Somewhere, from beyond the grave, Samuel Huntington is looking down (or up, depending on your predilections), wagging his finger and saying, “I told you so.” The emotional reaction of Egyptians to rumors of an American-made film denigrating the Prophet of Islam, and the crisis in U.S.-Egyptian relations it has triggered, is precisely the kind of thing that the prophet of civilizational conflict predicted would happen. This week it appeared we got our “clash of civilizations.”
Huntington would probably warn us that this is just the beginning, that the job-creating exertions of the good people at Google and its ilk mean that it only takes hours for some ill-conceived sendup of a religious icon to zip its way around the globe and cause those who revere that icon to go wild. And now that Egypt is a democracy (or at least a democracy-in-progress), there is no U.S.-funded strongman to prevent people from taking to the streets to vent their fury about something they saw on YouTube.
I’m not sure that the ghost of Huntington would be right. This week’s events have certainly reminded us that there are Americans who hate Muslims, and there are Muslims who hate Americans. And if friendship between Egypt and the United States is contingent upon no American ever saying anything that will offend the religious sensibilities of Egyptians, then it is time to declare that friendship dead. President Obama can no more control anti-Muslim bigotry in America than President Mohammed Morsi can put a lid on anti-Americanism in his country. But the haters don’t have to win the day. In this, Egyptians (and, more importantly, their political leaders) could take a lesson from the United States.
Though lots of commentators have told us that the Arab Spring was “not about us,” the fact is that anti-Americanism was a regular feature of the protests that unseated Mubarak and other unworthies. And why shouldn’t it have been? After all, we funded Hosni Mubarak lavishly and Vice President Joe Biden refused to call him a dictator even as his gendarmes were cracking skulls in Tahrir Square. But one of the remarkable things about the Arab Spring has been the equanimity with which Americans have responded to displays of anti-Americanism—even when they emanate from the top.
For example, President Morsi has famously been known to intimate that 9/11 was an inside job, but the closest Americans have ever come to mass protests against this denial of one of our greatest national tragedies was an indignant op-ed by a pair of excitable Egypt-watchers. And Morsi’s 9/11 “trutherism” is just one of many manifestations of his crankiness about the United States. Back in 2005, when Morsi was running for re-election to parliament (and I was in Egypt working on my doctoral dissertation), I often heard him talk about how American women routinely don’t know who their babies’ fathers are, and how hospitals have accommodated this sad fact of American life by simply registering newborns under their mothers’ names. This little bit of color merited an amused footnote in my thesis, and I thought nothing of it for half a decade until I saw that, according to a writer for Foreign Policy, Morsi was still saying the same thing in 2011. When Morsi became president, he used the occasion of his first big public address to promise to work for the release of a man convicted of trying to blow up the World Trade Center. How did the United States respond? It sent its secretary of state to Egypt to cheerlead for Arab democracy and open a new consulate, where she was pelted with tomatoes. She did not demand, nor did she receive, a public apology.
If Americans—and, more importantly, American politicians—can let Morsi’s apparent venom toward us and our way of life slide, then why can’t Egyptians remain calm when some random kook mocks the Prophet Mohammed? After all, the Prophet Mohammed is insulted, parodied, caricatured, lampooned, and maligned on a daily basis and has been for more than a thousand years. Egyptians (and the Muslim Brotherhood) are smart enough to know that. And they are smart enough to know that a few minutes of badly acted, badly scripted, badly filmed video are not suddenly going to knock Islam off its perch as one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing religions. But Morsi and the Brotherhood so far have refused to take a page from the U.S. playbook and turn the other cheek. It took Morsi two days to call on Egyptians to respect the inviolability of foreign embassies, and the Muslim Brotherhood issued a mealy-mouthed statement that condemned violence, but also justified the violence as a response to the insult of the prophet, which one of the group’s administrators labeled a “red line.”
But it would be wrong to think that Morsi or the Brotherhood want these protests. Morsi is trying to cement a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to stave off economic collapse, and the Brotherhood is trying to drum up investment in Egypt (lest it be held accountable at the polls for the aforementioned collapse). Attacks on the U.S. embassy do not help their cause.
Though the protests have been portrayed as spontaneous expressions of civilizational anguish, they are—as almost all protests are—actually organized by political actors with agendas to advance. Though it’s not clear yet who choreographed the current moment of excitement, there are lots of people who stand to benefit from it. First, and most obviously, are other Islamists who wish to usurp the Brotherhood’s throne as the principal defender of Islam. Staging protests against the United States isn’t just a way of casting stones at the Great Satan, it’s also a way of showing up the Brotherhood, of saying that the group is too weak or corrupted by power to do anything to protect Islam’s honor.
Secular groups, too, can make political hay out of these protests. After all, the demonstrations put Morsi (and by extension, the Brotherhood) in a pickle. If he seems to be feeding the frenzy, then he can be painted by his opponents as a reckless provocateur who courts the wrath of the world’s sole superpower. If he condemns the protests, he can be portrayed as a hypocrite who talks tough about the West but in reality is willing to make himself its lackey in order to hang onto power.
What all of this suggests is that if the Egyptian-American relationship is to survive, the United States is going to have to continue playing the role of the adult for the time being, because Morsi can’t. But, given the electoral incentives of our politicians, and the propensity of some in Egypt to devise ever more spectacular ways of spitting in America’s eye, it’s not clear how long the U.S. reaction to Egypt can continue to be so evolved. Despite our best efforts, Huntington may still be proven right.