Battle of the "real reasons" for Middle East riots

Pundits know it wasn't all about the video

Published September 18, 2012 6:29PM (EDT)

As a shorthand over the past week, the media has referred to anti-American riots across the Middle East as stemming from rage over an anti-Islamic video, "The Innocence of Muslims." Few commentators, however, genuinely read the unrest as anger at an offensive film trailer tout court. In fact, a good amount of digital ink has already been spilled on the "real" reasons underpinning the riots, some interpretations more sensible than others.

Historically determined:
At the bottom of the pile we have an editorial in the Washington Post from Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese-born fellow of Stanford's conservative Hoover Institute. "Why is the Arab world so easily offended?" asks Ajami, who goes on to argue that the rage in response to "The Innocence of Muslims" highlights an almost historically determined cultural deficiency in the Arab world when it comes to dealing with "modernity['s] sometimes distasteful but ultimately benign criticism of Islam." (Who knew modernity as a whole was engaged in this criticism, but Ajami seems pretty sure.)

Ajami explains that "a vast chasm separates the poor standing of Arabs in the world today from their history of greatness. In this context, their injured pride is easy to understand." He outlines (barely) a history of centuries of invasion from Mongols, Ottoman Turks and then the West. Thus with just a few paragraphs of historicizing, Ajami comfortably asserts that Arab anger against certain items of Western culture (he notes Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" and the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed) can be neatly explained. It's a cheap historian's trick and barely more informative than blaming "The Innocence of Muslims" clip alone when it comes to explaining the conditions of possibility for anti-American riots. Ray McGovern in Consortium News points out the unsurprising: Ajami was an "outspoken supporter" for the Iraq war.

U.S. foreign policy:
McGovern's "real reasons" draw on more recent geopolitics. He writes:

Last week’s violence not only reflects the deep anger at and distrust of the U.S. across the Islamic world, but also provides insight into the challenges posed by the power now enjoyed by the forces of extremism long held in check by the dictators toppled by last year’s wave of revolutions.

He also notes that "one key reason for the antipathy toward the U.S. among Muslims is the close identification of the U.S. with Israel and the widespread realization that support from Washington enables Israel’s policies of oppression and warmongering against the Palestinians and its regional neighbors."

Global food prices:
Left-wing writer Jesse Myerson focuses on material conditions fomenting unrest. In Pacific Standard he writes:

In cases of broad social unrest, catalytic incidents are important insofar as they take the measure of people’s passions and attach a vivid narrative—a shot heard ‘round the world—to a mass movement. But wood has to be dry for a spark to catch; populations of people have to be primed for unrest. And in both the run-up to the Arab Spring and now, a research team at the New England Complex Systems Institute has demonstrated convincingly, that priming factor is skyrocketing food prices.

Myerson goes on to explain the spikes and plunges in global food prices as a result of "state subsidy of agribusiness in the United States and commodities speculation." He concludes:

In the era of transnational capital, domestic policy is foreign policy. Onlookers baffled by the violence erupting in the Middle East would therefore benefit by spending less time inspecting the straw that broke the camel’s back—and I believe more camel’s backs are likely to break soon—and more time scrutinizing the activity on Capitol Hill, Wall Street, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.


By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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