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French Cartoons, Anti-Islam Film are ‘Agitprop Designed to Provoke’ Hard-Liners

September 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Muslims have reacted violently to French cartoons and a film from the U.S. that crudely portray the Prophet Muhammad. Jeff Brown talks to University of Maryland's Shibley Telhami and Washington State University's Lawrence Pintak who say these statements from the West are being seized by Muslims for their own goals.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on all of this, I’m joined by Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland.

And Lawrence Pintak, dean of the Edward R. Murrow School of Journalism at Washington State University and a former Middle East correspondent for CBS News who’s written widely on media in the Middle East.

Shibley Telhami, let’s — a piece of this unrest clearly seems to involve very different understandings of the notion of free speech and responsibility. What do you see?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, University Of Maryland: I — First, I don’t think it’s really about free speech. I will come back to this.

I know free speech is important. And there’s no question that in Arab and Muslim countries, understanding the nature of free speech in the West is difficult, in part because clearly they haven’t experienced the kind of democracies, including the countries that are now changing.

And one cannot expect them to fully understand the consequences or to have thought them out. We think about our democracy when women got rights here or when African-Americans got rights here. So it’s evolving. And no question there is that problem.

But I think it’s really not so much about free speech. I think no matter what we do or say, there are two things going on at the same time. One is, there is an anger with the U.S. that is separate from this that is being exploited. That anger is pervasive. It’s not just in — in some Arab countries across the Muslim world. And it’s tied to bigger issues.

There was a sense particularly over the past decade that Islam is under assault from the West, in large part because of the Iraq war, the Afghan war, Israel’s war with Lebanon and Gaza, and a discourse of clash of civilizations. So there is that and there’s an expression of that.

But there is also the divide within each one of these countries. Particularly, it started in the countries where revolutions took place in Libya, and Tunisia, and Egypt, and Yemen. There is a contestation going on for control. Governments are still weak.

And so because Islam is so — is still pervasive as a religion, and in fact Islamic societies tend to be among the most religious in the world, it is a very easy one by groups with political intent to rally the public behind them, particularly extremist people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me bring in Lawrence Pintak.

How do you — that is a lot on the table there. That’s free speech, religion, power struggles that go back through time. What do you see when you look at events today and over the last week or so?

LAWRENCE PINTAK, Washington State University: There’s all those things going on.

But at the bottom line, it is agitprop designed to provoke the hard line in the Middle East and beyond that successfully does that because it’s an excuse for them.

In Egypt, we have Copts who are trying to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood government by provoking the hard-line Salafis. And across the broader Muslim world, you have hard-liners seizing on this for their own goals.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Larry Pintak, just to stay with you, it is, clearly, the interconnectedness of the world makes this much easier to happen, somebody doing something amateur, amateurish, certainly in California, but it allows some forces to use it.

LAWRENCE PINTAK: Yes, this is a YouTube effect, if you will, where an extremist in California can light a spark that explodes in the Muslim world. And it’s because we have instant media.

But it’s also important to remember that, while this thing was on — we’re talking about the film — was on YouTube for a while, it was only when it was picked up by mainstream Pan-Arab TV stations in the Middle East that it really had this effect.

So just as in the Arab spring, we had this digital one-two punch of social media and then mainstream media in the form of Arab satellite television. We have the same effect going on here.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is also, Shibley Telhami, that the — clearly, a lot of these people would never have even seen the video. So something is going back to what is stocking them and driving them.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Not only never would have. They haven’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: They haven’t.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: The vast majority of people haven’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: You said it more directly than I did.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: But that’s what I meant.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: And so all it takes is somebody to say that Islam is under assault or somebody is trying to do it, and I think because of the suspicion — I say it’s not about the freedom of speech, in part because I think no matter what you do with the freedom of speech, A., you cannot prevent that in the modern Internet. It is going to happen.

And, two, even if the U.S. distances itself, as it should and has, people are going to see an American hand in it because of the suspicion and the mistrust.

JEFFREY BROWN: But when we see the — as we saw in our tape piece from Pakistan, a call for outlawing — an international law outlawing blasphemy, and we hear it set in freedom of speech and legal terms…

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Yes.

Well, obviously, you are going to have that kind of debate. And people clearly don’t understand the complexity of what we have here in America, in terms of the freedom of speech.

I’m a defender of freedom of speech. I think usually that’s not the way to go, although I do struggle with it sometimes because I don’t know at what point speech becomes action.

I was a student of one of the prominent philosophers of language, John Searle, who talked about speech acts, because obviously what you utter does have consequences and sometimes is intended to have consequence. And we need to evaluate that.

But I don’t think that we need to evaluate that specifically because of this particular episode. I think, in this particular case, part of the problem is that there isn’t somebody who will go out there and say this is wrong and be credible.

There are a lot of people who are saying this is wrong — that is, the reaction.

We see the mufti of Egypt saying, look, the prophet took insults and didn’t react like violence. Be like the prophet, the mufti of Saudi Arabia — Mr. Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamist in the — the leading Islamic party in Tunisia, said the Salafis are a threat to Tunisia.

So people are saying — but for now, because the Arab revolutions have been mostly grassroots mostly popular, mostly authentic, they didn’t develop charismatic leadership that can — Nelson Mandela, who can go out there and say, this is wrong, we need to stop it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Larry Pintak, when you think about what could calm things down, we also saw in that early clip U.S. — a kind of ad, with the president and Secretary Clinton being put on Pakistani TV.

How unusual is something like that? How effective might something like that be?

LAWRENCE PINTAK: Well, I think, in this case, it is a good step. How effective ultimately it will be, we will see.

But — I mean, it’s certainly much better than — we had the old shared values, what I call the happy Muslim ads under the Bush era, telling Muslim — the Muslim world how wonderful it is for Muslims in America. And that directly had a countervailing effect.

This can have an effect. Let me go back to one thing that Shibley said, this issue of free speech and the concepts of free speech in the Muslim world. The — when we talk to journalists — we do surveys of journalists in the Arab world. They all talk about the need for objectivity.

But there is also a strong feeling that journalism must be responsible. And there’s a real — they have a tough time understanding how an American or European news organization can publish something like the Mohammed cartoons in the name of free speech.

And to get to this issue of what do we do, how do we address this, one of the things is that free speech is critical. I’m the dean of a journalism school. I have been a journalist for 30-odd years.

Free speech, free media is in my blood.

But, by the same token, I don’t need to condone acts of agitprop that are done under the cloak of free media. And I think the ads, for example, speak to that. And I think the more news organizations that say that, that denounce this kind of agitprop, the better we will communicate that message in the Muslim world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Shibley, just very briefly, please, the Libya situation, is that more of a sign of hope? That’s still developing.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: It is a sign of hope.

I think the fact that you have thousands of people taking to the streets and not just demonstrating, but going against the group that they think is extremist and in fact is reclaiming Benghazi or saving Benghazi, is the — I think it is helpful. That’s the sort of debate that is going on.

It tells you something about American foreign policy. We can’t walk away from this. Don’t make drastic decisions and pull back because of this crisis.

There’s a battle going on within Arab countries, Muslim countries. It’s going to be their own battles. And we have to understand that we don’t want to support the ones who are the extremists who will have the advantage if we do.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, very interesting developments today.

Shibley Telhami and Lawrence Pintak, thank you both very much.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Pleasure.