Authoritarianism and Legitimacy: Mobilizing Islam in the Middle East

Article excerpt

The publication of the Mohammed caricatures in Denmark and other European countries and the ensuing violent protests in several Muslim countries have engendered a debate about the balance between freedom of speech and the need to avoid offending religious groups. Such a debate, by nature, is western-centric. It focuses on the vision that citizens of Western societies have about what values are desirable for their societies. Much less has been written from a perspective that puts the Middle East at the center of analysis. In most instances, it has been assumed that the (over)reaction in many Middle Eastern countries is simply a result of the offence caused by the cartoons, coupled with a misunderstanding of the liberal values that permit freedom to offend.

This conventional understanding of a "clash of civilizations" of sorts, I suggest, is overly reductionist and misses many of the nuances that characterize Middle Eastern societies and politics. Instead, I propose, we can better understand the riots by focusing on the behaviour of Middle Eastern regimes and their relationship with local societies. I argue that for many authoritarian regimes in the Middle East region, the cartoons provided an opportunity to buttress their shaky legitimacy by appearing before their domestic public as defenders of Islam, protecting it against imperialist aggression. Hence, these regimes had a vested interest in inflaming emotions, spreading rumours, and delivering subtle messages to the communities under their jurisdiction that, on this occasion, the costs to participants involved in the display of public protest would not be as high as they normally would be.

In what follows, l first assess the different ways of understanding the events surrounding the publication of the cartoons. I explain why a "clash of civilizations" approach does not provide useful tools to account for the violent protests that erupted in several Middle Eastern countries. I then proceed to provide an alternative explanation focusing on regime behaviour. The case of Syria is used for illustration, after which I return to general conclusions.

Understanding the Mohammad Cartoons Affair

Analysis of the political events surrounding the publication of the cartoons can be conducted on three dimensions. First, there is the character of the cartoons themselves. Second, we can examine the popular claims made against their publication. Finally, the third dimension focuses on the overreaction in the streets of many Middle Eastern countries. The first two dimensions are intertwined, but it is the latter dimension that is essential to gaining a solid understanding of the politics that surround the cartoons affair.

Lest it be misunderstood, the insensitive nature of the cartoons should not be understated. Cartoons that portray the Muslim prophet wearing a turban shaped like a bomb are not only offensive, they also border on bigotry. Their underlying message is that the Muslim belief system as a whole is conducive to violence and suicide bombing, hence all followers of the Islamic faith are prone to violent behaviour in the name of their religion. In this respect, these types of messages resemble images of Jews as all-powerful and world-dominating (or at the very least, as capable of dictating American foreign policy).

Myths about, and essentialist assessment of, the so-called Muslim culture are not new. In academia too, for a very long time, scholarly work assumed the existence of some kind of cultural perversity in the Muslim Middle East. Violence, authoritarianism, and instability have too often been interpreted as reflections of cultural defects, the origins of which are to be found in religion. As a result, Middle Easterners have been portrayed as fundamentally unlike Westerners. That Europe of the twentieth century saw much more political violence, two world wars, genocides, and other large scale atrocities, escapes the attention of those who point to inherent attributes or a peculiar Islamic "'mind-set", non-favourable to democratic, peaceful politics. …