Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Politics, Religion And Power Behind Protests


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In Beirut today, American diplomats burned classified documents as a security precaution while Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah made a rare public appearance to demand suppression of an Internet video that's triggered sometimes deadly protests since last week.

The world should know our anger will not be a passing outburst, Nasrallah told tens of thousands of his supporters. The world did not understand the level of insult to God's prophet.

While protests were also reported in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia, today, the wave may have begun to subside enough to look beneath and ask whether this was a response to an offensive movie clip, anger at U.S. policies over the past decades, manipulation by hard-line elements. As you've thought about it, what was this really all about?

800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, passwords and why our whole system of digital security needs to change on The Opinion Page this week. But we begin with Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us again on the program.

SAMER SHEHATA: My pleasure.

CONAN: And to what degree is this reaction to the film, and to what degree is this about something larger?

SHEHATA: Well, I think you said in your introduction it is likely to be caused by a number of factors. There's no question that there is reaction to the film in many different cities across the world. There's no question about that. It's also looking more and more likely that the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi was a deliberate attack by armed extremists that maybe had nothing to do with the film.

CONAN: Tied more for 9/11 than...

SHEHATA: Tied more as an attack on the United States commemorating 9/11, having to do with Libyan politics and someone who was assassinated. It's also the case that there's certainly a security vacuum, to some extent, in Libya and Egypt, having gone through a revolution in the case of Libya and a serious uprising and political change with regard to Egypt.

Then of course there's also domestic politics taking place in many of these countries. So you have Salafis in Egypt, for example, trying to outdo the Muslim Brotherhood - the president now, Mohammed Morsi, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood - in terms of their defense of Islam, as it were, and winning points locally.

And of course as you mentioned, and this can never be forgotten - this is incredibly important - there is a great deal of hostility towards the United States government in many Muslim majority states and across the Arab world because of the history of American foreign policy in the region, whether it has to do with multiple Iraq wars, the one-sided support for Israel in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, decades of support for authoritarian regimes in the region and so on.

So that is a constant, unfortunately, and that is the backdrop to much of this.

CONAN: Yes, but that's always there. Why - this reaction to this amateurish movie seen by virtually no one just seems so far out of proportion to have killed an American ambass - well, again, if that attack was planned, that was different, right.

SHEHATA: Well, I think you're completely correct, that nothing can justify in any way the violent attack on the ambassador and the three other Americans in Benghazi or violence against American embassies in any place. At the same time, however, I think it is important to understand and for listeners to comprehend that the scale of these protests is not really as large as much of the media is making them out to be.

I mean, these are relatively small, in comparison, say, to the protests we saw the last few years against Mr. Gadhafi, against Mr. Mubarak, in Yemen, in other places that were political protests. So a relatively small number of people are, you know, going too far. And in fact we've seen denunciations of the violence and defense of the right to protest peacefully and legally across the Arab world and from many Muslim leaders, whether it was the president of Libya who denounced the attacks immediately, or the president of Egypt who took a little longer to be critical, as well as Muslim religious leaders across the "Muslim world," quote-unquote.

CONAN: Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post on Sunday called "Why a YouTube Trailer Ignited Muslim Rage." He joins us now by phone from his home in New York. And good to have you back on the program with us.

FOUAD AJAMI: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And in your piece, you trace a deeper historical factor that you say is critical to remember: the collapse of the caliphate and the insult that - the victimization that so many Arabs in particular feel.

AJAMI: Well, you're kind enough to mention that piece, and it does, as you say, Neal, it does take a kind of longer view of this conflict. But imagine the cynicism in the region as a whole, the cynicism in the Arab world. Imagine that someone like Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. He's so offended by this 14-minute trailer, a vulgar 14-minute trailer, but he's not offended, of course, by Bashar al-Assad shelling mosques, killing believers and his forces raping women, killing children.

It's a very, very selective kind of outrage. And there was actually someone had a very, shall we say, slightly irreverent, slightly witty mock Twitter statement by Bashar al-Assad saying, wow, it's good that I've been killing women and children. It's good I've been shelling mosques. Imagine what would have happened had I made an anti-Muslim video. They would have really come after me.

So I think this is manufactured rage. It's cynical rage. It's very, very shameful rage. And I think when you realize that we've been here before, that Muslims in a way protested and protested violently and badly against the Salmon Rushdie more than 20 years ago, then they did same during the cartoon crisis.

Then there was another upheaval in Amsterdam about the making of a film. I think this upheaval doesn't speak well of the protests and of the public order that tolerates them.

CONAN: Manipulated? Are people so easily manipulated?

AJAMI: Well, I think they are. I mean, when you realize, of course, that this trailer, this - which will never be made into a film, as soon as you look at it, you know it's a vulgar production. And when you know what the man said, the man we suspect who made this trailer, when he said, ah, I'm an Israeli Jew, and I made this trailer with the help of 100 Jewish investors - believe me, Neal, as soon as I heard that, I thought this is exactly such a lying statement.

It's basically two birds with one stone. You insult the Muslim, you implicate the Jews. And it turns out to be - as far as we know, it turns out to be a Copt from Egypt. And why this should become this crisis and this pretext for this violent anti-Americanism is completely beyond me.

CONAN: And Samer Shehata?

SHEHATA: Yea, I mean, just a couple things. I mean, I think, you know, as Professor Ajami said, one has to look at the movie itself or the trailer as intentionally inciteful. There's no question that the individual who made it was trying to provoke something, probably like what we've seen, violent...

CONAN: Inciteful, meant to incite, as opposed to insightful...

SHEHATA: Of course, inciteful, meant to incite violence and division between Muslim publics and the United States and so on. It's a form of hate speech, I think. But the thing that I disagree with Professor Ajami is his characterization of the reaction of 1.5 Muslims - billion Muslims.

It's not the case that, you know, hundreds of thousands of people in Muslim-majority states are attacking American embassies or engaging in violence. In fact, in fact I think there's no question that the vast majorities in Muslim-majority countries, although they are outraged at the film and probably have different conceptions of free speech than Professor Ajami, are not engaging in violence and in fact have denounced, in many cases, the violent attack on the American ambassador in Libya, the killing of Americans in Libya, as well as violence against American diplomatic facilities overseas.

So it's not 1.5 billion Muslims who are outraged and are enraged to the point of engaging in violence that is somehow irrational, pre-modern and so on.

CONAN: To be fair, Professor Ajami's piece was about the Arab world and not the broader Islamic world, which is quite a bit bigger, as you say. We'd like to get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, And our question to you today is: What was this really all about as you think about it and as you look at the background?

And Fouad Ajami, I did want to get, though, into some of the historical context that you wrote about. And I think Professor Ajami has left us.

AJAMI: Hello?

CONAN: Are you there?

AJAMI: I am very much.

CONAN: Yeah, I wanted to get back into some of that historical context you did write about.

AJAMI: By all means.

CONAN: And that question being the feeling of victimization, of powerlessness and of, well, being on the outside that you say so many Arabs face.

AJAMI: Well, there is - that historical narrative is absolutely right. And historical narrative was at the heart of this piece and at the heart of history of the world, the history of the self that Arabs are given. But none of that, none of that can be used as a pretext for these kinds of ugly attacks.

We can't let - we can't let the street adjudicate all these issues, and we have to accept that if the Arabs and, by and large the Muslim world beyond the Arab world, if it wants to enter the world order, if it wants to partake of human civilization, as it does - it uses Twitter, it uses Facebook and all these things, which are invented in other lands - it should also have, it should have the discretion, it should have the understanding that there is a matter of freedom of expression.

It should also have a sense of proportion, a sense of proportion that a vulgar trailer would send people into the streets - this is where people become enamored of the wisdom of the street and where the intellectuals of the Arab world, forgive me, in a way kind of - they give license to the street.

They always ennoble the street, and they defer to its judgment. We can't defer to the judgment of the street because that's not what civilized life is all about.

CONAN: It was Secretary Clinton, Samer Shehata, who said over the weekend that those people did not give - win their freedom from dictators to gain the dictatorship of the mob.

SHEHATA: Yes, she did say that, and I think that what we've seen in terms of action by states in many places, in Libya and in Egypt, is an attempt to lay down the law as much as possible, to disperse the protesters. As you know, in some cases this has meant the deaths of several protesters in Cairo, for example. And it's also come out quite obvious, both in the Arabic press, as well as in the English press, that some of the most militant of those protesting against the United States were not Islamists, had nothing to do with politics, they were hooligan football fans, some of them. That is after the first day.

So I think this is complicated, and I think it's not simply a story of the dignity, you know, of Muslims over 500 or 600 years. I think there are many more concrete political realities in the present that explain the situation.

CONAN: We're talking about what's driving the protests and violence across the Arab world. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. The U.S. government says it continues to work closely with Libyan officials to investigate the attack that killed four Americans last week, including the U.S. ambassador. There's apparent disagreement, though, over whether that attack was planned or not.

Susan Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, said yesterday the evidence so far shows no sign it was premeditated or timed to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11. She described it as, quote, a hijacking by armed extremists of a spontaneous protest against the anti-Islamic film we've been speaking about.

That account, though, does not fit the version of events described by Libya's interim president, who said yesterday it was planned definitely by people who entered the country a few months ago. They were planning this criminal act since their arrival. The investigation continues. We'll likely learn more in the coming days.

The protests sparked by that film also continue. We're talking today about what's driving the outrage and the violence. As you've thought about it, what was this really about? 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University; and Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. He wrote an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post, "Why a YouTube Trailer Ignited Muslim Rage."

And let's bring another voice into the conversation, Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy at the American University in Beirut, guest lecturer at Villanova and Northwest - Northeastern - excuse me - and a syndicated columnist for Lebanon's Daily Star. He's on the phone with us from Philadelphia. Nice to have you with us.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you.

CONAN: And as you've been thinking about this, particularly now in the situation of Beirut, it's quite unusual for Mr. Nasrallah to make a public appearance, and that he chose this occasion is interesting.

KHOURI: Well, it is interesting, and it's a sign of, I think, how seriously this issue is taken by he and his supporters, or perhaps he just thought this was an opportunity that he should grab and make a rare public appearance. It doesn't really matter what is the actual reason; the point is that there is a huge reaction around the Islamic world.

But to be fair, we shouldn't exaggerate this. I mean, you're talking of a few hundred people here and a few thousand people there. The overwhelming majority of Muslims, 99.9 percent, are not out in the streets, are not acting violently. But they're probably hurt, and they're offended.

So I think we need to be really careful about not exaggerating this but also not downplaying it.

CONAN: Not exaggerating it. It seems that every capital, most every capital in the Arab world and many throughout the Islamic world have been the scene of often violent protests.

KHOURI: By very small numbers of people, yes, small groups of people, a couple of hundred in some places, a few dozen in others, and a couple of thousand in others. Again, people are really upset. This is incredibly offensive to many, many people, and perhaps most Muslims, but it's something that's extremely offensive.

But the anger is - the people who are out on the streets are not only out on the streets because of this film. There's other reasons why people are out in the streets, and this is what makes it so complicated. This isn't a black-and-white situation of there's just one reason why they're out there.

You have the Salafists; you have the cadre-type, small groups of terrorists; you have the Muslim Brotherhood; mainstream Islamists; and then you have ordinary Muslims who are not politically active but who are upset by various aspects of American or European foreign policies or even their own governments for being in cahoots with Western governments or in Israel.

So there's five or six different reasons why people are out - that those who are out on the streets, why they're out on the streets. I think it's really important not to get them all mixed up and just look at them with one brush.

CONAN: Fouad Ajami, are we making too much of this?

AJAMI: No, we're not making too much of it, but I think we should never give such episodes, we should never give such lawlessness any intellectual context(ph), any justification, because in the end the price is paid by Muslims themselves. That is really the people who pay the price.

And I think what's kind of interesting about all these episodes, you always get the people who say, oh, the broader causes, the broader causes. There are no broader causes. It's a cheap, vulgar film made by a guy who happens to be, we think, from Egypt, who made it, and this would be easy to ignore.

We're talking about the state of civic culture in the Arab world. This is really what this crisis is all about. It's about teaching people how to live within the law, teaching people that part of the being in the modern world is a certain willingness to be offended. I mean, to some extent there were a couple of things the other day which were really quite redeeming.

There was on picture in one of our papers of this young girl - seven, eight, nine years old - they were Lebanese Shia girls wearing a chador and welcoming the pope on his visit to Lebanon. That's the way it is. That's the way it should be. There was again some beautiful pictures of two, three young girls carrying their candles with pictures of Ambassador Stevens.

So yes, of course - you know, this is not a majority response, but it's also indulged by people. It's also winked at. That is the trouble that we're talking about.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. We'll start with Amad(ph) who's with us from Minneapolis.

AMAD: Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to quickly point that to me, as somebody who lived in Afghanistan, and I've been living in the United States for the last 20, 22 years, I feel like the majority of the people on the street, which do not represent even like 0.1 percent of the Muslim population or even from those countries, they probably feel like this is some - like one of those cases that the straw that breaks the camel's back. They probably feel that they are being insulted by the United States and the West, and (unintelligible) insulted by them.

They have been attacked by them. Their countries have been invaded by them. They have - you know, they have been humiliated by them. And then you have something else on top of that. So and I think I also have to point out very clearly is that this is really condemned by the vast majority of - the violence has been condemned by the vast majority of scholars, our Muslim scholars around the world.

So - and I also believe that if the Prophet Muhammad were alive today, he would have condemned the (unintelligible), punished the people who have done this because he was absolutely against any kind of violence towards the ambassadors and messengers from other countries (unintelligible), especially somebody like the Libyan ambassador, who was a friend of the people of Libya.

But in many ways, these riots are like the riots in Los Angeles in the early '90s, late - like early '90s, I believe, that - with Rodney King, that a lot of the African-American population, they had felt as being attacked and humiliated by the police, and the Rodney King incident was like another straw that broke the camel's back, and people took to the streets. Again, not the majority of African-Americans, but a few among them, and they caused a lot of riots.

So that is the way that it should be seen by the vast majority, but I think the vast majority of people of Libya, they consider America right now to be an ally for them, and I think the vast - and I really believe that the perception of the Muslims around the world about America has really changed for the positive since Obama took over.

There's been a lot of positive steps towards that, but there's still a very tiny minority of people who are making, you know, an Islamic act, violent act...

CONAN: Amad, to the degree that opinion polls can be believed, that's not necessarily true. There was a spike of some sort after the speech in Cairo, but it has since returned to historically low levels. So I'm not sure that the attitude has changed a great deal.

But it's interesting, an emailer named Michael sends us a note: I've seen this trailer. Yes, I can see why we have problems over there. Put Jesus in the leading character and we would have people in the streets here, he argues. I'm not, again, quite sure that that would be equivalent, but I can see your point.

The humiliation, though, Samer Shehata, that's to some degree what Fouad Ajami was writing about in his piece.

SHEHATA: Well, that's right. That's what he was writing in that piece, as well as in another piece in the Washington Post. And I think that although there are some aspects of truth in this, my point simply is that what we've seen in many Muslim-majority countries over the last few days is not representative of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. That's the very first point.

And the second point is: Although there have been demonstrations and protests and violence, which is reprehensible and cannot be excused, as Rami Khouri said, the vast majority of people in the Arab world and so on are condemning of the violence. We saw immediately protests in Libya against the violent attacks on the American embassy and in support of the fallen ambassador and of the United States.

And in fact, political and religious leaders across the Muslim world have condemned the violence. Hassan Nasrallah (unintelligible) example has to be understood in the context in which it occurs. Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, supports Bashar al-Assad, is a sworn, you know, enemy of the United States, and I'm sure is legitimately offended but is making political hay of this for his own benefit and for Hezbollah's benefit.

CONAN: It's been pointed out as well, Rami Khouri, that the rally, tens of thousands there in the streets of Beirut today, but not in front of the United States embassy but in the Shia neighborhoods.

KHOURI: Right, well, that's where they - in (unintelligible), in the southern part of Beirut, is where they usually have their rallies for security reasons and because most of the supporters of Hezbollah in Beirut are there. And I think you'll probably find that Hezbollah, they're planning four or five rallies in a row now over the next week in different parts of Lebanon, and I think they'll probably all be very peaceful, very organized. You won't have any outbreaks of violence. This is a very systematic and organized group, whether, you know, one likes them or doesn't like them, but - so the fact is that they are making their views known for political purposes. They're probably the most effective political party in the whole Arab world right now. But the reality is that what really represents the political culture of the Arab world, I would argue, is not these few hundreds of people in the streets fighting and shooting and killing and whatever, but it's this - it's the millions and millions of Arabs who've gone out in the streets in the last year and a half to overthrow regimes that are dictatorial, to try to make a transformation to more democratic societies. And the process is moving in Tunisia and Egypt slowly, relatively well, relatively peacefully, relatively democratically and constitutionally.

I think that's the real heart of the political consciousness of the Arab world. These are politically primitive societies. They're not very advanced democratic societies at all. They've never had a chance. The people have never had a chance in the Arab world as a citizenry to shape their own political governing systems. This is, I think, where we should look for the real soul of the political consciousness of the Arab world and the democratic transformations. That included the war in the Libya that the U.S. was involved in, the terrible war in Syria, and other situations.

I think these are passing episodes, these episodes of street violence, and they should not be exaggerated. Some people would like to see them as representing the worst of the Arab world. It represents the worst of a very, very small minority of people who will go out into the streets, the equivalent of the Christians who will go and bomb abortion clinics in the United States, or the Timothy McVeighs. It doesn't represent the vast majority of people, and I think we have to be careful about analogies.

CONAN: Tom writes us from Houston: The world of Islam has to make up its mind about being a forward, directed open culture and evolving into a backward directed closed culture. What a shame the latter seems to be the choice emerging from the Arab Spring. The - Fouad Ajami, should we read into this, put this in the context of - as we just heard Rami Khouri and earlier Samer Shehata say - the thousands and hundreds who have been in the streets in the last week or so, or the hundreds of thousands, millions, who were involved in the Arab Spring?

AJAMI: Well, Tom has a good point. I mean, I personally, as you know, Neal, on your program, on other programs, in a passionate book I did on Syria, I have been a passionate defender of the Arab Spring. I have accepted that with the Arab Spring comes certain risks of popular culture giving itself an expression in ways we don't like. So to the extent that the Arab Spring came upon us, it's for the better. But I think there's still these swamp, if you will, of anti-Americanism, abdication of responsibility in the Arab world.

And for 30 years or so in book after book, everything about the abdication of the intellectual class in the Arab world that winks at all this, what is indisputable is there are still these remaining pockets of anti-Americanism in the Arab world, and they're often manipulated and given voice to by people who are beneficiaries of the American presence in Arab lands. I mean, that's kind of really a very distressing phenomenon. We must remember, we must remember the tragedy of Ambassador Stevens, the man who saved Benghazi when Gadhafi said he was on his way to kill the people of Benghazi street by street, house by house.

He's murdered in the same city. I think we should be more responsible, and I think Arab intellectuals owe it to themselves and to those lands to really actually avoid any kind of escape of responsibility. That's been one of my themes about this whole thing.

CONAN: Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University with us by phone from his home in New York. Also with us, Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University; and Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy at the American University in Beirut, currently a guest lecturer at Villanova. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Molly is on the line, calling us from Princeton.

MOLLY: Hi. I've been wanting to know, what do we know of what the protesters actually understand they're protesting? I'm guessing that not all of them have seen the video. I'm wondering what they think they're protesting.

CONAN: That's an interesting point. Clearly somebody got a hold of this film and translated it into Arabic, and at that point, how many people do we think have seen it, Samer Shehata?

SHEHATA: Well, I think it's fair to say that a very small number of people have seen it. And, of course, for a while and maybe until today, the video clip is unavailable in Libya and Egypt. So it is fair to think that the major of people out protesting have not seen the video. I think in some cases, as Neal was mentioning, I think one Salafi television show broadcast part of it, also intentionally inciteful - that is, to incite kind of a reaction. And I think the majority believe that the Prophet Muhammad was insulted and that this is unacceptable, and that this was kind of deliberate, and they're reacting on that basis.

Again, though, it's also the case that we know from the Western media reporting about this, as well as the Arabic press, that, for example, on the first days of protests in Cairo, there were Egyptian Coptic Christians who were protesting in front of the embassy as well. And also over the weekend, we know that many of those who were protesting in front of the American embassy didn't know about the movie or didn't - weren't there because of the video clip and so on.

They were there because they have a grudge against the Ministry of Interior security officials, for example. So this is a very complicated issue, and I don't think it can be simply reduced to the damaged dignity of Muslims across the world.

CONAN: Molly, thank you very much.

MOLLY: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: And this email if we have time for it, from Ann: I agree with all the guests who are saying the reasons for violence are manifold - history of U.S. betrayals, cynical alliances with dictators, et cetera. I wanted to add that my biggest beef right now, however, is with the thousands of Muslim leaders, politicians, clerics, mullahs, princes, justices, et cetera, who've been relatively silent about the violence. I know not all have been silent, but the majority has been shockingly silent or even egging on the violence, who I believe are silent out of a cynical calculus that while anger and attention is focused on the U.S., they are safer from criticism themselves in the time of revolution. It must be a relief to have that frustration redirected back at the West. I wonder, Rami Khouri, we just have a few seconds left - do you think that's a factor?

KHOURI: Well, there's certainly some of that going on. And historically, Arab leaders in non-democratic societies have tried to deflect the criticism against them, which was not allowed in their countries, to direct it to the Israelis or the Americans or the British or some other foreign target. And there's probably some of that going on. Many, many leaders in the Arab world have come out, criticized the violence and said it's unacceptable, especially the killing of the four Americans at the consulate in Benghazi. There's mass revulsion against this; this is widely condemned, and the excessive violence is as well. So I think there's no doubt about that.

CONAN: Thank you all for your time. Rami Khouri with us on the phone from Villanova, where he's a guest lecturer; Fouad Ajami with us from his home in New York; and Sam Shehata here with us in Studio 3A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.