Saturday, 30 November 2013

Into the heart of darkness


My take on 2004, "The Year of the Beast"

Al-Ahram Weekly, 30 December, 2004


Hani Shukrallah reflects on a year when the clash of civilisations seemed a self-fulfilling prophecy


It was little more than 19th century racist drivel dressed up in late 20th century identity politics garb, and this by an erstwhile British spy in his dotage. Having received his schooling at London's School of Oriental and African Studies in the 1930s of the last century -- at a time when the famed SOAS was specifically designed as a training ground for future servants of empire in the "Orient" -- Bernard Lewis, arch-Zionist, old school Orientalist and quack-scholar, came to the US in the 1970s, where he was eventually, and perhaps predictably, received as a prophet. Having switched allegiance to the Pentagon -- hardly a difficult transition -- the old man hailed by the American corporate media as "the doyen of Middle East Studies" gave the military-industrial complex the one thing it desperately needed in a post-Soviet world -- an enemy.

"This is no less than a clash of civilisations -- the perhaps irrational but surely historical reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both," Lewis wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1990. Samuel Huntington, a more mediocre scholar but no less fervent believer in the role of the intellectual as apologist for empire, took up the obnoxious thesis and, with the help of an ecstatic media, began its integration into American pop culture. Respected scholars -- that is, people who have respect for their various disciplines, and see their role as something other than providing ideological cover for the pernicious designs of a corporate-led power structure -- soon made short work of the thesis. It was not that difficult.

Yet, in 2004, year three of the "war against terror", the clash thesis, now firmly established as the official "party-line" of the neo-con administration of George W Bush, and the ideological foundation of its hold on power at home and abroad, appeared to become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

"Why do they hate us?" Bush had asked rhetorically in his address to a joint session of Congress, held in the wake of the 9/11 atrocity on 20 September 2001. "They hate what we see right here in this chamber -- a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms; our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other," he went on, in answer to his own question. Clearly, "they" in this kind of context could not mean just a few hundred wild-eyed, CIA-trained fanatics grouped together as Al-Qaeda. Bush had declared a global and perpetual war, the enemy clearly being identified as Western civilisation's "ancient rival", supposed to be brimming over with an irrational hatred of "our Judeo-Christian heritage, and secular present".

Significantly, however, Bush's WWIII in defence of Western Civilisation, along with its allegedly inherent rationalism, humanism and liberalism (notwithstanding three centuries of colonial plunder, slavery, genocide, the Fascist and Nazi scourges, two devastating world wars and two nuclear bombings), was predicated upon the American president's personal rapport with none other than God Himself. And its most solid base of support was the Fundamentalist Christian Right, in alliance with Likudnik Zionism.

This was just the tip of the iceberg. Sharon, "the butcher", whose own people had two decades before declared him a war criminal, was confirmed as a role model, a shining representative of Western civilisation, and a hero of the war against the ancient enemy. (Ironically, right up until the moment they took on the mantle of colonial domination themselves, the Jews were as much an "ancient enemy" of Western Civilisation as the Muslims, if not more so. But, then, it was Arafat who looked like a Jew; Sharon, on the other hand, looks like a Serb).

Which mementos of brutality and heartlessness should we clutch to our hearts as we go forward into 2005? The revelation, by Britain's foremost medical journal, that over 100,000 faceless Iraqis have been killed in the process of their "modernisation"? Or the torture carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay (ideologically grounded, as we were to find out, in an Orientalist tract suggesting that sexual molestation was the gravest insult an Arab or Muslim could suffer)? Or should we rather privilege the video-taped butchery of Nepalese workers to shouts of Allahu Akbar? The massacre of children in Beslan? The slaughter of Spanish commuters in the Madrid underground? What kind of images of bloodshed and destruction, of sheer horror, stand out in our minds as we look back on the past year? The torn bodies of children in Rafah and Falluja? The hooded and cuffed father in Abu Ghraib, his frightened little boy lying prone and hapless in his lap? Or the weeping face of Margaret Hassan, before she was put to the knife?

And what of our supposedly inherent capacity for empathy? When we see a Palestinian family standing desolate and numbed before their bulldozed home, do we think of our own homes, of the memories and cherished possessions -- a picture album, a sweater, a book -- which, at only a moment's notice, could be buried under a pile of rubble? Do we think of what it might mean to be rendered homeless, often for the second or third time?

Or do we think of the greater picture of a world that has seemingly gone mad? A world that had to pass through the countless horrors of colonialism, world war and genocide to be able to encode into law, in the aftermath of WWII, a relatively decent sense of our common humanity. Yet it only took George W Bush and his neo-con cabal three years to bring the whole edifice down, and confer instead the legitimacy of unmitigated power on invasion and occupation, illegal and "preventive" war, torture, and the interminable detention of persons without charge, trial or the merest semblance of due process.

In 2004, the clash of civilisations thesis -- inhuman, racist drivel that it is -- looked to have become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Yet within this bleak picture, there was hidden a significant twist. For this is not the war of a civilised West against a barbaric East. Rather, this conflict pits a barbaric and immensely powerful West against an equally barbaric, eminently powerless and ultimately suicidal East.

That is why at Al-Ahram Weekly, we voted 2004 "the year of the beast" -- a year in which our very humanity was under fierce attack from both sides of the barricades. We cannot privilege one side or the other, for our struggle is against them both. If a humanity worthy of the name is to survive at all, this struggle must continue.


Sunday, 24 November 2013

‘Tooning out humanity

My 2006 take on the Danish cartoons brawl


Triggered by cartoons, the latest round in the bogus "clash of civilizations" reduces complex cultures to empty caricatures.

Hani Shukrallah,, Tuesday, Feb 14, 2006   


We might well laugh at the absurdity of a notion that would put Adolf Hitler and Ernest Hemingway on one side of a battle line and Osama bin Laden and Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz on the other.

Yet the bogus “clash of civilizations” — ludicrous, recycled, 19th century Orientalist racism as it may be — is becoming all too real. The two sides are getting more enamored of the fracas with every passing day. To try to convince them that this is a bogus altercation looks increasingly to be as futile as attempting to convince a bunch of drunk English soccer hooligans that, win or lose, a football match is nothing to come to blows over.

Make no mistake about it: The recent West versus the Muslim World contention over 12 ignorant and offensive cartoons is not about freedom of expression and its limitations. It is first and foremost about the bleak reality of a great many powerful forces — on both sides of the Atlantic, north and south of the Mediterranean and all the way to the Indian Ocean — having a decided stake in perpetuating and escalating the so-called clash of civilizations, even if for a whole range of very different reasons. This is no conspiracy but, rather, an ugly convergence of equally repugnant interests.

How else could we explain the supposed confusion over demarcating between freedom of expression and racist hate speech, a distinction that one would have thought was by now well established in the “Western” democratic tradition? Presumably, one need not be particularly “culturally sensitive” to recognize barefaced racism and hate-mongering in a cartoon depicting the Prophet, venerated by over a billion and a half human beings, sporting a turban with a fuse-lit bomb in its center. Or another in which that same Prophet is standing at the gate of a Muslim paradise telling an endless line of suicide bombers that he’s running out of virgins to offer them. None of this is a question of subjecting a particular religious dogma to ridicule (as “we in the Western world” are supposedly in the habit of doing); it is blatantly and unashamedly a matter of expressing contempt and hatred for a group of people by virtue of the race, religion and/or ethnicity they were born into — the very definition of racism.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, a commentator writing in an Israeli newspaper had no difficulty in recognizing the Danish cartoons for what they are. “Of late, a new breed of anti-Semitic caricature has begun to circulate through Europe, an indication, perhaps, of a new breed of anti-Semitism. But the Semites, in this case, are not Jews,” wrote Bradley Burston in Haaretz on Feb. 6. He goes on to describe the message of the Danish cartoons as racist and obscene, adding, “In that sense, it also profanes the right of freedom of speech, distorting it into the freedom to foster hatred.”

There is, indeed, a great deal of irony in the liberal “Western” pretensions of ambivalence and ambiguity over the Danish cartoons, as experts pontificate about the “tension” between free expression and cultural sensitivity. No such ambivalence or pretended naiveté is shown when expressing abhorrence of the anti-Semitic cartoons that continue to plague some of the press in Arab and Muslim countries — and rightly so. Compounding the irony is the fact that Arab and Muslim editors jealously defend their “right” to publish anti-Semitic cartoons, Holocaust denial editorials and other rubbish of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” variety by shouting “freedom of expression.”

Meanwhile, the protagonists seem to be reveling in this new battlefront of the “clash of civilizations.” For one thing, compared with the larger, global “clash” launched by Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush in 2001, the recently opened Euro-Muslim front is superbly economical — for both sides. No billions of dollars or thousands of lives need to be expended by the Western world on this particular front — merely newsprint.

The Arabs and Muslims, for their part, can engage in a glorious jihad in defense of the faith, their religious and cultural identity, without fear of regime change, elimination of states or the destruction of whole nations and the killing of hundreds of thousands of their peoples in order to liberate them. All they need do is shout slogans, burn a few flags, make the ultimate sacrifice of eliminating Danish blue cheese from their diets, torch a couple of European embassies and — what could be easier — launch the odd attack on Arab Christians and publish hate cartoons about Jews.

Triggered by cartoons, the latest episode of the clash of civilizations is the caricature of a caricature, one in which our fundamental humanity is diminished, the almost limitless richness and diversity of that vast world of the intellect and the imagination that we call culture is flattened and shadowed over, the profound commonality of our human condition rubbed out, until finally all that remains is the horrible and the grotesque: the “liberal” West represented by a T-shirted female American soldier holding a prone and naked Arab on a leash, and the “devout” Arab/Muslim world represented by a masked and hooded terrorist holding a knife to a hostage’s neck under a banner of “God is great.”




Saturday, 23 November 2013

Cairo: the city vanquished? The Muslim Brotherhood and the ruralisation of Egypt

The Egyptian Revolution signified a triumph of the urban; even while the counter-revolution looks to the undefeatable rural for provisions

Hani Shukrallah, Ahram Online, Monday 31 Dec 2012

Cairo, Al-Qahira, is literally The Vanquisher, or the vanquishing city. Max Rodenbook, in the title of his delightful history of the Egyptian capital, rendered it, “Cairo: City Victorious”. And for a great part of its millennium-long history, Egyptians have equated Cairo with the Arabic name of the whole country. Cairo was Misr, and was umm el-donia, or the Mother of the World, which provided the title of yet another marvelous history of the city, the late Desmond Stewart’s “Great Cairo: Mother of the World”. For his part, Andre Raymond titled his outstanding scholarly history of the Egyptian capital: “Cairo: City of History”.

And while Cairo got its current name in 969, under the Fatimids, who also founded Al-Azhar (972), it has been the constant administrative centre of the country, and its commercial and intellectual heart, since the Muslim conquest of Egypt under the command of Amr Ibn al-‘As in 640, and his founding of al-Fustat two years later.
The primacy of the urban in Egypt’s 5000-year long history is generally acknowledged, whether the country’s urban centre lay in Memphis, Thebes, Alexandria, or – for the past some 1,400 years – in the urban space we call Cairo. Certainly such primacy has given rise to a lot of nonsense about hydraulic societies, and to one of the more absurd expressions of 19th Century European Orientalism, namely the theory of Asiatic Despotism, or Asiatic Stagnation.

I need also add the reservation that history is invariably written by the more powerful, whether that power is derived from the instruments of knowledge, coercion or both. Inevitably this would tend to bias our modern day perspective of Egyptian social and political history in favour of the urban against the rural. The inherited histories of Egypt, passed on to us by such luminaries as al-Maqrizi (1364 – 1442), Ibn Ayas (1448-1523) and up to al-Jabarti (1753-1825) were fundamentally histories of urban Egypt.

Bias notwithstanding, there’s no going away from the primacy of the urban in Egyptian history, at the very least when contrasted with that of Europe during its centuries-long Dark Ages.

Even when we move from the history of power and coercion to that of resistance and revolution, we find the urban supreme.

In the modern age, Egyptian revolutions and uprisings were fundamentally urban phenomena, though on many occasions the support and/or participation of the peasantry proved crucial to their survival. Stretching from the two Cairo uprisings against the Napoleonic conquest (in 1798 and 1800, respectively) and up to the Egyptian Revolution of January/February 2011, great movements of rebellion by the Egyptian people were invariably launched in the cities, with Cairo at their heart.

And, however nuanced our perspective on Egypt’s modern revolutionary history, there is no going away from the fact that we have not known the kind of peasant revolutions that ultimately triumphed by taking the cities, so familiar in the revolutionary experiences of much of Latin America and Southeast Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries.

And it’s been in this primacy of the urban that both the power and the weakness of the Egyptian Revolution has lain, and continues to lie.
It explains, at least in part, the great paradox of a revolution that is able to put hundreds of thousands onto the streets, over and over again for close on two years after its launch, but fails consistently to translate such preeminence into ballots.

It explains as well the remarkable enlightenment, modernity and creative genius of a revolution that speaks of freedom, democracy and human rights, of tolerance and equality among all Egyptians irrespective of gender or religious persuasion, and of a social justice couched in freedom.

And above all, it has been, and continues to be, a revolution that sanctifies the right of rebellion, glorifies personal courage, holds “obedience” in the deepest contempt (ergo, the designation of Muslim Brotherhood supporters as “sheep”), and hoists the free self-expression of the individual, even before that of the mass, as a supreme value (merely observe the explosions of graffiti and personally tailored placards that have been such a unique and pervasive feature of the Egyptian revolution).

Not only has the Egyptian Revolution been an overwhelmingly urban phenomenon (with the countryside basically standing on the sidelines). But as one ballot after another since the Constitutional Declaration of March 2011 and up to last December’s referendum have shown, the countryside has acted as a bulwark, or strategic reserve for the counter-revolution, with the latter having consistently attempted to pit electoral versus revolutionary “legitimacy”, even as it juggled the two – arbitrarily and capriciously.

And make no bones about it. The Muslim Brotherhood’s project is nothing less than a full scale counter-revolution. If in any doubt, just go through the constitution drafted exclusively by them and their Salafi allies, or better yet watch Salafi leader Yasser Borhami on YouTube reassuring his followers that the freedoms and civil liberties articles in the constitution were no more than window dressing, pointing them to the relevant articles deliberately designed to emasculate them.

Meanwhile, we are promised a new piece of legislation, to be enacted by the electorally “legitimate” Shura Council, even if a mere 5% of the electorate took part in the vote of its “elected” members, while the president appointed another third of its members, packing it even further with droves of his Islamist supporters, and with a single Coptic woman sprinkled as dubious sweetener.

The promised piece of legislation is designed to effectively ban demonstrations and strikes (it includes the uniquely bizarre stipulation that a strike should not halt production). These two basic instruments of protest are, needless to say, basic rights seized by the revolution, let alone that it was thanks to them that Mubarak was overthrown, Mr Morsi let out of prison, and set on his way to the presidential palace in Heliopolis, graffiti adorned as it might be. 

Ruralisation, admittedly, is an unfamiliar term, and something of a tongue twister to boot. But – and this for the benefit of my MB e-militia haranguers, fingers no doubt already itching to learnedly inform me that there is no such word – it is a proper noun, to be found in most contemporary dictionaries.

(The MB English-language e-militia, who seem to have a preference for using European pseudonyms, recently set about correcting my reference, in a recent article, to Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by learnedly informing me that it was in fact The Rise and Fall of said empire, testimony to both laziness and most probably an American education, since I doubt there is a British high school graduate who is unfamiliar with the famous work.)

The Arabic, taryeef, has been with us for some time. More often than not, it has been used to refer to the process of haphazard urbanization that followed on the heels of the defeat of June 1967, and has been full-blown since the seventies. As the Egyptian state relinquished, one after another, its basic functions save for plunder and repression, rural migration to the urban centres of the country was creating everywhere new sprawling urban settlements that physically, culturally and in terms of life-styles appeared as hugely bloated villages transplanted onto an urban landscape.
It was such settlements that provided the stomping grounds of the Jihadists of the ‘90s, and continue to act as breeding grounds for Salafists and other of the more regressive and extreme tendencies of Egyptian Islamism.

Neither is pitting rural against urban Egypt terribly new. President Sadat, faced with the increasingly potent challenge of leftist-led students and workers movements, styled himself “the faithful president”, called for a return to “village values” and even had his flunkies trump up a new piece of repressive legislation which he called “the law of shame”. Sartorially conscious, the late president’s multifarious wardrobe prominently included the magnificently tailored robes of a (very) rich Egyptian peasant.

In electoral terms, rigging notwithstanding, the Egyptian countryside has been for decades an extraordinarily pliant tool of those in power. Almost invariably voting in considerably higher ratios than their urban counterparts, with rural women remarkably voting in even higher ratios than men, the electorate of the Egyptian country-side is literally herded to the balloting box, and invariably casts its ballots on the basis of patronage rather than politics.

This pattern remains as true after the revolution of 2011 as it was before it. I’ve noted before that triumphant revolutions tend to pull the stragglers along. More specifically, urban revolutions such as the Egyptian variety are obliged to win the peasantry if they are to survive, and they do so by acting to meet their most urgent needs, namely greater and fairer access to, and nominal or effective ownership of the land they till.

The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, having itself become ruralised, seems fully aware of the sharp rural urban dichotomy that has come to its fullest crystallisation following the triumph of the urban embodied in the Egyptian Revolution. Even before the revolution, the reformist trend within the Brotherhood had been warning of the ruralisation of their movement, which they were convinced was fundamentally urban and modern. It was such ruralisation, they argued, that ultimately enabled the full takeover of the movement by its most regressive sections, the Qutbis and the Salafists.
In a 2008 article (which appeared in the English translation quoted below, in Al-Ahram Weekly of 23 October, 2008), the late Hossam Tammam writes:

“The Muslim Brotherhood used to be an urban group in its membership and style of management. Now its cultural patterns and loyalties are taking on a rural garb… Over the past few years, the Muslim Brotherhood has been infused with rural elements. Its tone is becoming more and more patriarchal, and its members are showing their superiors the kind of deference associated with countryside traditions. You hear them referring to their top officials as the "uncle hajj", "the big hajj", "our blessed one", "the blessed man of our circle", "the crown on our heads", etc. Occasionally, they even kiss the hands and heads of the top leaders.”

The rhetoric used by the Brotherhood and its Salafist allies against their opponents is equally revealing of a deliberate, conscious manipulation of the rural urban divide. The leaders of the National Salvation Front are portrayed as belonging to a prosperous, even licentious urban “elite”, more concerned with safeguarding their “loose” life-styles, their bars and clubs, than with the lot of the common man, the latter invariably portrayed as socially conservative, culturally-backward, God-fearing, and obedient, i.e. an archetypal villager. 

Most remarkable of all has been the clearly observable fact that in order to put into effect their more pernicious, more fascistic plans, such as thug militia attacks on peaceful protesters, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership could not count on its urban membership, but invariably had to bus in these would-be Hitler Jugend from the surrounding provinces.

In the presidential elections, as in the last constitutional referendum, the great cities of the nation, with Cairo at their forefront, voted for democracy and the revolution; the countryside for the counter-revolution. This was glaringly apparent in the presidential elections, and is no less true, even if less readily observable in the recent constitutional referendum.
Separate the latest ballot in the main urban centres of the country from their rural, or ruralised environs and almost invariably you’ll find a clear “No” vote in the cities, a “Yes” vote in the countryside.

Yet, and for the time being, the configuration of forces in the country is too evenly balanced. Egypt remains a deeply divided nation. Constitution or not, the Brotherhood and their Salafi allies are not able to bring their authoritarian project to fruition.

Egypt in 2012/3 is a largely urban society (with the urban-rural ratio around 60 to 40%). The fact that this is yet to express itself in the ballot box is a function of a number of factors, including big pro-democracy majorities in the cities as opposed to overwhelming pro-authoritarian majorities in the countryside; the bussing or rather half-trucking of rural voters – en masse – to the voting stations as opposed to the individual, rather moody, at their own steam, and easy to lose faith voting patterns of urban citizens.

Indeed, the Constitution was passed not only by virtue of an overwhelming “Yes” in the countryside, but also because a great many of the urban potential “No” voters did not turn out. Add some rigging, intimidation and ballot station-barring against potential opponents, and the 64-36% result would seem inevitable.

For its part, the power structure remains deeply fractured. The ruling Muslim Brotherhood do not have control of either the army or the police. And, not for want of trying, they are yet to succeed in their concerted attempt to bring the judiciary to heel.

Yet, equally, so are the revolution and the cause of democracy in Egypt incapable of realisation; the revolution remains stalled and hijacked, and a genuine Egyptian democracy continues to be an unreachable dream.
And it will continue to be so if rural Egypt remains a counter-revolutionary reservoir. Talk shows and press conferences will not do it, and neither will putting tens, even hundreds of thousands of protesters on urban streets, over and over again.

Peasants are a suspicious lot. As they should be. They’ve been oppressed, neglected and tricked too many times and for far too long by urban masters of all kinds. To win their trust, to break through the monopoly of state and religious patronage over their political will, you need to go to their very doorsteps. And you need to make the revolution and its democratic aims relevant to their lives.

Thirty years of Mubarak’s eradication of political space in the country can no longer serve as a pretext for persistent political amateurishness by the revolutionary and democratic forces. When the National Salvation Front finally came to the position of calling on the people to go to the ballot and vote “No”, they did so as if surprised by the failure of their initial, legitimate attempt at preventing the blatantly illegitimate draft from being put to the vote.

Yet, this should have been a contingency, even the most likely contingency, for which they should have been well prepared all along.

And it is high time to shatter the distortive lens of “civic” versus Islamist forces, which by the time it reaches Upper Egypt is translated into atheists and Copts against Islam. Revolutionary times are equally a time of the primacy of politics, certainly not of ideology. The fact that from within Egyptian Islamism, indeed from the very heart of the Brotherhood, a growingly potent democratic trend is emerging is something to be welcomed and cherished, not neglected and side-lined.

And revolution is not merely about protesting, as brilliant and courageous as this has been and continues to be. It is equally about political savvy and organizational skill. It’s about the ability to translate the aims of the revolution into strategy and tactics, and the many forms of political and popular organization able to put these into practice.

And as we approach the second anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, is it not also high time the revolution’s objectives were put into concrete programmatical proposals and demands, staggered as urgent, middle- and long term?

Social Justice is not merely a noble sentiment to be realised in the repetition. It must, and should mean a concrete set of proposals for the here and now, for the poor and dispossessed, both urban and rural.

In short, it is high time the revolution and the democratic forces in the country get their act together.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

The American Mind

More on conspiracy theory, the Arab and…

Hani Shukrallah, The Daily Star Egypt & Counterpunch, 26 Sept, 2006


This is in Denver. Colorado, USA - and it's "the Arab mind" that's supposed to be enamored of conspiracy theories


Where would you expect conspiracy theories about 9/11 to be disseminated in Cairo? A coffee house in Sayeda Zeinab, Al-Azhar or any of the multitude of so-called "popular" quarters of the city–filled with Shisha smoke, and permeated by the smell of molasses-soaked tobacco (otherwise known as me’assel) mixed, perhaps, with the subtle whiff of some other rather more expensive substance?

Where does the "Arab mind’s" supposed propensity for conspiracy theory come to its own and propagate? Could it be in the scruffy offices of local newspapers, regularly slammed by a certain Mossad-led, U.S.-based media monitoring organization as dens of anti-American, anti-Semitic incitement, and which the U.S. government, the EU and nearly everybody with some aid money to disburse is doing their utmost to help reform? (God knows the need is great, even if the path, in this as in every other area of our contemporary life, is shrouded in mystery?)

Possibly, but the most lucid, indeed the most erudite and comprehensive argument to the effect that all was not what it seemed in 9/11 was to be had in none of these.

Certainly, I’ve come across several versions of what "really" happened on that fateful day in September 2001, over the past five years. There’s been my friend and colleague, the expert on political Islam, who throughout continued to insist that Al-Qaeda didn’t do it, almost totally unfazed by my taunting him with each growingly more blunt admission to having indeed ‘done it’ by Messrs Bin Laden and Zawahry. We’ve all heard the one about 3,000 Jews that failed to show up at the World Trade Center on the day of the atrocity. And though many have written to expose this story for the myth it has always been, much of the Egyptian public continued to believe it–just, one may add, as their more prosperous and literate American counterparts went on believing in that other 9/11 urban legend, curtsey of Mr. Cheney; the one about Saddam’s links to Al-Qaeda.

My absolute favorite 9/11 conspiracy theory, however, was told to me by that most ubiquitous source of information vis-à-vis the mood on the "Egyptian street"–a taxi driver. (In the absence of any sort of political life in the country outside a narrow and isolated political elite, both local and foreign journalists have come to rely on the taxi driver as the ultimate authority on what the "ordinary Egyptian" thinks or believes.)

According to my source, both Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein (who was yet to be captured) are CIA agents; and were in fact tucked away by their handlers somewhere in the United States. This particular theory had the ingenious merit of fusing all the conspiracy theories in one: Bin Laden did it, so did Saddam and so did the Americans. How far that particular theory was reflective of the word on the Egyptian street is anybody’s guess. I had a lot of fun with it, nevertheless, imagining Saddam and Bin Laden, clean-shaven, sharing a little house in some Midwestern American city–posing, perhaps, as a gay couple?

I had to wait five years to listen to a 9/11 conspiracy theory I could not easily laugh, or shrug off. The setting was as incongruous as were the parties to the discussion–largely one sided, my interlocutors talking and I, skeptically, listening. Sipping cold Stella beer, munching on antipasti and enclosed in the courtyard of the Italian Club, a surprisingly idyllic spot discretely hidden from the hustle and bustle of one of the busiest streets in town, my friends and I could not have been more securely insulated from "the Egyptian street."

Nor could my friends be accused, by any stretch of the imagination, of suffering from that most dangerous disease, endemic to the region, and differentially diagnosed as "the Arab mind" My friend had lived a large chunk of his adult life in the West; his recipe for solving Egypt’s multifarious political, economic and social problems is to entice Egypt’s erstwhile foreign communities (the Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Jews) back into the country. (I am, I might add, particularly enamored of the idea of enticing the Jews back, since it would have the additional potential benefit of emptying Israel of nearly half its Jewish population).

The third party to our little group on that particular summer evening was my friend’s American wife, a lovely, tall Texan, with long auburn hair. They had been recently married at the foot of the Pyramids in what my American pop-culture-savvy wife informed me at the time was a New Age ceremony. Extremely vague about what "New Age" anything actually denotes, I was nevertheless quite impressed by the insouciance shown by my friend’s large Egyptian Muslim family toward the flower-bordered Ankh within which the bride and groom exchanged their conjugal vows.

Having gone to considerable detail to absolve my companions at the Italian Club of any suspicion of being blighted by, God forbid, an Arab mind, I might now reveal that they were the source of the most persuasive 9/11 conspiracy theory I had yet to come across. It was all about steel structures and impossible cell-phone calls and an unlikely hole in the Pentagon and a disappeared fourth, or was it fifth, plane. I was referred to Web sites and to American scholars who have organized to question the whole edifice of reasoning and evidence presented by the official investigation.

I remain highly skeptical–for a number of reasons. The first may be discounted as sheer pigheadedness. As soon as I learned of the attack on the World Trade Center twin towers, my first guess, accompanied by intense dread (I could already see the war of civilizations being launched), was that it was Bin Laden and Co. who’d done it. Something of the sort seemed to be coming ever since the Jihadists had reached the conclusion (eloquently expressed by our good doctor Al-Zawahry in a famous auto-critique) that battling "the far enemy" (Crusaders and Jews) was a far better strategy in terms of winning Arab and Muslim hearts and minds than focusing on "the near enemy" (apostate Arab and Muslim regimes), which they had been doing to no avail for nearly two decades. Later developments, needless to say, seemed to amply confirm my initial guess.

The second reason for my skepticism is rather more compelling. I find it very difficult to believe that a secret on such a heinous and grandiose scale could be kept secret. Whatever the loopholes in the findings of the official investigation (and obviously there are loopholes) it is nearly impossible to assume a cover-up that must have involved the complicity of at least several hundred people in a whole array of branches of the government bureaucracy at a great many levels–and this, of the deliberate murder of more than 3,000 American citizens by an American intelligence body. Such an assumption makes the Kennedy assassination (presumably at the hands of Lyndon B. Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, the CIA, the Mafia and Cuban émigrés) seem pretty tame. And while I have few illusions about the greatness of American democracy, there is little doubt in my mind that the U.S.–despite the best efforts of the American Right–is in fact a democracy, however imperfect.

My third, and indeed, most compelling reason is that grand conspiracy theories present us with something in the nature of divine and/or other forms of supernatural intervention. Simply, they place major historical events and processes at the mercy of whim, beyond prediction or reasoned analysis. A corollary of such an assumption is that human beings are ultimately no more than puppets on a string, and that the choices we make are exercises in futility.

It so happens, however, that we need no conspiracy theory, grand or small, to learn that both President Bush and his neo-con cabal no less than the Prince of the Faithful of Tora Bora and his band of global marauders had been, on the eve of 9/11, chomping at the bit to instigate a great, bloody and perpetual "war of civilizations." It has served them tremendously well over the past five years. It’s the rest of us that have to suffer the devastating fallout.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Conspiracy theory

The 9/11 atrocity triggered a host of convoluted conspiracy theories, the most elaborate of which were, paradoxically, American in origin. In May 2003 I thought I’d offer one of my own

Conspiracy theory


A democratic awakening of the Arab masses may well be at hand; the invasion of Iraq will not launch a new American century but will prove to have been the seal on the first, and last, one

Hani Shukrallah, Al-Ahram Weekly, 15 May 2003


"Where is Saddam?" my taxi driver asked in belligerent tones a couple of days after the fall of Baghdad. Hesitantly, and rather shamefacedly (I'd been, I confess, among those expecting the battle of Baghdad), I began to advance a couple of the theories then doing the rounds, only to be interrupted almost immediately. The question, as it turned out, was of a rhetorical nature.

"He's in America."

The cab driver answered his own question in no uncertain terms. Indeed, he had it on good authority that not only Saddam, but also Bin Laden was enjoying the good life in good old US of A.

"They're both American agents, you know; they did all this to give the Americans the pretext to come and occupy the Arab world."

I did not try to dissuade my driver from this most original of conspiracy theories. (Well, not that original: soon after 9/11 my barber informed me that Bin Laden and Sharon went to the same school -- conclusive evidence, in his view, of the Al-Qa'eda leader's Mossad connections).

Images of the two murderous megalomaniacs sharing a little suburban house in some remote American town were too delicious to dismiss for the sake of what would have inevitably been a futile discussion. My Hollywood-programmed brain, drawing on scenes of American gangsters enjoying FBI hospitality under the witness protection programme, was producing a multitude of comic images: Saddam and Bin Laden walking a Great Dane round the block, buying halal meat at the corner Kosher deli; or else haggling over whose turn it is to do the dishes, or record the next tape addressing the Ummah. What cover story, I wondered frivolously, would the Americans have provided the two house-mates, one a stocky, grim elderly man, the other younger, slim and handsome.

Nonsense you might say -- yet another proof of the Arabs' propensity for conspiracy theories. This latter assertion, I might point out, smacks of racism, even though it is reiterated by certain Arab, no less than American pundits. Rather than accuse the "Arab mind" (whatever that may be) of being enamoured with conspiracy theories, the pundits would be much better served by looking into the effects of authoritarianism, a debased and sensationalist media and the near total absence of political space on the political consciousness of the masses.

There is more to it. Someone once said (was it Woody Allen?) that paranoia is greatly heightened awareness. The joke is not without insight. While conspiracy theories of the sort above may be utter nonsense when judged on the facts, they are far more erudite if viewed as a reflection of the truth. After all, in both the natural and social worlds the appearance of things/phenomena is rarely, if ever, an accurate expression of their true nature. Take my barber's suggestion that Sharon and Bin Laden went to the same school. As a fact it is patently absurd. As a metaphor underlining the similarities between the two thugs it could not be more apt.

No less interesting is the taxi driver's Saddam/ Bin Laden theory. Indeed a fairly substantial section of the "Egyptian street" (regardless of ideas on the whereabouts of the two miscreants) has in the past few weeks come to subscribe to the notion that both Bin Laden and Saddam are American agents. (I have since christened this line of thinking the Bulaq Al-Dakrur School in reference to a sprawling -- literally on the wrong side of the tracks -- slum district in Giza, where one of the theory's most zealous proponents resides.)

Factually, the Bulaq Al-Dakrur School's conjectures are laughable. As metaphor, however, they reveal a whole host of truths. One need not subscribe to conspiracy theories of any sort to recognise that Saddam and Bin Laden have been heaven-sent in so far as the US's post-Soviet imperial ambitions are concerned. There is incontrovertible factual evidence that the neo-cons had been praying for a Pearl Harbour and clamouring for Iraqi blood and oil well before 9/11, indeed, well before Jeb Bush and the Supreme Court delivered the White House into their busy and eager hands. Bin Laden provided them with their Pearl Harbour (or is it Reichstag fire?); Saddam, sitting on a sea of oil, became a uniquely abominable target of repugnance in addition to state-of-the-art missiles.

What I find most telling about this particular conspiracy theory, however, is the "street's" profound rejection of the two sets of blood-thirsty tyrants, local and foreign, Muslim, Jew and (born-again) Christian. Since they are equally loathed they must be in cahoots.

What a great many pundits, on this side of the Atlantic as well as the other, fail to understand is that the Arab masses' profound sense of national humiliation at Western imperialist hands is inevitably interwoven with their status as disenfranchised and abused citizens in their own countries. Their anger at one set of oppressors is pretty much of the same order as that directed at the other set.

Now, let me suggest a conspiracy theory of my own: the neo-cons are a Trotskyite group whose ambition is to foment world revolution. Like most conspiracy theories there is a factual grain at the core of this one. We know that a few of the neo-con ideologues (notably the Washington Institute's Patrick Clawson, he of Navigating Through Turbulence fame) are reconstructed Trots. But are they? Reconstructed, that is. What if, having been disheartened by the steep decline in revolutionary fervour following the fall of Saigon in '75, some especially militant Trots figured that the international working class movement needed to be nudged out of its complacency? What if they then set about infiltrating intelligence and administration-connected think-tanks, as well as searching for a likely point of entry into the White House? Was Junior, a wealthy wastrel from a patrician, politically and corporately-well-connected American family heaven sent, or one of several possibles? Was he, sometime during his lost years, recruited to the cause, or merely played for a fool as others exploited his well known naïveté?

Look at the results. In less than two years in office the neo-cons have succeeded in splitting the Western alliance as never before; Russia and China have been propelled out of their decade-long slavishness; and most significant of all, a new, uniquely internationalist anti-capitalist/anti- imperialist movement has been galvanised into action -- as evidenced in the 15 February anti- war demonstrations, the likes of which the world had not seen before. And the Arab street seems to have been awakened out of its long slumber; America's "friends" in the Arab world have not been as discredited, shaken and destabilised in over a quarter of a century.

The "enduring", permanent war on terror pursued by the neo-cons with arrogant vigour, is it not evocative of grand old Lev Bronstein's "permanent revolution"? Is permanent imperialist war designed to act, in well established Marxist idiom, as the midwife of permanent revolution?

It's all nonsense, of course, but fun all the same. There is a point to the frivolity, however. The American invasion and occupation of Iraq may indeed prove to have put the Arabs on the road to democracy, not by force of American example but in opposition to it. There are clear signs that the anger triggered by the new and unprecedented level of Arab national humiliation is increasingly taking an inward bent. A democratic awakening of the Arab masses may well be at hand; the invasion of Iraq will not launch a new American century but will prove to have been the seal on the first, and last, one.


Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The seeds of magic

“We’ve lived to see it!” has been the first refrain with which friends and comrades of my generation would meet each other in the wake of 25 Jan. 2011, remembering as well all those who didn’t. Since then, a recurring thought has often passed through my mind: what would Radwan El-Kashef have made of it all?

This is what I wrote on his passing more than 11 years ago

Al-Ahram Weekly 13 June 2002



Were a passion for life a factor in determining longevity then cinema director Radwan El-Kashef, a lifelong friend, would have outlived us all. He did not, and the attempt to recapture Radwan, to keep him alive in my mind's eye, is at once a comfort and torment. The image of his face: broad receding brow, Semitic nose, intelligent, slightly protruding eyes, their unlikely green ever-shining in laughter as in anger, brings warmth, but the mind balks at its own attempt at acceptance. Memories will not do.

What of the days, months, years to come; what of the many films that are yet to be made, the shared triumphs, and defeats; the many stories that are to be told and retold, the political discussions that, within our old circle of friends, often descended into riotous shouting matches, but ultimately enriched us? And what of the laughter? Radwan, the ultimate storyteller, gave to his many friends the gift of laughter, at themselves, at their lives and reality, at one another and at himself. Radwan's quip of the moment would swiftly make the rounds of our circle of friends, to be told and retold. Not that he would shy from repeating it himself. Having hit upon a good "effet", as he called them, he would peer from beneath heavy eyelids, eyes gleaming wickedly. "A good one, eh?" he would ask, and go on to repeat it to as many of his many close friends as possible.

Thus it happened that the many events, petty or formative, happy or sad, that made up our daily lives would take on new meaning, assume an element of drama and hilarity once subjected to the Radwan effet. They would become stories.

In the recounting, a Radwan stroll along the Nile is easily transformed into drama, sometimes too incredible to believe: a naked man walking down Shubra Street in mid-afternoon without anyone so much as commenting on the fact; or a man walking along the Nile Corniche in Zamalek with an ostrich under his arm; or even more incredible, the stories of how a Sa'idi travelling third class would have his relatives hurl him onto the train through a window; and how one man spent the train ride between Sohag and Assiut standing on his head, held in place by the squashed mass of human bodies. We would harangue him about his all too fertile imagination. His standard response: "You don't look; I do."

Whether he really did see a man carrying an ostrich in Zamalek or a fellow Sa'idi travelling on his head we'll never know, but Radwan did look, and listen. People, friends he had known all his life, strangers he would be unlikely to ever meet again, were a source of endless fascination. There was no hello at the other end of the line when you received a phone call from Radwan; rather "Eh, what's the news?" The question was never rhetorical.

But there will be no more phone calls from Radwan.

Memories offer little solace, yet they keep coming. The January '72 student uprising had just shaken the country -- the time for great changes had come (or so we thought). A small-bodied young man, all nose and heavy eyeglasses, even then slightly balding, makes his occasional appearance on campus. He is not yet in university, but is pulled there by the "movement." Radwan is from Manial Al-Roda, a middle-to-lower middle class island in southern Cairo; the "Manial group" vouch for him. For some reason he singles me out. It was a time of relentless political discussions, readings, debates and, always, activism. Trying to make up his mind from among the different tendencies within the self-styled "radical left", the intensely curious Radwan would, almost slyly, arrange it so that the main protagonists would debate their positions before him.

A few months and he's in Cairo University, a class-mate of my sister, Hala, at the Faculty of Arts, a short stretch away from my own Faculty of Economics and Political Science -- the twin "hotbeds" of left wing activism on the main campus. I can see it now: the Faculty of Arts "press corridor", covered with wall newspapers. Radwan's contribution is distinct in being wholly alien to the agit-prop format of that peculiar medium which, despite -- or because of -- its very rudimentary technology was for a time instigating a communications revolution of sorts in the country. Radwan, however, specialises in extremely long analytical pieces, written in small print, which, I would jokingly berate him, made me his sole reader.

Memories come through as images: small Radwan and even smaller Hala, standing defiantly in defence of the wall newspapers before two giants -- muscular, martial arts- trained police agents posing as concerned students. The inevitable scuffle begins, Radwan's eyeglasses fly through the air, followed by Radwan himself; Hala, only partially protected by her gender, shouts at one of the police agents the unlikely warning that she will "squash [him] like a bug"; the more athletic Samir leaps in with a well aimed punch at the police agent's jaw; dozens of wall newspapers are torn to shreds.

And then, the moments of triumph: tens of thousands of students attending rallies, occupations, demonstrations on campus, demonstrators rushing out onto the streets, confrontations with the anti-riot police -- young people in their early twenties, determined to change the face of the country and the world. And, naturally, the arrests, the going into hiding, the "safe houses" -- furnished flats or rooms, hired with false IDs -- the remembrance of which would in years to come provide innumerable anecdotes and much hilarity.

And somehow, through it all, a whole life was being shared as intensely as it was being created. Again, memories translate into images: A day trip to Al-Qanater -- 16-year-old Azza, who was to become Radwan's life-long partner and the mother of his two children, makes her entrance into our lives. We jokingly berate Radwan for being a "cradle snatcher"; evenings spent at the very tip of Roda Island, in the garden of the Manasterly Palace, sipping cold Stella beer, gazing at the Nile and, always, talking; snatched excursions to Alexandria, where the boys and girls surreptitiously defy convention by spending the night under one roof; Radwan's dimly lit parental home in Manial -- family members lined up in a narrow corridor before an ancient black and white TV which gives shadows instead of a picture and which Radwan would replace, years later, with his first earnings; the inevitable tabikh (rice, meat and stewed vegetables) that is insistently offered to Radwan's friends even on the briefest of visits; the hilarious luncheon which saw two ducks Radwan brought all the way from his Upper Egyptian village cooked à l'orange by my mother -- to Radwan's utter mortification.

Radwan and Azza's wedding party, boycotted by his family, is held in her family home, a small flat in the same Roda building where his own family lives. We need a suit that will fit the bridegroom. We hit upon one belonging to my brother, Alaa, bought at a C&A sale in London a few years before for another wedding. The trousers and cuffs are shortened slightly. Azza, in white wedding dress, looks like a fairy-tale princess.

Memories of Radwan invariably slip into recollections of Radwan's stories, the stories always generating a world of images. I visited Radwan's village of Kom Ishgaw, near Sohag, twice -- once on the occasion of the death of his younger brother (some 10 years ago) and the second, when we accompanied him on his final journey home last week. Both times I was struck by the instant recognition. Through innumerable stories of the Sa'id, Radwan had brought his home village alive in the imaginations of his friends, at once hum- drum and mythical, every-day and legendary. Radwan, the left wing activist and intellectual, the philosophy graduate, searched for essences and laws of motion, yet his vision of the world was intensely sensual, finding endless fascination in the details of people's lives, and the many ways in which they shape and are shaped by their physical and spiritual environments. Radwan's curiosity about the sensual world had but one boundary: people.

This passion for detail Radwan would explain as an element of his Sa'idi, or to use his preferred designation, southern, roots. Ask a Sa'idi the most mundane question, Radwan would remark, and you get a story: "It was a Wednesday..." the story would begin, according to Radwan. Above all, however, Radwan's attachment to the Sa'id was intimately tied to his mother, and through her to the world of women. Sa'idi machismo notwithstanding, Radwan was unabashed about his preference for women's company and friendship. Notes we found in his papers upon his death contain the following passage: "The world of women, for me, is a world of symbols, concealment and allusion. It is a world in which messages have a magical, deeply intimate character, implying a reality different to that which is lived. For me, the world of women is a storehouse of genuine feelings, expressed indirectly, magically." He speaks of the stories of grandmothers, mother, aunts and women servants as epic poetry, laden with sorrow, but ultimately reconstructing reality, not as it is lived but as it is desired.

Radwan's two films about the Sai'd, the little-known but stunning Al- Janoubiya (The Southern Woman), his graduation project at the Cinema Institute, and the prize-winning Date Wine, were firmly situated within just such a women's world: reality, mundane and magical, seen through women's eyes.

Yet the Sai'd was just one part of Radwan. He was also a son of Manial Al-Roda, urban to the core, streetwise, and possessed of remarkable ibn al-balad wit. Two worlds sat on his shoulders, one of the past, another of the present, one magical, the other earthly, one female, the other male. Deeply attached to an almost legendary past, he was also a consummate modernist, militant in his secularism and, to his very last day, unwavering in his dream of a more equitable, free and just world. His different worlds may have existed as parallel universes between which he travelled swiftly and with great ease, or they may have been synthesised by his profound belief in an indomitable human spirit which, chained and bound, is nevertheless constantly craving freedom.

Whatever the case may have been, Radwan had many more stories to tell, films to make, loved ones in whose lives he alone could instill a unique quality of joy.

The need to recollect is checked by the need to explain. But what is it that could be explained: Radwan himself, our friendship or the mysterious bond that made the two of us part of a curious extended family that took on natural parents and children as well as progressively new members, all of us from the most diverse backgrounds, but inseparably joined.

There may be no explanations that would suffice. After all, who can explain magic?

Hani Shukrallah

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Conspiracies of convenience: what's behind the film fracas?

My Sept. 2012 take on the “film maligning the Prophet” brouhaha

Conspiracies of convenience: what's behind the film fracas?

On both sides of the ongoing clash of bigotries and stupidity, the Prophet Muhammad is incidental to the true motives of the antagonists

Hani Shukrallah , Ahram Online, Thursday 13 Sep 2012



I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I strongly sense conspiracy in the whole sordid "film maligning the Prophet" fracas, which, in a few hours, claimed the lives of three American diplomats and delivered a devastating blow to the Arab revolutionary upsurge, and to the new democratic and pluralistic awareness that both lay behind that upsurge and was its most precious product.

Let me hasten to explain, however, that I use the questionable term, conspiracy, not in the sense that everyone from the makers of the film to the hysterical demonstrators that attacked the American missions in Cairo and Benghazi are in cahoots; nor do I base my argument simply on "who benefits most", which almost invariably is the conspiracy theorist's most crucial analytical tool.

What I really mean by "conspiracy" here is that the Prophet Muhammad is in fact wholly secondary to the real motives of the various parties to the ugly and bloody brawl. Yet, somewhat like the conspiracy theorist, I base my argument more on a reading of the events and their context, rather than on concrete, tangible facts.

To use detective story parlance, what I present below is largely "circumstantial" evidence, leaving it to the readers to judge for themselves whether such evidence is sufficiently compelling.

My first suggestion in this respect is that the makers of the film had deliberately set out to goad Muslims into just such violent and irrational reactions as we have seen in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.

It's been tried and tested many times before, and even if we can't blame the instigators for the penchant of certain influential political and ideological forces among us for ignorance and stupidity, we can still argue that those who set out to trigger such responses are in possession of a very unambiguous manual setting out just how to do it, and the broad outlines of expected outcomes.

We need only recall the 2005-6 Danish cartoons episode. The insignificant Danish newspaper that initiated the hullabaloo had been transparently out to trigger a reaction from Muslims, and a reaction it got. Nor do I have the least doubt that the Christian fundamentalist preacher who publicly set a copy of the Qur'an on fire was also deliberately out to goad Muslims into a reaction.

The obvious, outward motive of such attempts is not difficult to discern: to show Muslims as irrational, violent, intolerant and barbaric, all of which are attributes profoundly inscribed into the racist anti-Muslim discourse in the West.

And, it's a very safe bet that there will be among us those who will readily oblige.

I can guess at two additional motives, one of an immediate, narrowly targeted nature, and the other considerably more general and strategic.

America is hurtling towards presidential elections in which Barak Hussein Obama is running for a second term. For large sections of the American Christian Right (closely allied to rightwing Zionism), Obama is, if not the anti-Christ, then at the very least a Muslim mole planted in the White House.

For his part, Obama, from the very start of his presidency, had set out to douse the fires of the "clash of civilizations", then still raging curtsey of Messrs. Bush and Bin Laden, among others. An editorial in the New York Times commenting on Obama's famous address to the Muslim world from Cairo University, lauded him for having "steered away from the poisonous post-9/11 clash of civilizations mythology that drove so much of President George W. Bush’s rhetoric and disastrous policy."

To reignite "the clash" in some form serves to bolster the American Right as a whole, the American Christian Right (which is a mainstay of the Republican Party) in particular, while at the same time undermining Obama, who at best had acted to bring this clash to an end, and at worst is "a ***** Muslim" himself.

A much broader motivation, which does not exclude Obama as target, is to tarnish, even to deny the very existence of an Arab Spring.

Among the dramatic effects of the historic revolutionary upsurge of the Arab world during the past two years had been a sweeping reimaging of the Arabs in the eyes of the world at large, including the West.

For nearly two decades the bête noire of the world community, represented by vicious madmen such as Saddam and Bin Laden, or by nasty decrepit dictators a la Mubarak, the revolutions brought forth a new and heroic Arab, whose face is that of the wonderful young men and women of Tahrir. So much so that Tahrir Square became an icon of democratic protest the world over, and the Egyptian revolution provided the self-conscious symbols of rebellion to protesters from New York to Tel Aviv.

Certainly, this image had paled already, with disappointment, even disillusionment being felt widely both at home as overseas. With Islamists either taking over or becoming a major force in the new political configurations in post revolutionary Arab states, pundits in America and Europe reverted to type, proclaiming this the "Islamists moment".

Yet, for the most part, the Arab spring continued to get "good press"; both the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Elnahda in Tunisia were for the most part very favorably portrayed in the Western media, and well liked by governments in Europe and the US.

I can't claim that the film's backers had counted on a Libyan mob actually killing American diplomats, and this in the very city that was about to fall victim to a Gaddafi bloodbath had it not been for the military intervention – albeit belated – of the US and Europe. Nor could they have counted on the Egyptian police (which had just recently defended, with customary excessive and deadly force, a Nile-side Cairo mall against peaceful protesters), would leave the fortress that is the US embassy in Cairo easy prey to mob attacks, even to the extent of allowing the scaling of its walls and invasion of its grounds.

Yet, there is little doubt that the provocateurs had counted on an irrational and violent reaction, and they got it, possibly beyond their most optimistic expectations.

The result is the same: the image of Arabs and Muslims as produced by the Arab Spring is painted over with the old racist/Orientalist brush of the clash of civilizations.

The tarnishing of the Arab Spring is also yet another blow to Obama's electoral chances. After a failed attempt to salvage the Mubarak regime, Obama had opted, as an American friend described it, to put US policy in the region "on the side of history", declaring in an impassioned speech US support for the overthrow of the Egyptian dictator.

Now, Obama's detractors can claim that his banking on the Arab Spring was a major blunder; Muslim Arabs will be Muslim Arabs, and the Islamist governments in post-revolution Arab states are as much enemies of America as Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri.

Netanyahu's Israel, of course, is the greatest beneficiary of all this. Whether the film is a Mossad operation or not is beside the point; and such a claim cannot be made on the basis of conjecture, but tangible, solid information.

What may be argued with full confidence however is that Netanyahu's Israel has from the very start seen the Arab spring as a direct threat, claimed – even as the millions of protesters in Tahrir were chanting for freedom and equality – that these were Islamist, ultimately anti-Western revolutions bent on Israel's destruction, and exerted intense pressure on the American administration to save Mubarak's regime by any means possible.

As for the image of Arabs and Muslims as fanatical, violent and irrational, that – it almost goes without saying – is a fundamental premise of Israel's continuing enslavement and dispossession of the Palestinian people.

But what about our side of the squalid equation?

A well known Arab proverb says that "the faithful will not be bitten from the same snake pit twice", and presumably when someone sets you the same trap over and over again, you will have learned to avoid it.

Certainly, there are political and ideological forces in our midst for whom ignorance, stupidity and bigotry are mother's milk, which tends to render experience, however repeated, relatively ineffectual.

(I've been trying to explain to some of my overheated contacts on facebook and twitter that there is a thing in the US Constitution called the First Amendment, which makes freedom of expression - however repugnant what's being expressed - practically sacrosanct. Indeed, America's founding fathers made freedom of expression considerably more sacred than any of the sacred religious beliefs held by Americans themselves.)

 I hate to say that, for many, such arguments fell on deaf ears.

But it is my contention here as well that the real motivation behind what on the surface appears an irrational, indeed stupid and self-defeating reaction, is in fact quite rational, goal oriented and, for its culprits, highly advantageous.

Again, here we have to maneuver between the very broad and strategic, on one hand, and the immediate and narrowly targeted on the other.

In the broadest sense, there are forces in the Arab and Muslim worlds whose very reason for existence is the assumption of a clash of civilizations, an eternal and ongoing battle between the faithful and the infidels allegedly bent on their destruction.

More concretely, however, the Arab revolutions, especially the Egyptian revolution, had shown in glaring and magnificent ways that millions among us - the most courageous, noble, politically aware and self-sacrificing among us - march to the beat of a wholly different drummer. They spoke of freedom, democracy and fundamental human rights, they spoke of brotherhood and equality, and shoulder to shoulder they battled with tremendous heroism, men and women, Muslims and Christians and atheists.

Yet, no sooner had Mubarak been overthrown than the process of undermining these ideals had begun, ideals which I'd come to call the "Tahrir platform", while a friend of mine of a more scholarly bent, informed me recently that she called them the"Tahrir narrative".

Religion, and in particular the manipulation of anti-Christian bigotry ("the clash" has had a local anti-Coptic dimension for many years) was taken up soon after 11 February 2011 as a favored tool of attacking, even voiding the Egyptian revolution. Anti-Coptic pogroms, in which Islamist extremists, Mubarak's state security police, as well as the latter's network of thugs happily joined hands to lead the usual mobs of the most backward and ignorant among the population to attack Coptic homes, businesses and houses of worship.

Even the ruling military, backed by its media flunkies, tried its hands at playing the anti-Christian bigotry card. Chomping at the bit to deliver a devastating blow to the ongoing revolutionary energy on the Egyptian street, the ruling Supreme Military Council found what it thought was the ideal opportunity in an October 2011 Coptic protest (triggered by one of the mini pogroms mentioned above). The protesters who, joined by many Muslim supporters, gathered before the state TV building in downtown Cairo were subjected to a massacre unprecedented since the first days of the Egyptian revolution, leaving some 30 dead, and several hundred badly injured.

And as the tanks and armoured trucks and gun slinging soldiers and thugs were murdering protesters by the dozen, Egyptian state TV was calling on Muslims in their homes to rise to defend the heroic Egyptian army against Coptic attacks.

To the military mind, making an example of the Copts, couched in sectarian terms, would be more easy to get away with, while at the same time serving to show the extent of viciousness of which they were capable.

Which brings to mind the bewildering failure of the Egyptian police to provide any protection to the US embassy in Cairo. Was this failure merely an expression of the ineptitude of a demoralized and shattered police force, was it the result of intimidation by the religious frenzy unleashed by the film, or was it yet another example of the dirty tricks this half rogue body has been engaging in persistently since the revolution?

As for the Salafists, Jihadists and various other Islamist extremists, the film was the answer to a prayer. Not only did it provide a golden opportunity to strike against the revolutionary values they abhor as atheistic Western imports, it also gave them renewed access to the nation's political stage.

Having convinced themselves, along with the Muslim Brotherhood and Western pundits, that this was "the Islamist moment", they feel cheated by the now ruling Brotherhood, which not only grabbed the lion's share of post-revolutionary political power, but has also – in typical Brotherhood fashion – reneged on many of its promises to its various Islamist allies, as indeed it did to the many non-Islamist political forces in the country.

The furore in defence of the Prophet would also serve to undermine the rule of the reasonable, pragmatic Brotherhood, in favour of the more radical, more regressive, tendencies within Egyptian Islamism.

Striking a blow against Brotherhood-US relations is from this perspective also tantamount to delivering an effective blow to the very foundations upon which the Brotherhood is able to maintain an uncontested upper hand in the configuration of political power in the country.

For its part, the Brotherhood lacks either the imagination or the courage to hit back. Rather, it seems to have opted for the path of least resistance, the tried and true Mubarak regime tactic of outbidding the radical Islamists by appearing even more radically Islamist.

This is not surprising. The Brotherhood's behaviour since its accession to political preeminence, first in parliament and then the presidency, gives one the feeling that over the 30 Mubarak years the group's leaders were not so much opposing as taking notes.

And it's a free for all. Even leaders of the non-Islamist political parties are rushing to condemn American attacks on Islam, some calling for the severing of diplomatic ties.

Reason, for the most part, has gone out the window; the values of the revolution are being trampled underfoot.

And, for the time being at least, the clash of bigotries, ignorance and stupidity is back centre stage.