What’s motoring this ‘Muslim rage’?

The Islamic world’s fury over a YouTube film speaks to something profound: the hollowing-out of the politics of state and diplomacy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech

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What is really motoring the ‘Muslim rage’, as Newsweek calls it, that has engulfed parts of the Middle East and north Africa following the appearance of a YouTube movie that criticises Islam? To those of a right-wing persuasion, it’s a simple case of Islamist intolerance, as hardline religious groups cynically use the YouTube clip to whip up Muslim anger and to try to increase their influence in the post-Arab Spring Muslim world. Apparently we must clamp down on these faraway radicals. To those of a more liberal, left-leaning mindset, it is the fault of ‘Islamophobes’ here in the West, particularly the maker of the blasphemous YouTube film, who committed an act of blatant provocation against the already war-battered inhabitants of the Muslim world. Apparently we must clamp down on these haters at home.

What both of these readings of the rage share in common is a remarkable willingness to take events at face value, to treat what is truly bizarre – war-like uprisings in response to a dumb internet movie – as the natural byproducts of various political machinations. Both conservative and liberal commentators assume that Muslims ‘over there’ are peculiarly sensitive, and so must be protected from being exploited by hardline Islamists or from being offended by Western ‘Islamophobes’. In truth, the so-called Muslim rage springs from and speaks to something far more profound than that. It is an expression of the hollowing-out of international relations and the withering of the diplomatic and state structures that governed the globe for the past two centuries or more. This rage is a glimpse into the vacuous, highly frustrated lashing-out against curious targets that can come to the fore at a time when the language and practice of realpolitik and statecraft have died.

In essence, the ‘Muslim rage’ is an attempted declaration of war by groups and individuals who aren’t sure who to declare war against, or even how to do it. One Western observer says the anti-YouTube storming of embassies in Libya and Egypt and the fiery street protests in the Middle East are really screeches of rage against the ‘long years of hurt’ caused by ‘wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, imprisonment without trial by Western-backed dictators, extraordinary rendition and torture, air strikes’. This is probably true, but the question remains: why smash up embassy reception areas, burn down KFCs and get furious about something you saw on YouTube rather than organise directly against the architects of the ‘long years of hurt’ associated with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? It is the arbitrariness of both the protesters’ demands (stop making offensive online memes!) and their targets (YouTube, embassy staff, chicken restaurants) which is the most striking thing.

What we are witnessing is a Muslim-world version of the political and moral confusions that engulfed the West in the wake of 9/11. Back then, Western governments were highly uncertain about who attacked them, or why, and about who or what should be attacked in return in order to defeat this foreign threat. In constantly asking questions like ‘Why do they hate us?’ and ‘What do they want?’, and in desperately trying to decide whether Afghanistan or Iraq or some other entity might be held morally responsible for what happened, Western leaders expressed the remarkable amorphousness of international affairs in the twenty-first century. Now, various Muslim groups are going through a very similar process, effectively asking of the West, ‘Why does it hate us?’, and scrabbling around for some thing or person or institution that might be held responsible and then punished for the ‘long years of hurt’ of the post-9/11 era. In both the Western camp and the Muslim world, it is the formlessness of the political rivalries, the unanchored nature of what some people ridiculously call ‘a clash of civilisations’, which suggests we are seeing something new and dangerous developing.

This global formlessness springs from the decline in the importance of the state and in the standing of traditional diplomacy over the past couple of decades. For much of the twentieth century, the world was divided between independent states and colonies. This gave rise to war, of course – to an immense amount of it, in fact. But conflict was grounded; it had coherence. People consciously and explicitly declared war, normally against other states or against their oppressors, and there were clear end results to be fought over and potentially won: new colonial territory for powerful states, perhaps, or sovereign independence for rebelling colonies. Wars had targets, purpose, endpoints. Not anymore. Today, the world is divided between kind-of independent states over here (think how far European states have colluded in their own sovereign diminution), and so-called ‘failed states’ over there, where weak, hastily constructed institutions seek to govern some bits of territory as best they can. In this post-state, end-of-diplomacy landscape, the question of how to declare war, and more fundamentally why, is never clear.

The changing nature of global affairs following the hollowing-out of the old politics can be glimpsed in Iraq. Here, it is actually not immediately clear who is morally responsible for the invasion and destabilisation of that state. Yes, we know the war was launched and initially fought by the US and the UK, but both of those states constantly disavowed moral responsibility for the future and governance of post-Saddam Iraq. Neither nation flew its flags in that country. As one report said, ‘American forces have been told not to fly the Stars and Stripes for fear of wrecking [the] message that America is fighting the Iraq War to liberate, not conquer’. Troops were told to avoid ‘displays of triumphalism’. Large aspects of the war, including some of the more risky military expeditions, were outsourced to private security firms with no national allegiance. Not only were America and Britain profoundly uncertain about who to hold responsible for 9/11 – they were also profoundly unwilling to claim clear moral and national responsibility for what they did globally in the wake of 9/11.

Looking at Iraq, it is very unclear who owns that war, or who led it, and whose name they led it, or what they led it for. It’s a similar story in Afghanistan, where the invaders (America and Britain again, joined by a few other nations) also engaged in a self-disavowing, flagless, responsibility-denying PR exercise, effectively, rather than in any coherent declaration of and pursuit of war. The inhabitants of Iraq and Afghanistan, and other parts of the Middle East that have felt the consequences of the West’s post-9/11 wars, can be forgiven for not knowing who or what to rage against; and also, like us, they lack the language and practices of the old arts of diplomacy and war through which frustrations were once channelled and expressed. And so what we end up with is a desperate lashing out, a search for a flashpoint issue through which various formless furies might potentially be aired. It is not simply their super religious sensitivities that made these Muslim protesters go mad about the YouTube video, but rather the fact that they, like us, lack the means to articulate or pursue political grievances.

Some groups have emerged to exploit the formlessness of late twentieth and early twenty-first-century international politics. This is the nature of outfits like al-Qaeda, which are self-consciously global rather than national, and which are grounded fundamentally in the world of emotions rather than political demands. Such groups are parasites on the withering of the old political structures, living off the absence of national thinking and state coherence to promote a new ideology of effectively global rage. As the author Faisal Devji has said of modern-day jihadist groups, they have dispensed with ‘old-fashioned politics tied to states and citizenship’, and are not bound by ‘the kind of relations that characterised national struggles in the past, which brought together people who shared a history and a geography into a political arena defined by processes of intentionality and control’ (1).

Yet that description could be applied across the board today, not only to al-Qaeda but also to numerous political groups and even to Western states themselves: they, too, have jettisoned the old politics of ‘states and citizenship’ and the idea of pursuing ‘intentionality and control’ in international affairs, in favour of pursuing short-term PR goals on the global stage or of simply shaking their heads in confusion over why ‘they’, whoever they might be, hate us. In the absence of the old diplomatic structures and the language and outlook of realpolitik, the numerous tensions that exist between the West and the Middle East are not clearly expressed; they are muted, strangled, confused, and liable to burst open around the most curious of controversies. This is what we have seen in the ‘Muslim rage’ around the YouTube video – the explosion of political tensions that have no political arena in which to be articulated and acted upon.

There are many complex historical reasons for the decline of the state and diplomacy over the past two decades in particular. One of them is the West’s own conscious disavowal of state structures in the post-Cold War era of the 1990s, when we were told by everyone from American leaders to the UN that we were entering a new ‘humanitarian’ era of global policing and justice-enforcing, in which nation states would be less important than they were in the past. As one of these ‘humanitarians’ put it, ‘[Our] movement for global justice has been a struggle against sovereignty’. But this top-down, elite ‘struggle against sovereignty’ has not brought about a new era of peace, but rather one of chaos, in which global tensions still exist, but struggle to be spoken or meaningfully fought over.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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