Anti-American Protests: Cutting Through Media Propaganda

From the November-December 2012 PNL #819

by Deepa Kumar

In September, 2012, a wave of protests against the United States spread around the world with demonstrations held outside US diplomatic institutions in over two dozen countries.

The mainstream media in the US have framed these protests through the simplistic lens of “anti-American violence in the Muslim world.” This framing communicates an entire world view that is taken for granted.

First, it discredits protest against the US by painting the demonstrators as violent. This focus on the violence and the sensational allows the media to conveniently skip over the complex reasons why people in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa might be angry with the US.

Second, by using the term “Muslim world,” the media invite us to look at people in Muslim-majority societies primarily through the lens of religion. The focus on Islamist involvement in the protests to the exclusion of other voices casts this as a religious rather than a political confrontation. Thus, the protesters are presented not as political actors, but religious zealots.

Third, what follows from this is that the US is presented as an innocent victim—a misunderstood champion of democratic rights under attack from the irrational fanaticism that we have come to expect from “those Muslims”—a victim of “Muslim rage.”

In short, what is a political clash is turned instead into a cultural conflict and the “clash of civilizations.”

The US public listens to the bipartisan narrative which demeans the humanity of Muslims and other people living in the Middle East while turning its back to the havoc wreaked on civilian families by drone warfare. Image: Teresa FlorackThe US public listens to the bipartisan narrative which demeans the humanity of Muslims and other people living in the Middle East while turning its back to the havoc wreaked on civilian families by drone warfare. Image: Teresa FlorackSpeaking about the Libya attacks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lamented: “How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?”

Fully 11 years after the events of 9/11, the same question is being asked about why people in the Middle East might be angry with the US, and the same ridiculous explanations are on offer—it is a clash of values, a clash of civilizations.

In 2001, George Bush explained: “They hate…a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote.”

A few days ago, Clinton said: “All over the world, every day, America’s diplomats and development experts risk their lives in the service of our country and our values, because they believe that the United States must be a force for peace and progress in the world.”

The difference between the two statements, it seems, is that the “clash of civilization” rhetoric has developed in these 11 years from a supposed hatred of our freedoms right here to a hatred of our soldiers and diplomats over there.

What has also changed is that the “self-appointed leaders” Bush refers to have faced challenges from the uprisings that began in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011. US-backed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt were swept from power by people’s movements and a reluctant US went along with the changes, backing counter-revolutionary forces in an attempt to control the outcome.

You wouldn’t know that to hear the new “buyer’s remorse” for alleged US support of the “Arab Spring.” The protests today are being presented as the inevitable outcome of an unruly people when the iron hand of the dictator has been removed. The logic of course is that “some people are just not ready for democracy.”

The formula is so predictable, it might as well be a soap opera.

The second episode of the soap focused on distancing the film Innocence of Muslims from overall US values based on the assumption that this was the key cause of the protests. Hillary Clinton declared: “The United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message.”

What gets omitted from this picture is that Innocence of Muslims is a product of the far right in the US. It is not an anomaly in an otherwise secular and tolerant nation. Rather, it joins a slew of similar films and other propaganda—like The Third Jihad, which was shown to NYPD recruits and produced by a well-funded Islamophobic network.

In the US, the Islamophobic network attacked mosques and incited fear and hatred. Just last month, a mosque in Missouri was burned to the ground, and six Sikhs in Wisconsin were killed by a neo-Nazi. Since 2010, there has been a 50 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes.

The far right everywhere has a proclivity to burn things down and kill people, it seems—but don’t expect to see this portrayed in the mainstream media.

That would upset the soap-opera formula, because it would mean admitting that there are extremists right here who stand for more or less the same things that the Islamic fundamentalists stand for. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that there are over 1,000 far-right hate groups in the US.

But the protests in the Middle East and North Africa since the Libya incident should not be reduced to a “clash of fundamentalisms” either. It is not simply the US far right provoking the Islamist far right to respond. Rather, thousands in the region are expressing their frustration against the part the US government has played in propping up counter-revolutionary forces in the region.

When the Arab uprisings began, the US believed that its dictator ally in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, would hold on to power. The Obama administration didn’t take a position against Mubarak—in fact, it even stood by him. After the first rounds of protests, Clinton emphasized the need for an “orderly” and “peaceful” transition”—in other words, time for the US to find a suitable pro-US replacement.

While the Obama administration rhetorically welcomed the “Arab Spring,” the strategy was to control the outcome of the uprisings.

The US has consequently supported the forces of counter-revolution from the Egyptian military to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Could this history of US involvement be behind the anger and protests that have swept the region? Such explanations are hard to find in the mainstream media. While the New York Times admitted that the “broadening of the protests appeared to reflect a pent-up resentment of Western powers” in a front-page story, the images that cover more than half the page are of angry bearded Muslim men, fire and ashes, and burning US flags.

Episode three of the unfolding soap involved an attempt to control the spread of protests. The US sent troops to Yemen and Sudan and tried to distance the protesters from the rest of the population who are to be “rescued” by the US.

Clinton also called on the “good Muslims” to act. As she put it, “Reasonable people and responsible leaders in these countries need to do everything they can to restore security and hold accountable those behind these violent acts.” What it means to be “reasonable” is to shut up and fall in line behind the US.

Also absent from the mainstream media is the part played by the US in funding, arming and training Islamists during the Cold War. The Holy Warriors who fought the US proxy war against the USSR in the 1980s were assembled and trained by the CIA and Pakistani ISI. The key recruiter to the Afghan war was none other than Osama bin Laden.

Eleven years after 9/11, the media are still asking the same question: Why do they hate us? And the same tired answer is being provided, but this time by the liberal imperialists wielding the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric with perhaps greater skill than their neocon predecessors.


Deepa is an Associate Professor of Media Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University.