The History of Muslim Anti-Western Protests Is Older Than Obama or Bush, Drones or Israel

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.

Today, there is no shortage of theories, sometimes conflicting, for the anger behind last week's embassy attacks: President Obama's perceived weakness or President Obama's accelerated drone strikes; resentment over Israeli occupation of Palestine or simple anti-Semitism; U.S. support for dictators or the U.S. invasion of Iraqmisunderstandings around Western free speech laws or cultural standards that privileges religious respect over speech rights; deep-seated insecurities of Muslim-world decline or antagonism toward Western domination; political fumbling or political exploitation.

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 Atlantic cover 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.