not everyone in Benghazi or the rest of Libya felt indebted to the U.S. or its allies for the NATO bombings. There are important differences among Libyans. Still, it's important to note that the day after the attacks there were thousands of peaceful Libyan citizens in the streets carrying signs that said, “Sorry, America” and “Benghazi is against Terrorism”. The issue obviously which we have to recognize is that if in likelihood, this was a well-planned al-Qaeda attack, then it is a far more serious threat, than is a protest of Muslims over a video. Or take Egypt. Sure, the BBC counted about 500 protesters at the U.S. embassy on Friday, but that is 500, in a country of roughly 82 million people. The media narrative is of course going to be extremely simplistic, which is somewhat understandable because we need to have things simplified, to have them come in easy to digest bits, but the story woven together is suggesting that this is somehow a Muslim revolt or something that really ignores the complexities that if we keep ignoring, are likely to become more perilous to our security needs.
Certainly, it can be argued that the film is a pretext for a lot of this violence, but what we're seeing afoot is also as a result of a lot of internal politics in these different countries. For instance, by all accounts in Egypt, the ‘tipping point’ came when clips from the anti-Muslim film was broadcast days ago by a Saudi-owned news service called al-Nas. This is an immensely popular, and very religious channel whose motto is “a channel that will get you into heaven”. Al-Nas provides the Salafi voice for the various Egyptian Salafist parties, particularly al-Nour, described as the political arm of the Salafi Call Society and "by far the most prominent" of the several new Salafi parties in Egypt. Al-Nour, which just placed second behind the Muslim Brotherhood in the country’s legislative elections, is a far more conservative group. As such, they likely saw this as a perfect opportunity to put the Brotherhood in an uncomfortable position, with a forced choice to either denounce this film and in doing so, strengthen the position of the Salafists, or to appear weak, compliant to the mores of the ‘West’ and thereby even be possibly accused of agreeing with the video.
Within 48 hours of the al-Nas broadcast, hundreds of protesters were climbing the walls of the United States embassy in Cairo in protest. But, this is in likelihood far more to do with the complexities of internal politics and rivalries among Egyptians than a stupid video. Meanwhile, more recently, the preacher of Al Azhar, Shaikh Mohammad al Mokhtar, rebuked Egyptians who attacked foreign facilities or personnel. Instead, in a televised sermon he urged them to “search for the companies involved in insulting our religion and boycott their goods.”
Yes, it is easy to imagine Egyptians or Libyans or even all “Muslims” as a monolithic people, devoid of the nuances and complexities we appreciate in our nation, but recognizing this as the illusion of asymmetric insight that it is, should cause us some pause.By Siamak Naficy, Aslan Media Contributor