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<p>David Hollier</p>

David Hollier

Blame The Sheikhs

As American symbols burn, whether embassies or fast-food joints, it's hardline religious leaders far afield fomenting the false outrage.


It was just past noon on Friday in the embattled Sunni neighbourhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, and over loudspeakers the local sheikh was raging. A few minutes before, gunfire had erupted from near Syria Street, the dividing line between Lebanon's poorest suburb and the mostly Alawite neighbourhood of Jebel Mohsen. Fighters from these two areas have been warring with increasing regularity in the past few months, an old sectarian battle that's been inflamed by the war in Syria.

Kids scattered and shopkeepers dragged their wares off the pavement. Then everything went quiet. "They're just practicing," laughed 17-year-old 'Virgo', who lives in Bab al-Tabbaneh in an apartment with his family, and has a sister living in Australia. Like many kids his age, he doesn't like the fighting; he goes to school with kids from Jebel Mohsen.

Khaled, a man in his early 30s, saw us as he was walking down the street with grocery bags in his hands. “You should leave soon,” he said. “There's going to be trouble today.”

As we drove around the corner, a motorcycle pulled in ahead with a young man on the back flying the flag of the puritanical Salafi practice of Islam, and disappeared up the street. Khaled, a man in his early 30s, saw us as he was walking down the street with grocery bags in his hands. "You should leave soon," he said. "There's going to be trouble today."

They were expecting demonstrations against that video insulting the Prophet, he said, adding that whoever made it "should be hanged". But he didn't agree with the violent demonstrations. "It's not right. Those Muslims aren't like all the other Muslims." As he went to walk away, he turned back to our translator, with a concerned look. "Imshee," he urged, Arabic for 'go away'.

Tripoli is Lebanon's second-largest city and home to its most conservative Sunni Muslims. A lot of money from Saudi Arabia has gone towards building schools and mosques in Bab al-Tabbaneh (and, some say, to providing arms, though direct links are virtually impossible to prove). Most of the fighters who regularly take up arms against their neighbouring Alawites also follow the Wahhabi strain of Salafist Islam that originates in the Kingdom.

When we left Bab al-Tabbaneh 45 minutes later, everything seemed calm. But around an hour later, at a café popular with Tripoli's young progressives, a young man came in showing video of the local Kentucky Fried Chicken and Hardee's, the American fast-food franchises, being destroyed. Everyone shook their heads. Idiots, one patron said, nonchalantly dismissing the mob.

By the time we got there the restaurants were still burning, but the instigators had mostly left. One person had been killed and 25 wounded in clashes with the security forces, but now there was no security in sight. Curious spectators were taking photos on their phones, and young men and boys continued to ransack the place as it burned, stealing chairs, napkin dispensers, and anything else that wasn't nailed down or destroyed. A fire engine approached, observed the still-burning fire and drove right past. So did the army.

A young woman in a tracksuit approached. "Are you taking photos of all of this?" she asked in an unmistakable Lebanese-Australian accent, introducing herself as 'Mimmo from Melbourne'. When I said yes, she said, "Good. People all over the world should see this. It's just disgusting. Look at what they've done".

"Blame the sheikhs," said Walid, a man in his early 20s I met later on that day. "These people just do what they say."

The point is, we’ve been here before. The Arab Spring has changed the context, but these demonstrations would probably have happened whether there had been an Arab Spring or not.

KHALED MERHEB, A LAWYER WHO LIVES IN TRIPOLI, showed me a text he received on his phone from an unknown number on June 12, alerting him to the video. That's around the time the film was posted on YouTube.

Why did it take two months for the rest of the Arab world to find out about it? Because that's how long it took for the immensely popular firebrand sheikh Khaled Abdullah to find it and broadcast it on the Saudi-owned Salafist television channel Al Nas, which is broadcast to millions of viewers across the Arab world on Egypt's mostly state-owned network, NileSat.

Many mainstream Muslims in the Middle East are angry about the film. But by and large, they are not the ones attending violent demonstrations. So far, the vast majority of demonstrators have issued from two groups: a small, violent fringe among the region's Salafists, and opportunistic young men looking for an excuse to fight the police. In Egypt, a call for a million-man march on Friday, September 14, fell flat — less than 2,000 turned up, and around 350 of those tried to attack the embassy. In a country of more than 82 million, where tens of thousands regularly turn out to protest, that's a pretty lame turnout.

In at least two of these instances — the US embassy attack in Egypt and the murder of four American diplomats in Libya — it appears that, as Ross Douthat writes in the New York Times, they were "pre-meditated challenges to those countries' ruling parties by more extreme Islamist factions: Salafist parties in Egypt and pro-Qaeda groups in Libya".

“Its not right. Those Muslims aren’t like all the other Muslims.”

This leads us to the elephant in the room. The country doing by far the most to promote extremist beliefs and ideas across the Middle East (and beyond) is one of America's closest allies. Over the past 30 years, Saudi Arabia has spent more than $70 billion exporting the Wahhabi doctrine around the world, through schools, publishing houses and satellite television channels. Had it not been for the Saudi-backed Sheikh Khaled Abdallah, it's highly likely that the film The Innocence of the Muslims would have remained an unwatched piece of trashy propaganda. But when Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti denounced attacks on diplomats and embassies as un-Islamic, he had nothing to say about the Saudi-backed sheikh and channel that provoked the attacks in the first place.

An article in The New York Times states that a range of analysts say these protests present "questions about central tenets of Obama's Middle East policy: Did he do enough during the Arab Spring to help the transition to democracy from autocracy? Has he drawn a hard enough line against Islamic extremists?"

There's outrage at Mohammed Morsi for choosing to play to his fundamentalist constituency rather than appeal for calm. There's outrage towards Obama for playing the Arab Spring all wrong. There's outrage at the Arab Spring for supposedly being responsible for creating these extremists out of thin air.

But where is the outrage at Saudi Arabia, a country that continues to pump billions of dollars into exporting the extremist indoctrination, through mosques, madrasas and satellite television, which spawns these types of protests in the first place?

The Arab uprisings may have given a more prominent political platform to Islamists, and complicated the way in which these governments can deal with fundamentalists. But what doesn't come across in much of the Western coverage of these protests is that this is just the latest episode in a decades-long struggle between mainstream Islam and Gulf-backed Wahhabism.

IN THE MID 2000s, the Arab world witnessed a similar chain of events provoked by the publication of offensive images of the Prophet. Here, it was both Saudi Arabia and Egypt again who played a large role in whipping Muslims into a frenzy. As Issandr El Amrani (who blogs at The Arabist) writes in an op-ed for The National:

"Consider the 2005 Danish cartoon crisis, when thousands took to the streets against offensive cartoon depictions of Prophet Mohammed — months after they had been published. This was fomented in good part by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which, at a meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, refocused the region's attention on a newspaper published four months earlier."

The secular Mubarak regime led an international campaign against the cartoons, and the country's grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, urged Arabs across the Middle East to denounce the cartoons. Saudi Arabia's top cleric urged Muslims to reject apologies for the cartoons, and demanded that the people responsible be punished. Three weeks of violent demonstrations across the Arab world left up to 200 people dead.

You could recycle many of the op-eds from that time and transpose them onto this week: 'clash of civilisations', 'why do they hate us?', 'is it just about a cartoon?' and so on. The point is, we've been here before. The Arab Spring has changed the context, but these demonstrations would probably have happened whether there had been an Arab Spring or not.

Analysts will debate President Obama's role in this, and that of the region's newly elected Islamist leaders. But what few will ask is: can anything be done to limit the export of extremist ideology from Saudi Arabia?

They know the answer to that question already.

Read more Jess Hill stories on the 'anti-imperialists' twisting Western coverage of the Syrian uprising, the effect of the ongoing conflict on neighbouring Lebanon's war-weary psyche, and a Libyan ethnic minority spared by the Arab Spring.

4 comments on this story
by Ruby Hamad

By far the best story I have read on this topic. I tried to allude to the this (that Salafist mullah were going out of their way to get their followers angry) in my own piece for The Drum but fell hopelessly short. Well done, Jess.

September 17, 2012 @ 2:46pm
Show previous 1 comments
by Emilia

Thanks for this article. By far one of the more sensible analysis I've read on this so far. The sad thing is that the majority of the West won't interpret this violence as the actions of a shady minority; rather their actions will just fuel increasing misunderstanding, hatred, and shitty propaganda movies in the West. This probably won't entirely displease the violent Islamic minority, who by all accounts appear to thrive on division.

September 17, 2012 @ 6:37pm
by Lala JD

This protests looks to coordinated to be spontaneous! Somebody is pulling those strings. The call for more protests by Hezbollah this morning confirm my suspicions.

September 18, 2012 @ 6:30am
by Ryan

Although you point out Sheikh Khaled Abdullah as a key driver of the riots you put the blame on Saudi Arabia and their spreading of Wahhabi doctrine around the world, through schools, publishing houses and satellite television channels.

Why not provide us more direct evidence of Wahhabi doctrine, their schools and books being representative of Islamic extremism? Surely one Sheik or fox news style TV show is not enough to condemn Saudi Arabia or the Islamic education they promote.

As the majority of us probably know nothing of Wahhabi doctrine I think it would be timely and make for a great article by taking us into one of their schools etc. Similar to the Global Mail’s article ‘Communists in the Classroom’.

September 18, 2012 @ 3:56pm
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