September 17, 2012

Hezbollah's Nasrallah Sharpens Muslim Outrage

As government officials and international news organizations race to examine the plots of extremist splinters, reactions of involved governments and their relation to the U.S. Embassy protests, Washington finds itself confronting a parallel threat to the safety of its diplomatic assets. America's opponents have grown adept at capitalizing on anti-Muslim propaganda made by rightwing personalities, using the opportunity to challenge Washington's foreign policy and advance their own local interests. The friction generated by this dog-pile effect represents the holistic threat posed by inflammatory anti-Muslim films.

In Yemen, a large body of protesters rallied not to protest Nakoula Basseley Nakoula but Ambassador Gerald Feierstein, whose cooperation with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the new government has earned him widespread disapproval. They have every right and ample motivation to "take advantage of the situation." The Taliban slapped Nakoula's film onto their raid of Camp Bastion even though the assault was planned weeks (or longer) ahead of time, and intend to milk its propaganda for as long as possible. Now another bad nightmare has manifested in reality and jumped on the pile. Speaking to an estimated 500,000 Shia Lebanese on Monday, Hebzollah chief Hassan Nasrallah urged protesters to organize peaceful and sustained demonstrations against the film, the U.S. and Israel.

"The world should know that our anger is not a passing thing... This is the start of a serious campaign that must continue all over the Muslim world in defense of the prophet of God. As long as there's blood in us, we will not remain silent over insults against our prophet."

A credible voice in at least parts of the Arab world, including many anti-Western havens, Nasrallah's words could force the Obama administration into some form of direct response. Hezbollah's face and brains has conclusively lost Muslim support over the last five years, particularly in Egypt and Jordan, and risks a significant amount of popularity by standing behind Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Nasrallah would boldly call for more urgent action from the Arab League, a demand that provokes more ridicule than agreement. At the same time, Hezbollah is still viewed favorably in comparison to other Islamic militant groups and considered a legitimate resistance movement by millions of Arabs. While the group is suffering from a general trend against extremism, active social work and military restraint has kept the group from drifting into al-Qaeda territory.

Anti-Israeli opinion also remains a useful supplier of popularity.

Nasrallah's strategic mindset and flare for the dramatic further demonstrate why his charisma draws supporters from outside Shia Lebanon. Appearing in public for the first time since December 2011, an animated Nasrallah spent the majority of his 15 minutes painting lavish religious overtones and history lessons. He believes that the film is “more serious than burning Al-Aqsa Mosque," which was set aflame by Denis Michael Rohan in 1969 with the intention of spawning the return of Jesus Christ. Yet Nasrallah wisely appeals to peace rather than war, stressing peaceful rallies and unity with other religions in an apparent attempt to modernize Hezbollah's image.

“We should bear the historical responsibility of the whole Islamic Ummah (Nation) and of every honorable Christian believing in coexistence to work to issue an international resolution criminalizing the defamation of heavenly religions, and the prophets at least, especially Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad.“

In conjunction with his religious call to action, Nasrallah also sees an opportunity to lead the political counterattack against the U.S., Israeli and Arab governments - an offensive that has no central command. Holding Washington responsible for the film's availability, Nastallah called on the Obama administration to intervene and censor the film's release online. This unrealistic but seemingly reasonable demand casts Washington and allied Arab governments as accomplices to the film, “which offers another witness to its hypocrisy, deception and double standards in dealing with issues.”

"The ones who should be held accountable and boycotted are those who support and protect the producers, namely the U.S. administration," Nasrallah said. "We should not only express our anger at an American embassy here or there. We should tell our rulers in the Arab and Muslim world that it is 'your responsibility in the first place' and since you officially represent the governments and states of the Muslim world you should impose on the United States, Europe and the whole world that our prophet, our Quran and our holy places and honor of our Prophet be respected."

In effect, Nasrallah has designed an interdependent politico-religious narrative that, at times, neutralizes the religious in favor of the political. He would get nowhere by portraying the battle as Muslims versus Christians - especially in his own country - and instead posits another conflict between America, Israel and the Arab world. Announcing that, "Muslims released their anger on the U.S. and Israel, and not on Christians," highlights this shift from his perspective. He also dares to transfer blame onto Israel as a means of diffusing tensions with Christians: "Those who made the movie knew that the Muslims would be enraged by it, and attributed it to Christians to cause strife between Muslims and Christians. Israel wants to watch Muslims killing Christians and burning their Churches.”

Protests could wane over time as they tend to do; if not, Nasrallah might only play a limited role in mobilizing sustained demonstrations. Yet the Obama administration cannot afford to ignore the principle of his warning or underestimate his regional influence. Although Hezbollah's strongman will be unable to escape the title of propagandist and extremist, his speech currently represents the highest level of articulation from America's asymmetric opponents in the Middle East.

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