Kim: Culture of Escalation
By Brian Kim, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, September 17, 2012
With the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens still fresh amidst the growing wildfire of anti-American sentiment across the Middle East, a schlocky, roughly edited YouTube video has emerged as the alleged motive for the crimes. Laden with New York accented actors in brown face and references to Mohammed as a pedophile and homosexual, the video was obviously meant to offend. Yet more disturbing than the video itself is the fact that such a small-scale production that shouldn’t have garnered more than a handful of views could incite such widespread violence. Picked up on a blog and circulated amongst major Egyptian media outlets, the film was painted as an elaborate American Coptic plot. The film was the tipping point for the release of growing anti-American sentiment amongst many hardline Islamist groups, including the popular Muslim Brotherhood. Over 84 percent of Egyptians polled by the Brookings Institution in May hold an unfavorable view of the United States, an issue that was highlighted by disturbing chants of “We are all Osama” during a Salafist-organized protest of the film. Given this reality, it is clear that the current American strategy of being a detached guiding hand is not doing much to curtail the burgeoning anti-Western attitudes in the region.
While the counterprotest response of Libyans condemning the attacks proves that the United States does retain many supporters, the increasing influence of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist movement are nonetheless feeding a steady trend of detachment from the United States. Continuing to focus solely on the makers of this film simply contributes to that trend, and while they should obviously be condemned for their part in inciting such anger, they shouldn’t be a red herring for the real instigators of the attacks: the toxic media culture that has erupted around these videos and the toothless Libyan and Egyptian governmental response that has enabled the continuation of such violence.
Just as with Terry Jones’ much publicized Koran burnings, the powder keg of rapt media attention that was primed around the released video is the main reason that such obviously inflammatory material was able to achieve its intended goal. The video was fished from YouTube by an Egyptian Coptic blogger, then from the blog by incendiary TV personality Sheikh Khaled Abdalla and finally reached the mainstream Egyptian media. Emotions escalated with each new medium. In the world before viral culture, the clip would have faded into obscurity just as easily as any of the other thousands of videos on the web. Now however, news outlets and talking heads alike constantly vulture around such shock pieces. The cultural divide between Arabs and Americans also doesn’t help, with many Arabs led to believe that these racist productions reflect the attitudes of the American population as a whole.
This divide is mirrored in the meek response by the governments involved. Last Wednesday, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s first official statements about the attacks called for full legal action against the filmmakers, while only mildly rebuking the brazen embassy attacks. Despite later strongly condemning the attackers after meeting with President Barack Obama in Brussels, his initial comments nonetheless remain quite telling of his personal opinion of the situation. With the toppling of formerly U.S.-backed dictators still fresh in mind, the new Egyptian government’s movement away from overtly pro-Western standpoints is clearly an attempt to appease popular expectations. In Libya, meanwhile, the issue of former rebels continuing to maintain arms is a major deterrent against an active search and punishment of the participants. If such an act had occurred whilst Moammar Gadhafi was still in power, notes David Blair in The Telegraph, the embassy murders would have been “just cause for a military strike.” A more reasonable solution would be to initiate a U.S.-led investigation on the ground. While such a strategy may be damaging to U.S.-Libyan relations in ignoring some part of the latter’s sovereignty, an active investigation would be the only realistic chance of finding ambassador Chris Stevens’ murderers. In Egypt, meanwhile, the United States must pressure Morsi’s government into taking an active stance condemning speech designed to catalyze such violence, whether through threats of aid cutbacks or economic sanctions. When groups like the Muslim Brotherhood praise such violent attacks on embassies as protests for the “glory of the Prophet,” the attackers have even more reason to continue their assault. This culture of escalation must be dismantled, both here and abroad, if these attacks are to be stopped.