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Roots of discontent

Print edition : Oct 19, 2012 T+T-
A MARCH TO THE U.S. EMBASSY in protest against the film "Innocence of Muslims" made in the U.S. and cartoons in a French magazine mocking the Prophet, in Kuala Lumpur on September 21.-BAZUKI MUHAMMAD/REUTERS

A MARCH TO THE U.S. EMBASSY in protest against the film "Innocence of Muslims" made in the U.S. and cartoons in a French magazine mocking the Prophet, in Kuala Lumpur on September 21.-BAZUKI MUHAMMAD/REUTERS

The protests against the short film clip deriding the Prophet bring out deep-seated resentments against the United States policy of intervention worldwide and its use of drones against unarmed civilians in the Muslim world.

The death of J. Christopher Stevens, the United States Ambassador to Libya, at the hands of an extremist group in Benghazi, along with the violence that engulfed much of West Asia and North Africa following the release of a hate video, Innocence of Muslims, has been described by analysts and commentators as a case of chickens coming home to roost and blowback for the United States policies in the region. The events in the first half of September may mark defining moments in the regions history. The policies of the new governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, which were put in place following the onset of the Arab Spring, can no longer be predicted. Egypt and Tunisia were the staunchest allies of the U.S. in the region. In Libya, the new government is yet to find its feet.

The counter-revolution in Libya would not have succeeded if the West had not declared a no fly zone and run bombing missions for months. Liberated Libya today is riven by sectarian and tribal animosities. The mob attack that resulted in the demise of the U.S. diplomat would have been unthinkable in the days of Muammar Qaddafi. The 12-minute video, a provocation staged by right-wing American Christian evangelical groups, only provided the spark for riots to spread from Benghazi to Jakarta. Over 20 countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Yemen, Algeria, Jordan and Morocco were seriously affected by street protests. Many protesters lost their lives in Tunis, Khartoum and Sanaa as they tried to enter U.S. and other Western embassies.

Many of the countries where the protests were the loudest are under authoritarian pro-U.S. governments. Articles lampooning Islam and the Prophet have appeared previously in Latin American, African and even a few Arab countries, but they did not elicit a similar kind of response from the Muslim world. Only when offensive literature is published in countries that continue to oppress and exploit the Arab world does the Arab Street explode in anger.

Reactions from the West

The reactions from the West following the serious incidents in September have not helped to cool down temperatures. President Barack Obama, in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in the last week of September, said the U.S. would protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with. He criticised the mindless violence and grandiosely announced that it was time to leave behind the call for violence. He had no word of remorse for the thousands killed under his watch as a result of U.S. drone and missile attacks. He also reiterated his not-so-veiled threat to resort to military action against Iran: The United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

He described the recent spurt in violence in the Arab world as an assault on the very tenets of the U.N. Obama also used language favoured by George W. Bush in his speech, saying that he would be relentless in tracking down the killers of Ambassador Stevens and bringing them to justice. Both Iran and Libya have become campaign issues in the election season in the U.S. President Obama wants to appear tough on terrorism and Iran. The Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, was quick to allege that Obama was not tough enough in his response to the killing of four Americans in Benghazi. Romney, if his speeches are anything to go by, would like the U.S. to start bombing Iran immediately. Both the Republicans and the Democrats, pandering to the Jewish lobby, had declared at their national conventions that they would recognise disputed Jerusalem as the national capital of Israel.

Opinion-makers in European countries have also responded to the widespread protests by defending anti-Islamic propaganda under the cloak of the right to free speech. Even before the protests started subsiding, offensive cartoons of the Prophet originally printed in a Danish newspaper were republished in a French paper, Charlie Hebdo, and in a Spanish magazine, El Jueves, in late September. The French government immediately banned all protests against the offensive cartoons but ordered the temporary closure of its embassies in many parts of the world. The French government, which claims to champion the freedom of expression, has banned head scarves for girls in schools. Muslim women are prohibited from wearing the hijab in public places in France. Gunter Walraff, a famous German writer and journalist, called for flooding the media with religious caricatures. The crude caricatures and videos denigrating Islam that have recently surfaced, according to objective observers, are meant to provoke and have very little to do with protecting the right to freedom of speech.

A deeper frustration

The huge demonstrations to protest against the release of the video, according to most observers, were only a reflection of the widespread anger in the Arab Street in particular, and the Muslim world in general, against the predatory policies of the U.S. The protests were particularly strong in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan, where hundreds of people have been killed this year as a result of drone attacks. The recent protests that shook the Arab world highlight the need for the U.S. to act in a more responsible manner in the international arena. Washington should not use popular protests against governments as a pretext for military intervention. The military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have spectacularly backfired. Libya may be the next in line.

The war on terror started by the U.S. 11 years back seems far from over. There is very little to differentiate the Obama administration from the previous dispensation in Washington. The notorious detention centre in Guantanamo Bay continues to function despite earlier pledges to close it. The detentions and the torture continue. The U.S. all-weather ally in the region, Israel, continues to expand its settlements on the West Bank, making the likelihood of Palestinian statehood an even more distant dream. The Obama administration seems even more under the spell of the Israeli government than the Bush administration. Washington continues to look the other way when Israel tramples on basic Palestinian rights. On any given day, scores of civilians die as a result of terror attacks or as collateral damage caused by the relentless surge of U.S. drone attacks. A recent poll showed that two-thirds of the people in North Africa and West Asia are suspicious of the motives of the U.S. in the region.

Syria and Iraq in particular have been witnessing a dramatic increase in terror attacks mounted by Islamist insurgents and fighters funded and trained either by the U.S. or by its allies in the region. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Islamists under Salafi and Wahhabi influence have trained their guns on the Americans. In Syria and Iraq they have chosen to align with the forces propped up by Washington and the Gulf monarchies. On a single day, September 26, more than 350 people were killed in Syria. In the first week of September, there were 29 bombing attacks on a single day in 19 cities in Iraq. As many as 111 civilians were killed. The Syrian civil war, which was instigated from outside, has had a severe impact on neighbouring Iraq. When the Syrian military command was decimated by a terrorist bomb in July, no condolence messages were sent. Even the U.N. Security Council, which was in session, chose, ignoring protocol, not to send a message deploring the incident. It was Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri who first issued a call for jehad in Syria in February. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, then increased the financial and logistical help for the armed Sunni fundamentalist groups fighting in Syria. It was obvious that Al Qaeda and the West had the common objective of dislodging Bashar al-Assad. The same short-sighted goal was implemented in Libya.

Depending on the situation, the West uses Al Qaeda as either a target or a useful tool. The militant group, which is officially the U.S. enemy number one, is used by it indirectly to spread democracy in secular countries such as Syria and Libya. In countries such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, where the American war on terror continues unabated, it is targeted. A radical Islamic cleric with a big fan following has declared that Alawites are more criminal than Jews and Christians and urged people to wage jehad against President Assad and the Syrian government. Assad was born into an Alawite family. The jehadists in Syria are mainly funded and armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the Free Syrian Army, aided by the West.

The Obama administrations recent decision to remove the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) from the State Departments list of terrorist organisations provided yet another illustration of the Wests double standards on terrorism. NBC news quoted U.S. officials as confirming Irans charges that Israel has used MEK militants in recent years to carry out sabotage operations, including assassinations of Iranian scientists associated with Tehrans nuclear programme. Iranian officials have said that the delisting is the MEKs reward from the U.S. for the groups terrorist activities inside Iran.

Drones and protests

The outpouring of unbridled anger against the U.S. in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen was provoked by the Obama administrations unrestrained use of unmanned drones to target the populace. Over 74 per cent of Pakistanis, according to a recent opinion survey, consider the U.S. as their major enemy for randomly using drones on their territory. Thousands of Pakistanis have perished along the border regions of Afghanistan, many of them non-combatants, according to a recently released report, Living under Drones, prepared by researchers from Stanford and New York University law schools. It says that the U.S. now has 10,000 weaponised drones. There has been a fourfold increase in the use of drones under Obama. Over areas such as northern Waziristan, around six Predator drones circle around at a height of 5,000 feet (1,500 metres), day and night. The drones are clearly visible to the inhabitants in the villages under surveillance. The noise of the drones keeps children and mothers awake in the night, fearful that a strike may be ordered any time. Every Waziri town has been terrorised, according to the report. An entire region is being terrorised by the constant threat of death from the skies. Their way of life is collapsing, kids are too terrified to go to school, adults are afraid to attend weddings, funerals, business meetings or anything that includes gathering in groups, observed Clive Stafford Smith of the British-based Human Rights Group, Reprieve.

Pakistani complicity

Pakistan has been protesting that the drone attacks infringe on its sovereignty, but there is strong evidence to suggest that the countrys intelligence services provide information about suspects to the U.S. military. Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar recently stated that the use of the drones was the major reason why the U.S. was so unpopular in Pakistan. But in the same breath, she endorsed the use of drones as long as it only targeted terrorists.

The drone strikes have become an emotive issue. The New York Times reported in May that Obama had a personal role in vetting a secret kill list selected for elimination through drone attacks. An editorial in The Washington Post stated that no President has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nations security goals. Former President Jimmy Carter wrote in The New York Times: We dont know how many hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in these [drone] attacks, each one approved by the highest authorities in Washington. These would have been unthinkable in previous times. The U.Ns Independent Investigator for Extra Judicial Killings, Christoph Hayns, has accused the U.S. of dodging his questions on the use of armed drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. He had asked the Obama administration to lay out the legal basis and accountability procedures for the use of armed drones. Hayns told reporters on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights meeting in Geneva that he had never got a satisfactory answer from U.S. officials.

American media reports from the countries that have been under the siege of drones say that the strikes have motivated many people to join violent non-state armed groups and have inspired violent attacks against U.S. interests. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, the countries where U.S. drones are widely deployed, witnessed the most violent protests in the aftermath of the release of the offending video. Though most Afghans were not able to see the offending video, big crowds gathered outside U.S. military bases to throw stones and raise Death to America slogans. Insider attacks on American trainers by Afghan soldiers also registered an increase. The Taliban launched an audacious attack on the heavily fortified Camp Bastion NATO base in southern Afghanistan on September 14, claiming that it was revenge against the release of the blasphemous video. Many U.S. aircraft were reportedly destroyed in the raid.

In Yemen, drone attacks, according to reports, have inspired a whole generation of young people to join Al Qaeda in the American Peninsula (AQAP). The Washington Post reported earlier in the year that the Obama administrations covert war had brought about a marked radicalisation of the local population and was driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the U.S.. The short clip advertising a non-existent film, Innocence of Muslims, was only the cue for many people to vent their grievances against the policies being followed by the U.S. around the globe. The U.S. may have friendly governments all over the world but in the long run it is public perception of U.S. policies that finally matters. Three years after Obama promised a new beginning with the Islamic world in Cairo, the relationship is back to where it was under President George W. Bush. In his Cairo speech, Obama had noted that it was a time of tension between the U.S. and Muslims around the world, tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any policy debate. The tensions seem to have only increased.