Since colonialism brought Western and Islamic societies crashing together over a century ago, the former has struggled to understand the rage it seems to provoke in the latter.
A protester rests on a barricade near the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt. (Reuters)
In August 1857, a century before the United Nations would declare the Israeli state in what had been Palestine, before British and French diplomats would formally carve up the Middle East, before the U.S. would back a coup in Iran, before political Islamism would emerge, and before the U.S. would arm unmanned airplanes to kill Islamism's most violent and radical adherents, the British empire found itself besieged by Muslim protesters.
Officers at Fort William, in the Indian city of Calcutta, were the first to require colonial troops to grease their rifles with a compound that included cow and pig fat, a mixture guaranteed to offend both Hindus and Muslims. Many of the troops, known as sepoys, protested. The protests spread and turned violent, growing into an uprising that affected much of the British Raj at a time long before it was unified by roads or telephones, much less cell phones or the Internet. To give a sense of scale, the Raj covered about 4 million square kilometers; the countries of today's European Union make up 4.3 million.
Looking back, the cause-and-effect between the animal grease and the protests might seem obvious today, but it shocked British overseers at the time, and historians still dispute the larger causes, which seem to go well beyond just the pig fat offense. "Muslim activists called the mutiny a jihad, and their well-organized assaults suggested that the bullet-grease issue had merely been the spark," Tamim Ansary wrote in his book, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. The suddenness and vociferousness of 1857's Muslim protests, in what was then the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, as well as the West's struggle to either foresee or understand their anger, have their echoes in this past week's demonstrations against the U.S. over the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims.
As the Western world once again endeavors to understand the roots of apparently anti-Western rage that have again surfaced in large parts of the Muslim world, it's worth remembering the history of offense and backlash that has been a recurring theme of their intersections. Ansary's history of the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion cited "the cultural gulf between the British officers and their [Indian] foot soldiers, a gulf that had not existed before Europeans arrived." Then, as now, Western observers looked for causes political and cultural, particular to this uprising in this moment and general to the region and its history. They've found plenty: economic disenfranchisement among certain classes, conversion anxieties, political manipulation, local factors, and of course foreign domination, among many others. Islam and its followers came under special scrutiny, also like today, although the fact that so many Hindus participated suggests that the particularities of this one religion were not a good lens for understanding the rebellion.
It's entirely possible, even likely, that there is truth to a number of these theories, just as with the sometimes similar and sometimes different theories of "Muslim Rage," to borrow from a 1990 Atlanticcover story, that Westerns have explored so many times before. We've had many opportunities to theorize: the 2010 Florida Koran burning protests, the 2005 Muhammad cartoon protests, the wide 1990 demonstrations in support of Saddam Hussein that shocked the West, the near-global violence over Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, and the deadly 1979 U.S. embassy attacks in Iran, Libya, and Pakistan. Protests and anger marked much of the colonial era as well, from the 1936 Arab Uprising in then-Palestine to the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion to the 1879 Urabi Revolt in Egypt.
It's worth considering the extent to which these movements have been connected by themes that can both encompass and be larger than the particularities of each. Many in the Middle East and South Asia are in fact furious with the U.S. for its drone program, but their anger and suspicion look awfully similar to those propelling the demonstrations in, for example, 1979 or 1988 or 1990 or 2005, during most of which drones did not exist. To say that Muslims are protesting because they're angry about drones is true in a similar way that, for example, San Francisco Democrats are likely to vote against Mitt Romney in November because they dislike his stance on gay marriage, or that people in China are protesting Japan because they disagree with Tokyo's claim over some disputed islands.
There is probably no simple, single explanation for something as old, complicated, and variegated as the anger in parts of the Muslim world against the West. Not even colonialism, perhaps the single most significant interaction between the Western and Muslim worlds since the Renaissance, is a satisfactory explanation: why, then, do the harshly colonized societies of sub-Saharan Africa report some of the highest approval ratings for American leadership in the world? (Before you answer "because oil" or "because Islam," keep in mind the Angola and Nigeria are enormous oil exporters to the U.S., and that much of Africa is Muslim.)
Perhaps the single most consistent theme in the anti-Western protests and incidents that we so often term "Muslim rage" is our perennial struggle to understand them. "Why do they hate us?" is a question we've been asking for a long time. Judging by some of the protest signs dotting Africa and Asia last week, demanding Western respect for Islam and its adherents, it might be a question that many Muslims ask of us, too. None of this is to advance a specific theory for last week's protests or the anger behind them, but rather to place them within the much longer history of offense and outrage between the Western and Muslim worlds, a generations-old mutual misapprehension that has long defied the sorts of easy answers that we might be tempted to reach for today.
More on the F-16 and Cessna crash, and whether the collision of a military and a civilian aircraft was also a collision of cultures
Early this month an Air Force F-16, under the command of an experienced Air Force pilot, rammed into a small-civilian Cessna 150 propeller plane, not far from Charleston, South Carolina. The Air Force pilot ejected to safety; both people aboard the Cessna were killed.
The next three paragraphs are background for the pointed and interesting reader-messages I am about to quote. If you’re already up to speed with previous installments (one, two, three), you can skip ahead to the messages. They highlight an aspect of the modern military-civilian divide I had not considered before this episode.
In an original item on the crash, I noted some of the perils civilians could face when flying near designated military areas—even though this crash happened in ordinary uncontrolled airspace. That is, it occurred when neither plane was within a Military Operations Area (MOA), where civilian pilots are warned about risks from high-speed military aircraft, nor inside the controlled “Class C” airspace that surrounds Charleston’s airport. (Medium-sized commercial airports like Charleston’s typically are ringed by Class C airspace, so the controllers can sequence in the airline, cargo, civilian, military, and other traffic headed toward their runways. The very busiest airports, like LAX or JFK, are surrounded by larger zones of Class B airspace for their more complex traffic-control jobs. In case you’re wondering, Class A airspace is the realm above 18,000 feet where most jet travel occurs.)
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
The paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.
I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough,and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
Has the Obama administration’s pursuit of new beginnings blinded it to enduring enmities?
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.
Orr: “Sometimes a thing happens. Splits your life. There’s a before and after. I got like five of them at this point.”
This was Frank offering a pep talk to the son of his murdered former henchman Stan in tonight’s episode. (More on this in a moment.) But it’s also a line that captures this season of True Detective so perfectly that it almost seems like a form of subliminal self-critique.
Remember when Ray got shot in episode two and appeared to be dead but came back with a renewed sense of purpose and stopped drinking. No? That’s okay. Neither does the show: It was essentially forgotten after the subsequent episode. Remember when half a dozen (or more) Vinci cops were killed in a bloody shootout along with dozen(s?) of civilians? No? Fine: True Detective’s left that behind, too. Unless I missed it, there was not a single mention of this nationally historic bloodbath tonight.
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.
On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.
Even with the overwhelming recent New York cover story, the women pay a price for speaking out.
Who still defends Bill Cosby? After newly unsealed depositions revealed that the comedian admitted to acquiring sedatives to give to women he wanted to have sex with, his longstanding backer Whoopi Goldberg recanted her support for the man accused of dozens of rapes over the years. The singer Jill Scott, too, said she was wrong when she suspected a media conspiracy against him. And if Cosby’s former costars, including Phylicia Rashad, still believe him to be the target of an illegitimate smear campaign, they haven’t spoken up to say so in a while. Cosby’s lawyer is currently making the rounds in the media to say his deposition has been misconstrued—but that argument, even if believed, doesn’t refute the idea that he used drugs to take advantage of women.
U.S. officials are turning to Russia for help with Iran and Syria, even as the Ukrainian conflict persists.
If you believe all the talk out there lately, Vladimir Putin is not only duplicitous and hypocritical—the Russian president’s also been pretty damn busy recently. Busy cutting secret deals with the same Europeans and Americans he has been vilifying for years. And if you believe the rumors, the Europeans and Americans have also been busy selling out Ukraine to the Russians.
Not that any of this would be unusual or particularly surprising. Cynicism, duplicity, and hypocrisy are often the reserve currencies of politics, where interests tend to trump values.
There have long been suspicions that the United States and Europe might give Ukraine up in exchange for Russia’s support in securing a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Washington has been seeking Moscow’s backing in securing a managed, orderly, and negotiated exit for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, which would go a long way toward ending the conflict in that country.