Examine the image above carefully. What do you see?
No, it’s not a parody from The Onion. It’s actually the cover of this week’s edition of Newsweek, and in it Ayaan Hirsi Ali – the lamentably popular author of such stimulating reads as Infidel and The Caged Virgin – actually provides a guide on how to civilize brown people end “Muslim rage.”
“What is Muslim rage?” I shouted (ostensibly full of rage).
In all seriousness, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is discussing a series of events that have been all over the news in recent days. Under the guise of protesting a racist film that attacks Islam (“Muhammad was a pedophile!” “Muhammad was a womanizer!” and so on), a few thousand people “raged” throughout SWANA (South West Asia and North Africa) and elsewhere. Some protests quickly became violent, and in a seemingly related turn of events the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other U.S. diplomats were killed.
I will not detail everything that has happened – many other journalists and bloggers have covered this already (see here and here). But let’s just make one thing clear: we know now that these murders were well-planned in advance by a ‘terrorist’ organization, not impulsively committed by civilian protesters.
What I must emphasize (seriously, I must, because Ali mandates that “fellow believers…reflect on how our religion could have inspired these atrocious acts” and I don’t want to let her down) is that regardless of anything else, this is a tragedy. A tragedy which ordinary, everyday civilians in these same places (the mystical “Muslim world” Ali speaks of) publicly mourned :a tragedy that ordinary, everyday people apologized for. They apologized for murders that they did not commit because they genuinely needed to express their angst, horror, and frustration about these murders in some tangible way. Also because people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali will get real mad if the singular Muslim mass refuses to apologize on behalf of murderous louts with some passing resemblance to us (just like white Americans do every time a racist hate crime occurs in the United States).
Luckily, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is there to remind “peaceful” Muslims that it’s not entirely their fault. It’s “mainstream Islam” that makes us (them?) this way. This is the “clash of civilizations” that Ali has been thoughtfully warning us about since her own “escape” from Islam. Yippee. Another lecture on how uncivilized the rest of the world is. Bring it on.
Ali throws a bone to those of us Muslims who are not (yet!) raging: “Of course, there are many Muslims and ex-Muslims, in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere, who unambiguously condemn not only the murders and riots, as well as the idea that dissenters from this mainstream should be punished.” Thank you Ayaan. But I’d feel better about that if you didn’t qualify our respective innocence with this gem: “The Muslim men and women (and yes, there are plenty of women) who support—whether actively or passively—the idea that blasphemers deserve to suffer punishment are not a fringe group. On the contrary, they represent the mainstream of contemporary Islam.”
I’ll freely admit that I’m not a fan of Ali, just as I am not a fan of any single person who reduces the religion, philosophy, or practice of 1.6+ billion people across the globe to a sensationalist byline (or, you know, those who murder people because of such religious or anti-religious views). Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not calling out WHITE RAGE! WALL STREET RAGE! IMPERIALIST RAGE! PATRIARCHAL RAGE! No. She is focused on so-called “Muslim protestors” – whose numbers, detailed in a useful chart put together by Dr. Megan Reif here, are nearly insignificant compared to the amount of media coverage the protests have received.
Ali further states:
We must be patient. America needs to empower those individuals and groups who are already disenchanted with political Islam by helping find and develop an alternative. At the heart of that alternative are the ideals of the rule of law and freedom of thought, worship, and expression. For these values there can and should be no apologies, no groveling, no hesitation.
When an avowed white supremacist opens fire on civilians at a gurudwara in Wisconsin, is this called “WHITE RAGE”? Is it American rage? First World rage? When Anders Breivik, who cites Ayaan Hirsi Ali in his horrifying manifesto, sets bombs in buildings and kills teenagers attending camp, is this European rage? Christian rage? How about this weekend’s NATO airstrike, which killed eight women and girls on Sunday? Is this not also a war against women? And the United States going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan? Our nation’s unyielding support for apartheid Israel? The prospect of war with Iran? Are these acceptable forms of rage, when they are carried out by a powerful nation-state and loosely follow devolving interpretations of “the ideals of the rule of law”? When there are entire nations that have devoted so many billions of dollars over so many years to bring “democracy” and “civilization” to us, are we allowed to be angry? Robert Wright perhaps articulates this best in a piece for The Atlantic: “I’m not excusing any violence that American policies may have helped cause and I’m not blaming America. But when American policies have bad side effects, Americans need to talk about them.”
So, and perhaps understandably, Ali does not mention that previous American “empowerment” in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, and other nations has most recently translated into backing authoritarian leaders, authorizing indiscriminate drone strikes, invading and occupying entire nations, and even downplaying the extraordinary prevalence of sexual assault against women within their own, wholly American (and, thus, civilized) ranks. Rather than understand that the majority of protestors (most of whom have never seen the film in question) are acting out against the very real, very present violence that the film represents, Ali has played the hand she halfheartedly argued against at the beginning of her article: that this uncivilized “rage” is about Islam and Islam only.
News flash: Not all victims of U.S. foreign policy – who are legitimately “enraged” by these policies – are Muslim! And not all Muslims are the same.
In 1915, the racist, nationalist film “Birth of a Nation” was released in U.S. theatres. Organized responses to the film quickly followed (much like the type of “civilized” responses that you’re not hearing about from Ayaan Hirsi Ali). The NAACP notably led such protests outside of theatres throughout the United States. Would we look back now and proclaim: “the NAACP is trying to censor a film! African Americans have no concept of the freedom of speech!” (In fact, that’s what the film’s creator – D.W. Griffith – did claim later.) But this is not an issue of free speech. And if commentators like Ali want to cast it as a free speech issue, then they must acknowledge that in many Western nations, free speech has a Muslim exception.
The point is not to draw an absolute comparison between these two moments. Obviously, as I have attempted to illustrate above, there are stark differences – deadly ones, as we witnessed in Libya – between the responses to each of these films. I merely want to note that the reaction to “Birth a Nation” was also not just about a film. It was about how the film played upon the fears of white Americans by centering on the danger African-American men seemingly presented to white womanhood. It was about those fears upholding the white supremacy that was so much a part of U.S. law and practice that we are still fighting its lingering impact on the ability of people of colour in the U.S. to survive. It is not about a film. But it is about what the film represents.
Is this a justification for the senseless killing of American citizens abroad (even as we know now those protesting the film were not the perpetrators)? Absolutely not. I struggle with the fact that I even have to specify that. This is merely an attempt to render more legible the reasons why some of our sisters and brothers around the world might “rage” over a crappy, low-budget film that was intended to attack an entire religion. And as we loudly and righteously rage about the racist and deeply patriarchal ‘film’ inspiring a whole lot of pent-up anger to come out, as well as the murders of these four U.S. citizens in Libya, we must also stand against ideologues like Ali who dishonor the legacies of the victims by turning their deaths into the very same sensationalist and hateful rhetoric they claim to be above.
Perhaps crunktastic over at The Crunk Feminist Collective clarifies what I’m feeling best:
One of the ways White supremacy and sexism works is through a putative disavowal of emotion as a legitimate form for expressing thought. Women and Black people are overly emotional, so the conventional wisdom goes. We have been taught to overcompensate for this stereotype by being overly composed, even when anger is warranted. And we are wholly unprepared when our emotions start to split the seams of our tightly put on public selves. Perhaps it’s time to change clothes, and intentionally put on something that gives us room to breathe.
And I have changed my damn clothes.