“Why do they hate us?” That was the question asked by many baffled Americans after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
Eleven years later, Americans are asking the question again after the US ambassador, another US diplomat, two US marines and 10 Libyan guards were killed in attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi.
The hate film, Innocence of Muslims, was virtually unheard of until its producers dubbed its most offensive scenes into Egyptian vernacular Arabic and promoted it in the Middle East on social media.
There is some mystery about the makers of the film. Credit was initially taken by a fictional Israeli-American businessman, claiming it was financed by “donations from 100 Jews”. One of the film’s real producers appears to be Steve Klein, a figure on the Christian far-right fringe of the US political establishment — who admitted he expected the response.
Whatever mystery surrounds the motive of this provocation, there is no mystery as to why it succeeded. The US and the West are deeply unpopular in the Middle East.
In Cairo, Islamist organisers of protests about the hate film have distanced themselves from ongoing protests at the US embassy, accusing “ultras” — the soccer fans who have often been at the front of mobilisations in Egypt since the democracy movement began in January 2011 — of using the demonstrations to push their own issues against the US and the Egyptian state.
The Islamists want to keep the focus on religious insult, but the anti-Western sentiment comes from serious injury that the insult has been added to.
The Middle East has been the victim of Western imperialism since the 19th century. For the past 60 years the dominant power has been the US.
Western imperialism also imposed itself on the whole of Africa, Asia and Latin America. But because the Middle East is the source of much of the fossil fuels that fuel the global capitalist economy it has become the main theatre of Western military aggression and has elites notable for their wealth, tyranny and subservience to the West.
Furthermore, since 1948 the West has projected itself into the Arab world through the highly militarised and extremely aggressive colonial settler state that occupies Palestine.
This state — Israel — has scattered 9 million Palestinians throughout the rest of the Arab world and subjects the 5 million remaining Palestinian Arabs to a particularly violent form of apartheid. Israel also regularly attacks neighbouring countries, Lebanon suffering this most.
Already in the 21st century, the West and Israel have made war on four different Arab countries and are threatening Iran. This includes the US war in Iraq, which killed up to 1 million people. The US is also waging war in Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia in regions adjoining the Middle East.
But war is just one means of control. As in the rest of the Third World, the degree to which the regimes of the corrupt, tyrannical local elites are favoured by the West is determined by their willingness and ability to impose the endless cycle of neoliberal economic “reforms” that impoverish the population and benefit Western corporations.
To keep elites in line, and to channel opposition, the West uses the time honoured methods of divide-and-rule. In the conflicts between secular nationalist tyrants and theocratic forces, or between Sunni and Shi’a communalists, as well as in conflicts between nation states and with national minorities, the West will make common cause with one side then the other.
The “Arab Spring” challenged the dynamic where opposition to Western imperialism was led by local elites and channelled through religious fundamentalist opposition to religious and cultural slights.
Western coverage has focussed on the political dynamic of opposition to dictatorship, but it has ignored the equally important economic dynamic of opposition to poverty, inflation, unemployment, lack of educational opportunity — in short, Western-imposed austerity.
Western attempts (political and military) at hijacking the democratic uprisings have included alliances with Islamist terrorists because of, not despite, these groups' antipathy to democracy.
This involves risks. As the September 11, 2001, attacks were carried out by former by Islamist allies, Western policy makers are well aware of this. Yet on September 11 this year, US ambassador Chris Stevens and the others were killed by Islamists wielding weapons supplied by the West only the previous year.
This is because, despite the risks, the greatest risk to the Western ruling elites is real democracy.