Robert Olson: Here we go again; Muslim rage, American disconnect

Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst who has written numerous books about the region.
Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst who has written numerous books about the region.

The appearance of an anti-Muslim 14-minute video, The Innocence of Muslims was an event waiting to happen. One respected commentator noted, "It resembles a pornographic version of The Ten Commandants spliced with reruns of The A-Team.

The producer of the video was a U.S.-based Coptic Egyptian of doubtful reputation. The video immediately placed Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi in a difficult position as 70 percent of Egypt's parliament is comprised of zealous conservative Muslims. The 8 million to 10 million Copts in Egypt have been discriminated against for decades in Egypt as have many of the Christians in Iraq and Syria.

Of course, Muslims themselves have been the major victims of dictatorial, tyrannical and oppressive regimes. But the reaction to the amateurish obscene video is also an illustration of the unhappiness of many people with their low standards of living. The failure of neo-liberal capitalistic economic policies pursued by authoritarian regimes the past 30 years has worsened their situation.

It is unfortunate that the video surfaced at the same time as the killing of U.S, Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens in Benghazi by Muslims, probably nationalist militants. But it is clear that the video was produced before the killing of Stevens.

The death of Stevens is more important than the video in that it encourages more daunting challenges to U.S. geopolitical policies regarding most of the Muslim and Arab countries. The developments in Libya mean more turbulence, turmoil and opposition in US-Arab relations well into the future. Governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are in the throes of democratization and attempting to create more inclusive governing practices by allowing greater citizen participation.

They must do this even as they have to deal with and manage militant Islamic parties, organizations and terror sponsoring groups. These government also have to deal with the rich, authoritarian and oppressive Gulf monarchies closely aligned with the U.S. and Europe.

Given the above, rage is bound to continue in Arab countries and in Iran. The youth bulge in Arab countries and in Iran suggests that rage due to illiteracy (hovering around 40-50 percent) unemployment, few educational opportunities, no technology, low standards of living as well as the belief of many that the imperial global policies of the U.S. contribute to their woes will not be ameliorated any time soon.

President Barack Obama's appeal in his Sept. 24 speech to the U.N. General Assembly that nations respect and implement individual universal right of free speech has little resonance in Muslim countries just as it has little resonance in East Asian countries such as Japan or China.

On Sept. 26, two days after Obama spoke, Morsi and Yemen President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi addressed the Assembly and rejected Obama's broad defense of free speech stating, "Egypt respects freedom of expression ... that is not used to incite hatred again anyone." Hadi denounced "violence and incitement of hatred, which is contradictory to the values of the true Islamic religion. People who justify the freedom of expression by insults to religion overlook the fact that there should be limits if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their sacred figures."

But there are more profound historical reasons for the differences between the West and Muslim countries (among others). In Middle East and Asian countries the public sphere consists of religious communities, not individuals, and people are treated as components of separate public spheres within their communities.

Middle East and Asian cultures lack the kind of egalitarian public sphere which accommodates the freedom of expression as it is perceived in Europe and the U.S.

As a result, every word uttered in the public sphere has to take other identities into consideration and is supposed to assume responsibility for prioritizing community over identity.

But the matter is still more complicated as many peoples in the Middle East and Asia believe that the West's insistence on freedom of expression is not genuine and that the U.S. does not advocate the freedom of expression per se, but defends it as an instrument of its hegemony. They think the West makes freedom of expression functional in order to maintain this system and, accordingly, implements double standards of expression and morality.

This is why most members of the General Assembly did not listen too closely to what Obama had to say.