Ready to be an instant expert on the Middle East? Hold American nationality and live in Egypt; trust me, it’s simple. After the events of the past few days here in Cairo, I’ve been inundated with requests to write up “my take” on the U.S. Embassy demonstrations. My take. I’m not entirely sure what this entails: judging from the news stories I wish I could avoid reading, this might mean either hysterical fist-pounding about Al-Qaeda attacking American soil abroad, or it might mean apologist refutations of “anti-Americanism” among the mass of Egyptian citizens.
I initially shied away from writing about the situation—initially, on the grounds that it was too soon for an accurate read of the situation. However, after reflection I’d rather go for the honest-and-uncomfortable middle ground. It’s disingenuous to invoke “conspiracy theories” as a way to ignore political grievances. Moreover, as some have recently pointed out, this is not about a film. I do not mean to say that religious fanaticism isn’t on the rise, but there are other factors at work. This is also about willful blindness. Images matter.
I live two blocks from Tahrir, in the heart of downtown Cairo, where—although the mood was tense on the morning of September 11th, I wasn’t “lynched” for being a foreigner (leaving aside the problematic nature of that particular terminology), as several Tweets warned. That evening, I left my apartment to meet up with friends at a local pub; on the way, my Salafi neighbors returned my salaam as usual, and over dinner, several of my secular Egyptian friends said things like, “come on—who wouldn’t want to storm the U.S. Embassy? But do it over something that matters!”
Although I speak Arabic with an Algerian accent, and am rarely asked where I’m from, the next day, every stranger I spoke with immediately wanted to verify my nationality. I’ve never been one to lie about holding U.S. citizenship, as I don’t feel under threat, nor do I feel any obligation to defend the policies of a state in which I was arbitrarily born – when I disagree with them. I did, however, find myself in the surreally awkward position of listening to Egyptian strangers eager to demonstrate their “love for America,” and apologize to me—as if this warrants a personal apology. I am not the United States Embassy. I am not a film. Twenty million Cairo residents are not a few hundred guys waving a black flag. I couldn’t help but wonder, speaking of attacks against a foreign country – how many Americans have been eager to find Iraqi strangers and apologize? There are several power dynamics we’re all taking for granted here, but the most problematic among them: the right to interpretation.
I want to highlight three predominant thought paradigms that prove key to understanding major interpretative issues at play: the conception of “American” identity, visual literacy in reading the media (particularly the “black flag”), and finally, the double-standards to which willful blindness leads.
Twitter is a great measure of how surreal the past few days have been. Say some hysterical things about the situation in Cairo, and watch your Twitter follower count sky-rocket. Try to insert some rationality into the situation and sit back for equally hysterical attacks. I recounted in a Tweet that in walking home through Tahrir square, I was not, in fact, attacked for being foreign. Instantly, an American replied that it’s because I “don’t look American.” True, my face is not navy blue with an imprint of an eagle in the center, so I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. I hoped that I had misunderstood. Thankfully, he was generous enough to clarify: “you know what I mean—Caucasian.”
Leaving aside all the problematic xenophobia that accompanies such a statement, this exchange brings me to the first point of interpretation. Despite the fact that my profile photo on Twitter depicts my (predominately Caucasian) face, my fellow countryman was convinced I’m not “American enough” to be attacked. I can’t argue with the logic here, since it escapes me. My racial background was not read at face value, but through a predetermined interpretative lens. According to this rationale, the sole reason I feel safe in Cairo is that I am not white enough to be hated. Carry out this argument to its logical conclusion: us versus them. There are no Arab or Muslim Americans. No American would disagree with American foreign policy. Don’t step across the line. It’s a clash of civilizations.
Willful Blindness and Black Flag Hysteria
Similar paradigmatic non-logic applies to the images of the riots themselves. The moment I heard “black flags at the U.S. Embassy,” my heart sank. Here we go. It’s going to be an Al-Qaeda celebration of 9/11, no matter what other factors could possibly be involved. The symbolism of the date itself, coupled with the hysteria attached to black flags, provides a catch-all narrative that precludes looking at the images in front of us. I want to speak a bit to the use of the black flag as a branding mechanism. If you happen to be a young brown man with an axe to grind (illegitimate or not), the quickest way to media attention is to grab a black flag and call it a day. After all, when we see black flags, who wants to talk about a silly ? Anyone feel like debating American aid to the Egyptian military? Anyone?
There’s a vast difference between Al-Qaeda, Salafis, and Islamists; I’m not a fan of any of their ideologies, but lumping them together makes about as much sense as putting Timothy McVeigh, Pat Robertson, and Jeremiah Wright in the same sentence. All that unites them is the ease with which their vastly different interpretations of religious rhetoric can be manipulated on the political stage. Although one may argue that militant groups have claimed the black flag and thus hijacked whatever symbolism it may have had elsewhere, it remains a charged object with polyvalent connotations, like many other similar objects. The KKK still flies the American flag while setting fire to crosses. The Nazis made a hate-filled fetish out of the swastika – but in India, the swastika’s display carries a vastly different meaning. Resonant symbols are always contested, and never divorced from context.
Examine some images of the U.S. Embassy riots (number 29 in this slide show is remarkably revealing). If the majority of these guys are Al-Qaeda or Salafi, they’re really bad at representing their own ideology. I mean, really, really bad. There are multiple angry young men waving the black flag identified with Al-Qaeda and militant Islam. Look again. Last time I checked, Al-Qaeda’s conception of the trans-national Islamic caliphate isn’t particularly predisposed to nationalism; rather, the entire idea of a reinstituted caliphate negates the nation-state. And yet, so many of these young men hold variants of the “Islamic flag” and the Egyptian flag—simultaneously.
The morning of September 12th, I was hanging out at one of my usual coffee shops on Muhammad Mahmood street, a few meters from Tahrir. A teenager walked by holding the black flag.
The fact of the matter is that no one should stop thinking simply because Al-Qaeda has co-opted the black flag to promote militancy. Variants of the black flag abound in North Africa, and facing reality means recognizing that this symbol has been, in turn, co-opted by those who want to make a statement against what they consider neo-imperialism. In March, when Tunisian Salafists tore down the Tunisian flag to protest the face-veil ban at Manouba University, the Tunisian media ran this image:
I don’t think you need me to tell you that for a radical, jihad-loving Salafist, this woman apparently forgot to wear her headscarf. The same week, flags for sale in downtown Tunis caught my eye: under the red and white Tunisian national flag, sellers were marketing the Ennahda party banner (middle) alongside the image of Che Guevara, as well as a variant of the black-and-white Islamic banner.
Easy Answers and Double Standards
Finally, let’s consider what happens when polarized thoughts and interpretations are given free rein to explain the meaning of images and events. Let’s discuss the state of freedom of speech in so-called “liberal” societies. In 2005, French-Algerian rapper Médine released the song “11 Septembre,” which begins with the statement, “you see nothing good here, nor do I.” Towards the end of the song, he explicitly rejects the idea that he’s anti-American. Médine proceeds to discuss grievances held in the Muslim and Arab world(s) against foreign and domestic policies of Western countries. France banned the video clip from television. American rapper Brother Ali lost corporate sponsorship over the song, “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” which takes on foreign policy in the wake of September 11th, the military industrial complex, and racism throughout American history.
Both of these videos faced censorship for the apparently controversial content of their songs. In the case of Médine, the French government (which was not attacked on 9/11) apparently deemed any suggestion that legitimate grievance may lead to violence, no matter how unjustified, too upsetting for the airwaves. Brother Ali lost economic backing for his work, which relies on archive footage of Native American genocide, Abu Ghraib, and Ku Klux Klan rallies to draw attention to an upsetting legacy of racism that the United States would prefer to ignore.
There is a very disturbing undercurrent to the censorship of these films, and one that reveals the hollow rhetoric of “free speech” in the condemnation of recent anti-American global riots. Although similar criticisms of the American government have been raised in academic papers, policy analysis, and pseudo-journalistic accounts, the realm of expressive culture remains especially charged as a medium for social protest and contested history. Perhaps the videos were banned for images of September 11, and archival footage of lynching in America: visual culture matters. The black flags, similarly, have been interpreted at face value without analysis, which easily serves bifurcated narratives of “us versus them.” Not only does such a paradigm evidence faulty logic, but also blatant hypocrisy, selective outrage, and fundamental dishonesty.
Confronting and debating history shouldn’t be considered offensive, and censoring artists is dangerous to political discourse—everywhere. 9/11 and images of the Prophet Mohammed both make for easily sacrificial sacred cows in the contemporary world. Willful blindness encourages polarization, shuts down dialogue, and dangerously—strips away the legitimacy of discourse on free speech. The danger of this style of non-thought is manifold. On a simply ethical level, using a pre-determined analytical paradigm allows us all to overlook the legitimate grievances that many feel. No debate necessary. Just choose your side.
Apologism and knee-jerk fear are equally problematic to debate. At the end of the day, are Egyptian teenagers throwing stones and waving a black flag more wrong-headed than invading Iraq for a crime it did not commit, waving an American flag, and screaming, “These people hate freedom?” Both strike me as pretty ridiculous. I refuse to choose a side; they’re equally wrong-headed. The critical task is to look at what’s going on in front of us, and the most important question remains—cui bono?