Watch: Scholar Vijay Prashad Breaks Down the Internal Politics Behind US Embassy Attacks
The ugly partisan mud-slinging over the attacks on US sites in Egypt and Libya have already begun. Mitt Romney's statement this morning is the most prominent example.
But it's vitally important to step out of the US politics bubble and examine the social forces behind these events.
Vijay Prashad, the author of a new book on the Arab Spring (I interviewed him about it here), does an excellent job at explaining the internal political dynamics in Libya and Egypt that should be looked at to understand the US embassy protests. Here's the video of Prashad speaking on Democracy Now!, and the transcript of his remarks follows.
AMY GOODMAN: And when you say "Chris," you’re referring to the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens, who was killed last night. We’re talking to Nizar Sarieldin. He is in Benghazi right now. We are also joined by Vijay Prashad, professor at Trinity College. His latest book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter. As you learn this news, your reaction to what’s taken place in Libya, Professor Prashad?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, obviously, the first thing is, this is not a very, you know, surprising event to me. It’s a very sad event. It’s very sad when there’s violence of this kind. Chris Stevens was a career Foreign Service officer. He had been in the Peace Corps. He also was in Benghazi in 2011 at the start of the February revolution. He had been deputed there by the U.S. State Department. So he has had a long relationship with Libya. But it’s not surprising, Amy, because there are social forces inside Libya that have been suppressed and are seeking to have some kind of outlet.
You know, in Benghazi itself, this is not the first incident of this kind. In 2006, during the high point of the Danish cartoon controversy, there was a demonstration of more than a thousand people in front of the Italian consulate, because an Italian minister, Roberto Calderoli, had worn a T-shirt, very insulting, which had that Danish cartoon on it. At that demonstration, the Gaddafi regime opened fire on the crowd, killed 11 people. And that was on February 17th, 2006. Because of that firing on the crowd, several human rights activists—Fathi Terbil, Idris al-Mesmari, people like that—had become politicized. And it was for the fifth anniversary of that police firing by the Gaddafi regime, on February 17, 2011, that people like Terbil had planned demonstrations in Benghazi, the fifth anniversary, to commemorate the Gaddafi shooting against this crowd. And the spur, as it were, of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion last year was essentially around the commemoration of the shooting in Benghazi in 2006.
So, there are social forces in Libya that have had a sense of being humiliated and suppressed. Many of them, you know, have, in a sense, the framework of Islamism. But I don’t think we should fully, you know, make this a situation where we say, "Well, these are, you know, far-right, radical, dangerous, al-Qaeda," things like that. You know, sure, there were black flags, but I think there’s an exaggeration of the black flag used in these demonstrations both in Cairo and in Benghazi. You know, the black flag, for instance, is not only a symbol of al-Qaeda, as people have been saying in the American media, but it has become a routine flag of Islamists. You know, at the storming of the Cairo embassy, it was not just Islamists, it was also the Ultras, the football group that had played a significant role in the Tahrir Square rebellion in Egypt. But there is a section of the population that is feeling, in a sense, you know, marginalized. They have no political voice. There’s a section that feels that the election, where, you know, the rules of the election may not have fully allowed them to put forward their own position. So, there is a complicated social section that I think we need to consider its history, its role, and I think it’s continuing an enduring sense that it has no voice. I don’t think arresting a lot of people or shooting people in these demonstrations is going to quell that social section. It needs to have a political voice.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Vijay Prashad, you mentioned the Danish cartoon controversy in 2005. Can you elaborate a little on what the response in Benghazi was at the time to those cartoons?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Yes, certainly. You know, when the cartoon controversy begins in November, December 2005, it spreads rapidly around the world. You know, just as Nizar is saying now, the satellite television channels played a major role there. Clerics played a major role. And there were demonstrations in—across the world, really, against the cartoon controversy. In February, there was a major demonstration in Benghazi. And again this—we should keep putting this in context. The 20061 demonstration in February wasn’t the first major demonstration in Benghazi on this idea of being a people humiliated. You know, why is it that the West wants to humiliate us with things like these cartoons or this ridiculous film made by Sam Bacile and promoted by Terry Jones, the pastor in Florida? So, in Benghazi in 2006, there was a major demonstration—I mean, in 2006, there was a major demonstration, and the police fired at it. But again, you know, when I say let’s put this in con—in 1996, the Libyan Islamic fighting group had started its rebellion. And at that point, it was, you know, virulently put down by the Gaddafi regime. So, whether it’s 1996, 2006, 2011, 2012, you cannot suppress the social section simply by force of arms.
AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to read a bit from the AP piece on what the film that people were protesting is, who it was made by. AP says, "An Israeli filmmaker based in California went into hiding [Tuesday] after his movie attacking Islam’s prophet Muhammad sparked angry assaults by ultra-conservative Muslims on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya... Speaking by phone ... from an undisclosed location, writer and director Sam Bacile" — if that’s how it’s pronounced, B-A-C-I-L-E — "remained defiant, saying Islam is a cancer and that the 56-year-old intended his film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion."
It goes on to say, "The two-hour movie, 'Innocence of Muslims,' cost $5 million to make... The film claims Muhammad was a fraud. An English-language 13-minute trailer on YouTube shows an amateur cast performing a wooden dialogue of insults disguised as revelations about Muhammad, whose obedient followers are presented as a cadre of goons.
"It depicts Muhammad as a feckless philanderer who approved of child sexual abuse, among other overtly insulting claims that have caused outrage."
Now, this was made in 2011. It is unclear why this is gaining attention right now. "It was made in three months in the summer of 2011, with 59 actors and about 45 people behind cameras." "Bacile’s film was dubbed into Egyptian Arabic by someone he doesn’t know, but he speaks enough Arabic to confirm that the translation is accurate."
I’d like to get response from Vijay Prashad, and then, Nizar, I’d like you also to respond, if people are watching this film. Nizar Sarieldin is still with us in Benghazi.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, Amy, as far—
NIZAR SARIELDIN: Yes.
VIJAY PRASHAD: I watched the 13-minute trailer. It is a very, very disturbing film. It’s not the presence of the film or the making of the film itself that’s the problem. It’s that it’s been heavily promoted. You know, as I mentioned, Terry Jones, the pastor in Florida who threatened to burn the Koran in public, you know, to commemorate 9/11 a few years ago, has been promoting films like this. He has become a touchstone. And at the other end of the spectrum, there are radical clerics, just like this radical preacher, who are mirroring him. And, you know, they are creating a very tense kind of so-called clash of civilizations atmosphere, in which there is a combustion going to happen. So I think that’s the context in the larger sense.
In the more specific sense, there is certainly political jockeying going on in Egypt, where this really began, you know, with an Egyptian social section, with an Egyptian political section that is jockeying for authority in contemporary Egypt. It just happened to be a coincidence that in Libya, the prime minister was going to be announced yesterday. So it was just coincidental in Libya, as well, that there is a kind of political jockeying. But in Egypt, there is a very real political battle between a section of the Islamists and those who want to have a different kind of constitution, when that is indeed written. So, this is a kind of context that is there, and this combustive battle between two kinds of radicalism came in the middle of it.