Faculty panel discusses anti-American protests
Four faculty panelists looked at the actors and motivations behind recent events in Southeast Asia and Africa and their portrayal in the media.
Hours after an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya resulted in the death of four American officials, news outlets started to report that the events were a reaction to an American-produced video mocking the Prophet Muhammad.
The news spread like fire on social media and soon, reports of additional protests in Egypt and other parts of Southeast Asia and Africa started to surface. For many Americans, the events confirmed a perception that has permeated much of the discourse involving the Middle East – Muslims hate American values and cannot be trusted – a perception that many times is reinforced by the mainstream media.
In order to truly understand the recent events, one has to go beyond this misconception, a group of four Elon faculty panelists argued during a discussion Thursday night at LaRose Digital Theatre.
“This is all about politics and social conditions; it’s about local conditions in Libya, local conditions in Egypt,” Michael Pregill, assistant professor of Islamic studies, said. “It’s not about culture, it’s not about religion or something essential to Islam.”
Pointing to a recent Newsweek magazine cover that featured the headline “Muslim Rage” and a photo of angry Muslim protestors as an example, Pregill said many news outlets have painted the recent events as the reversal of the Arab Spring, focusing on what in their view is “wrong with Islam” instead of looking at what is really happening in the region.
He said that unlike the revolutions that overthrew the governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, which involved thousands of people, the most recent protests have involved much smaller numbers of “political motivated individuals” and “groups with certain agendas” who do not represent the majority of the population.
Assistant Professor of Political Science Sarah Salwen said one needs to consider the structural conditions in Egypt and Libya, particularly the volatility that comes with being newly formed democracies. In Libya, for instance, roaming militias have more arms than the government while in Egypt, the new government faces challenges by several forces, including the military, that don’t want to see it succeed.
“Neither government wanted the violence but they didn’t have the capacity to control the situation once it escalated,” she added.
Associate Professor of Arabic Shereen Elgamal, a Muslim who was born in Egypt and spent 28 years in that country, said there are certain social conditions, such as illiteracy and high unemployment, that also need to be considered to fully understand the recent protests.
These factors, coupled with the fact that religion is an emotional subject for Egyptians, can be “an ugly mix,” she said, adding that the violence and destructive behavior also raises questions about the real motivations of the protesters.
“There is a possibility that there are other forces at play,” she said.
Professor of Political Science Laura Roselle agreed, adding there are also various political actors trying to craft the narratives and stories that are being disseminated for our consumption. She urged students to pay attention to those actors when getting their news and forming opinions.
“My challenge to you is, whatever you do to get the story, to go beyond what you usually get,” Roselle said. “There are all kinds of different perspectives on the story. Find those narratives that you are least familiar with to get a range of views of what is happening in the Middle East.”
The panel discussion, which was moderated by Associated Professor of Political Science Jason Kirk, was sponsored by Elon's Middle East Studies program.