On atheist smugness and geopolitics

If you’ve been following the news at all, you’ve heard about rampant anti-US protests happening across western Asia and North Africa in response to a video trailer for a movie that supposedly mocks Muhammad, the central religious figure in Islam:

Rioting demonstrators battled with police outside a U.S. military base in Afghanistan and the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia Monday as violent protests over an anti-Islam film spread to Asia after a week of unrest in Muslim countries worldwide. In an appeal that could stoke more fury, the leader of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah called for sustained protests in a rare public appearance at a rally in Beirut.

The turmoil surrounding the low-budget movie that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad shows no sign of ebbing nearly a week after protesters first swarmed the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya in the eastern city of Benghazi. At least 10 protesters have died in the riots, and the targeting of American missions has forced Washington to ramp up security in several countries.

Protests against the movie turned violent for the first time in Afghanistan on Monday as hundreds of people burned cars and threw rocks at a U.S. military base in the capital, Kabul. Many in the crowd shouted “Death to America!” and “Death to those people who have made a film and insulted our prophet.” They also spiraled out of control in Indonesia and Pakistan, while several in the Middle East were calm.

It took not long at all before my Twitter feed and Facebook newsfeed erupted with pustules of self-satisfied smugness from atheist after atheist, petulantly crowing about how foolish and deluded Muslims were and how religion bore the responsibility for these attacks. It has become a mainstay of the anti-theist crowd (among whom I count myself) to reflexively deride the self-imposed blindness of religious faith when it motivates people to commit atrocious acts. Further, these were acts committed specifically in the defence of an idea – the position of the protesters seemed to be that the very act of saying something unflattering about Islam justified widespread destruction of property. How ridiculous – ideas are not safeguarded from criticism, even the kind of poorly-crafted criticism the trailer apparently evinces. This is a sentiment that can be rattled off nearly automatically by any anti-theist worth hir salt.

What is more challenging is to hold that idea in your head at the same time as you recognize that while the headlines and, in some cases even the protesters may have claimed that this rage was over hurt religious feelings, the real story is far more complex:

Ostensibly, what sparked the siege on the embassy were statements by a number of religious leaders—amplified by social media and word of mouth—who condemned the film and called for protests. But while many in politically contentious Sanaa seemed eager to tie the protests to a prominent figure or faction, the truth was far less simple. Most of those taking part in the demonstrations lacked any obvious signs of religiosity: rather than bearded men or tribesmen in traditional garb, the bulk of those at the embassy were young men in Western clothes, united, if anything, by their rage.


Specifically, Yemenis resent what they characterize as the United States’ persistent meddling in Yemen’s internal affairs. Even as government forces cracked down on peaceful anti-government demonstrations last year, the United States appeared reluctant to drop support for Saleh, whom American officials viewed as a key ally in the battle against Yemen’s local Al Qaeda franchise. Faced with the choice between siding with the Yemeni people and siding with the corrupt government hundreds of thousands took to the streets to topple, activists complain, the United States chose the latter. Since Saleh ceded power, resentment over the past US alliance with the former president has lingered.

Even today, many powerful opponents of Saleh claim that the United States still has not done enough to force the former president’s allies from power. One opposition politician, while condemning the siege, commented that the CSF’s failure to protect the embassy was ironic payback for Washington’s hesitation to make a full break with the Saleh family; after all, CSF Chief of Staff Yahya Saleh was once a favored US commander. At the same time, factions outside of Yemen’s political establishment have said that American reliance on traditional elites has contributed to their marginalization.

And yes, while “Islam turns otherwise reasonable people into ranting violent mobs” makes a far more parsimonious bumper sticker than “decades of questionable foreign policy allows opportunistic political and religious leaders to provoke underemployed and disadvantaged young men to lash out at a foreign power rather than focus their energies on the dissatisfying way in which their own leaders govern”, it does a severe disservice to the truth that my fellow anti-theists claim to pursue.

The fact that the United States is referred to in many places as “The Great Satan” should give any would-be anti-theist foreign policy commentators serious cause to reconsider their position. The United States has – for reasons that include their history of covert and overt involvement in the Middle East; their growingly-rampantly anti-Islamic sentiment; their military intervention in sovereign territories; and the careful cultivation of power-hungry sheiks, imams, and other opportunistic religio-political leaders – taken on truly mythical stature in many places around the world, the Middle East being no exception. Elaborate conspiracy theories find fertile ground in a population that may not have the benefits of European-style education or economic mobility or even the basic needs of life. It is a simple feat to blame any and all ills on America, which fills the same paranoid cognitive niche that “illegal immigrants” and “Muslim terrorists” do in the minds of xenophobic Arizonans.

The ‘advantage’, if you’d like to call it that, is that unlike the Qur’anic Satan, the United States has property and personnel that can be directly attacked. Satan doesn’t have embassies on Earth, but everyone knows where the American consulate is. So combine decades, perhaps generations or anti-American sentiment with a long list of legitimate grievances; add in governments that can no longer put down protests with impunity; garnish with a healthy dose of paranoid conspirac- mongering at the hands of unscrupulous leaders; and let it simmer in the heat of recent revolutions and an economic downturn. What you’re left with is a volatile mixture of elements to which only a little bit of religion need be added for the whole thing to explode. Hell, it even has a specific target to aim itself at!

Blaming this whole thing on Islam is foolish, short-sighted, and borders on criminally idiotic. If we wish to be credible arbiters of truth, then we need to stop reaching for easy answers whenever they suit our thesis.

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P.S. Evidence is emerging that the attack on the American embassy in Libya was not, in fact, in response to the video. It was an orchestrated paramilitary attack that was strikingly different from the violence elsewhere. While that is not relevant to my central argument, I feel it bears pointing out.