Tunisia Protests, AP

Readers probably already know that anti-western attacks are spreading beyond Egypt and Libya, and to non-US facilities. In Sudan, the German embassy is “in flames.”And so on.

How would someone committed to relational social analysis understand what’s happening? Here’s an ‘analytical snap judgment’:

  • We have an event — the emergence of the anti-Muslim film — that fits a particular pre-existing script concerning identity relations: “Americans/Westerners hate/disrespect Islam/Muslims.”
  • We have a script about what happens next: ‘Believers protest.’
  • We have pre-existing scripts and repertoires for how to engage in protest at various levels of specificity ‘attack institutions representing and/or affiliated with Americans/westerners,’ ‘set them ablaze,’ ‘raise Islam-oriented flags,’ etc.
  • Actors attempt to mobilize/channel/co-opt/suppress responses to the event by issuing proclamations, directing core supporters to act our those scripts/repertoires, deploying the infrastructure of the state, and so forth. 
  • Demonstration effects operate at the level of regimes, entrepreneurs, and ordinary people.
  • In this case, the trigger has the potential to activate and polarize specific identity boundaries: Islam/West, Muslim/Christian, Radicals/Moderates, Religious/Secular, and so forth.” The dynamics at stake involve broader wars of position and maneuver within specific countries, in transnational religious politics, and in interstate relations.

Fragile regimes worry about becoming included in the “affiliated with American/westerners” category; moderate and establishment Islamists worry about being outbid — losing their positions of leadership and cross-boundary brokers to more radical elements — and also about irreparably harming their relations with the United States and Europe; radicals hope to make such a balancing act impossible. Transnational jihadist hope to expand their core supporters, sway the opinions of fence-sitters, and cow their opponents. Action-reaction dynamics in one country impact those in others.

That being said, I expect that the immediate effect of the protests, attacks, and riots to be relatively small. We’ve seen this story before — albeit with two major differences: after the Arab Awakening (1) the stability of many Middle Eastern regimes is much more precarious and (2) Islamist parties have a stake — sometimes a dominant one — in a number of governments. Still, my gut instinct is that these differences won’t change the underlying trajectory: one of an ephemeral trigger for mobilization in the context of movements that lack sufficiently broad networks or support to sustain mass protest and large-scale violent action. If that diagnoses is correct, then what we’re looking at is another series of episodes in a much longer-term struggle — one in which the local, regional, and international stakes are very high indeed. [ed note: I should note that these two differences are rather significant… and that they raise serious questions about my ‘snap’ prognosis. I also don’t want to sound like I am minimizing the ongoing violence, loss of life, and property damage. This is serious stuff.]

*Note that these dynamics also operate outside of the Muslim and Arab worlds: consider the partisan political dimensions of the debate in the United States over these attacks, as well as the aims of specific right-wing groups in the United States and Europe.

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