By ANDREW POLLACK
On Sept. 11, demonstrations broke out in several predominantly Muslim countries as news spread of a viciously anti-Islamic video produced in the United States. Crowds gathered in front of U.S. embassies and consulates, in some cases storming them. In Benghazi, Libya, a U.S. diplomatic building was attacked and four U.S. officials, including the ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, were killed.
The Obama administration later tried to portray that incident as a long-planned “al-Qaeda” attack using the video controversy as cover. It’s too early to tell who was really behind the attack, but what matters far more is how the media has used this whole episode to further inflame anti-Islamic sentiment, while it continues to ignore the real, and far more massive, protests throughout the Arab world for social justice, independence, and democracy.
Soon after the Benghazi attack, numerous Muslim groups in various countries held protests and issued statements lamenting the deaths of Stevens and his colleagues. This reflected in part ongoing discomfort among progressive activists in the region with attempts by fundamentalist elements to portray themselves as the leaders of the uprising of the last two years. But these apologetic protests also represented confusion or even outright misrepresentation concerning the role of Stevens and his colleagues.
A New York Times article titled “Deadly Attack in Libya Was Major Blow to C.I.A. Efforts” reported, “The attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans has dealt the Central Intelligence Agency a major setback in its intelligence-gathering efforts at a time of increasing instability in the North African nation. “Among the more than two dozen American personnel evacuated from the city after the assault on the American mission and a nearby annex were about a dozen C.I.A. operatives and contractors, who played a crucial role in conducting surveillance and collecting information on an array of armed militant groups in and around the city.
“’It’s a catastrophic intelligence loss,’ said one American official… ‘We got our eyes poked out.’” CIA personnel carried out their secret missions, said the paper, in the very building where Stevens was killed.
Stevens himself, while lionized as a “friend of Arabs,” a gentle, humor-loving diplomat, was in fact part and parcel of the imperialist intelligence-gathering operation. Typical of some of the frequently Orientalist tributes to him was that “he understood the Arabs.”
But he was not just a wine-sipping, reception-holding diplomat. Stevens has been the main political point person for the U.S. in its military intervention in Libya. Before that he had served in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and, said The New York Times, “in State Department offices overseeing policy in the region. He served as the deputy chief of mission in the [Libyan] capital, Tripoli, from 2007 to 2009 during the relatively brief easing of tensions with Colonel Qaddafi’s government.” His postings in the other countries named (including Egypt under Mubarak) meant he was a key political operative in Washington’s political interaction with those dictatorial regimes.
He was, in sum, a fixer, an operative gathering information and engaging in talks with the rulers of those countries on behalf of U.S. imperialism. In that respect, he was more like Graham Greene’s “Quiet American”—a meddler on behalf of empire—than the diplomatic figurehead portrayed in encomiums delivered after his death.
“Why Don’t They Thank Us?”
U.S. government officials and the media used these events as proof of the “ingratitude” of countries that Washington had supposedly helped free from dictatorship—ignoring the fact that the U.S. had backed Mubarak et al. right up until the moment of their departure, had long dealt with Gadhafi before falling out with him and bombarding Libya with planes and missiles, and continues to support the most pro-imperialist, anti-democratic forces in the region. For the masses in these countries, in contrast, the video was symbolic of the humiliating scorn, slander, and lies heaped upon them by Western powers for centuries.
Vijay Prashad, in his article “Libyan Humiliation a Driving Force for Anti-Americanism” (Alakhbar English, Sept. 12, 2012), noted that this is not the first such protest in Benghazi, and he listed rallies, building invasions, and bomb incidents in January, April, May, and August of this year against Libyan government, UN, and Western diplomatic targets. “Frustration with the West is commonplace amongst sections of society who are not Gaddafi loyalists, but on the contrary fought valiantly in the 2011 civil war against Gaddafi. The NATO intervention did not mollify a much more fundamental grievance they have against the US-UK, namely the sense of humiliation of the Arab world against the arrogance of Western domination in cultural and political terms.
“An earlier incident helps to highlight this point. In late 2005, protests across the world took place in reaction to a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, publishing cartoons that demeaned the Prophet Mohammad. This upsurge came to eastern Libya in early 2006 when an Italian minister, Roberto Calderoli, wore a t-shirt that bore that offensive cartoon. A demonstration of more than 1,000 people, mainly political Islamists and pious Muslims, gathered in front of the Italian consulate in Benghazi. … The Gaddafi regime sent in its armed police, who opened fire, killing 11. After the police firing, a section of the middle-class that was not sympathetic to the Islamists turned against the Gaddafi regime, and demanded justice not only around the 2006 incident but also for families of those members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and others massacred in Abu Salim prison in 1996.”
It was a February 2011 protest in Benghazi commemorating the 2006 incident that kicked off the anti-Gadhafi rebellion.
Prashad describes outrage at Gadhafi’s collaboration with imperialism in repressing demonstrations against European slanders of Islam, as well as his help in aiding Western powers via detention and torture. The CIA had in fact been welcomed to Libya by Gadhafi in 2004. British intelligence agents were similarly welcomed, and collaboration in matters of detention and torture begun.
Another source of discontent in the country is the rigged elections this July, which, said Prashad, “were celebrated in the West, since it seemed that unlike Tunisia and Egypt, the Islamists had not garnered the fruits of the revolts. The neo-liberal sections, led by Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance won a majority. … His victory in the polls vindicated NATO, which now felt that it had its man in charge—open to sweetheart deals for Western oil companies and eager to push further the neo-liberal agenda that was constrained five years ago.”
The rules for the July elections favored Jibril’s Alliance and were skewed against Islamist candidates. “The results of the July elections, therefore, are not representative of the social character of the country, where political Islam plays an important role. Talk of the ‘defeat’ of the Islamists in the ballot box further inflames a section that believes that it remains integral to the future of Libya.”
The humiliation cited by Prashad was reinforced by government and media commentary in imperialist countries on the protests, which ranged from outrage at the “ingratitude” of the Arab masses for non-existent aid in freeing themselves from dictators, to reinforcement of anti-Islamic stereotypes, such as the cover of Newsweek featuring a photo of bearded, angry Muslim men with the headline “Muslim Rage.”
Meanwhile, throughout the days surrounding these events, the quieter, more bureaucratic official policy of Islamophobia continued apace as Obama’s drones continued to rain down death, with a formal declaration that any adult male could be considered a legitimate target without any evidence. And the focus on the video protests served Washington as a useful distraction from the ongoing regional revolt. Arab revolutionaries noted the discrepancy in size between the anti-video protests and the far larger rallies in recent years against local dictators and Western intervention.
In fact, at the very same time that the video protests were occurring, significant developments in the anti-dictator, anti-imperialist revolt in the region were taking place. Protests broke out in the West Bank against Palestinian Authority-imposed price increases. Those protests, mobilizing thousands, also explicitly denounced the PA’s broader neoliberal economic policies, as well as the Paris Protocols, the economic component of the Oslo Accords, in which the PLO leadership formally agreed to its subservient status vis-à-vis Israel.
In Egypt, on Sept. 16 and 17, a new wave of strikes broke out among school staff and students, transport workers, and others. Protests were also held against IMF attempts to impose new debt on the country.
Anti-Islam, anti-Palestinian ads in N.Y.
Later in September, U.S.-based Islamophobe and Arab-hater Pamela Geller sparked off a parallel controversy as she brought to New York’s transit system racist ads that she had earlier paid to display in San Francisco. The ads declared, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Local activists mobilized quickly to denounce the ads via social media, pickets, and “correcting” the ads by putting antiracist, pro-Palestine stickers on top of them.
Geller is part of a multi-national anti-Muslim, anti-Arab network of bigots, a network whose leading lights have been cited in the scribblings of such mass murderers as Norwegian right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. Her stunt comes after a months-long wave of anti-Islamic violence (see article in our last issue) in the U.S. involving murder, beatings, and mosque desecration.
Geller’s opponents noted that the alleged “civilized/savage” dichotomy is an exact replica of the ideological justification for wars of genocide against Africans and African-Americans, Native Americans and Latin@s, Palestinians, and other nationalities whose land various imperialist overlords wanted to seize.
Columbia Professor Hamid Dabashi, writing in Al Jazeera English, also noted a parallel in Mitt Romney’s description of 47% of Americans as “freeloaders.” Of course, Obama holds the same disdain for working people as Romney, but carries it out in practice without the inflammatory rhetoric. Dabashi himself noted, “The thick vulgarity of the [Geller] ad turns it into a caricature, safely distances it from Harvard political scientists theorizing ‘the clash of civilisation,’ as it distances it from the very core of American imperialism, so that once this minor disorder is thus identified and acknowledged as ‘a trivial and disgraceful pustule,’ the real problem – namely the fact that the entire American foreign policy, its demonization of Muslims in the courses it teaches in its military academies, its flushing the Quran down the toilet by way of torturing Muslim ‘savages,’ by drone attacks on innocent people in Pakistan or Afghanistan, and by its unconditional support for Israel repeatedly articulated by President Obama are all ‘evaded, never even named, and thereby exorcised’… ‘the ad is not an exception that proves a rule, but an exception that camouflages the rule.”
While many mainstream pundits complain about the “lack of respect for freedom of speech” which the protests against the video and Geller’s ad supposedly reveal, these same pundits have ignored the growing efforts of Zionists in the U.S. to ban anti-Zionist speakers and shut down events critical of Zionism, claiming they are supposedly “anti-Semitic.”
Anti-Militia Uprising in Libya
In the article above, we note the varied motives of those Arab and Muslim forces protesting the assault on the U.S. diplomatic/spy compounds in Benghazi. Nowhere was the reaction more dramatic than in Libya itself, where many of those who had welcomed Gadhafi’s fall from power have been growing increasingly tired of the behavior of sectarian militias who participated in the uprising, some of whom the new imperialist-backed government has relied on to keep it in power and to police the country.
Andrea Khalil and Malak Bouod, in their jadaliyya.com article “Libyan Eastern Tribal Chiefs, Population, and Government,” described a meeting organized by tribal chiefs in the country’s eastern region (where Benghazi sits) after the assault on the U.S. sites. The chiefs invited government officials, but made it clear that the latter were there to listen, not decide.
The central demand of the meeting was that the militias give up their weapons and dissolve, and that the government take responsibility for all military and policing functions. Many of those at the meeting condemned recent attacks on Sufi shrines and other criminal acts of the militias, condemnations which have been widespread among Libyans and Libyan expats in social media in recent weeks.
The meeting condemned the attack on the U.S. site, as well as “kidnappings and ‘disappearances’ committed by armed brigades operating outside the control of the military and police.” But they also warned against the act being used “as a pretext for foreign military intervention in Libya.”
The declarations of the chiefs match growing dissatisfaction with the continued chaos in the country since Gadhafi’s fall. Khalil and Bouod cite opinion polls in which 70% of those surveyed ranked “fighting crime and disorder” as their first, second, or third priority, with 51% saying it was their first priority.
The authors admitted that the tribal chiefs who ran the meeting are neither elected nor representative of any grassroots organizations, but say that the space they’ve opened in defiance of the government could be filled by youth and other “civil society groups.” There is evidence both for and against this thesis.
On the one hand, on Friday, Sept. 21, over 30,000 Libyans stormed some militia bases, forcing them to dissolve and leave their weapons behind. The demonstration, said Khalil and Bouod, “was organized by a leaderless group of thirty to forty activists, with no dominant political affiliations or ties to NGOs. It was a well-organized, carefully thought-out demonstration that sought to draw the biggest and most peaceful crowds possible.”
If the tens of thousands involved can become organized by neighborhood, by workplace, by campus or profession, this would over time, and with proper leadership, give the masses the sense that they, and not the government or sectarian militias, can be the sole power in the country.
But for now the apparent leaders of the anti-militia movement seek instead to reinforce the authority of the new bourgeois government—an authority that the timid and insecure government prefers to share with the sectarian militias. As Al-Jazeera reported, “Since the killing of Stevens, the Libyan government has taken a two-track approach—shutting down Islamist militias like Ansar al-Sharia that operated without official government permission, but also offering public backing to many of the most powerful armed groups, which have official licenses to operate.”
Thus, when the masses showed eagerness to go again into the streets the following Friday to deal with the remaining militias, both government officials and religious leaders begged them to stay home.