Disclaimer: This was written as my writing sample so I could apply to graduate school so it is quite lengthy. But the topic fits well for my blog so I figured I would post it here.
August 2011, production began on an obscure low budget film set in ancient Arabia. A few months later the film screened for the first and only time at a nearly empty Hollywood theater. Over the next several months, portions of the film were cut and dubbed over in English. On July 1, 2012, it re-emerged on YouTube as a trailer for an anti-Islamic movie called “The Innocence of Muslims”. The film depicts Muhammad as a fraud and philander as well as approving of child abuse and molestation. On September 4, 2012, a version of the trailer dubbed in Arabic appeared on YouTube, which made it accessible to the majority of Muslims. Four days later Egyptian media caught wind of the trailer where it received heavy coverage including coverage by hardline TV host Khaled Abdallah (Anti-Islam Film, 2012).
On September 11, 2012, protesters marched on the US embassy in Cairo chanting slogans against the film and calling for the US ambassador to leave Egypt. At approximately 7pm in Cairo, the protesters climbed the embassy wall, took down the American flag, destroyed the flag and replaced it with a black flag reading, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah” (Ahmed, 2012). Several hours later, in a likely unrelated event, the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya came under attack by rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapons. Four Americans including US Ambassador Stevens died in the attack. Over the next two weeks protests and violence spread to more than 50 countries, resulting in dozens of deaths, hundreds of injuries and damage to six embassies (Timeline, 2012).
In the past, anti-Islamic events such as the release of the Danish anti-Muslim cartoons (Laegaard, 2007), the accidental Koran burning by US military (D’Souza , 2012), Terry Jones’ threat to burn a Koran (Goldman, 2010) and the Dutch film “Fitna” (Hartoyo, 2010) were perceived as insults to both Islam and Muhammad, resulting in protests. Since “The Innocence of Muslims” is quite disparaging toward Muhammad and received a great deal of Egyptian media exposure there is no surprise that protests erupted. Rather, what is surprising is the quantity of violence and destruction caused by the protests.
In this paper it will be argued that the expansion of political opportunity in Egypt and Libya, due to recent revolutions, largely account for the events of September 11, 2012. The framing of those events by the media combined, with political opportunity, resulted in violent protests spreading to others countries. The subsequent protests and coverage by the media reinforced the perception that the protest cycle was violent and encouraged protests to spread further.
Political Opportunity and Political Participation
Due to the recent revolutions of 2011, both Egypt and Libya were in social and political flux. Shifting forces in these societies created openings exploited on September 11, 2012. This paper adopts Tarrow’s (1996) definition of political opportunity structure (POS) which states “consistent – but not necessarily formal, permanent, or national – signals to social or political actors which either encourage or discourage them to use their internal resources to form social movements.” Political opportunities come in a variety of forms, but by definition, all political opportunities either encourage or discourage political participation (Meyer & Minkoff, 2004). The fact that POS has a very generally definition is both a boon and a bane, it encompasses a wide range of elements and applies to a multitude of cases yet it lacks specificity making it difficult to apply in a predictive or prescriptive manner (Meyer, 2004).
This paper utilizes four major forms of political opportunity, 1) increased access to the political system, 2) political divisions among elite actors, 3) availability of elite allies and 4) diminished state repression (McAdam, 1996, Rucht, 1996, Brockett, 1991). First, when individuals believe there is access to and influence over the political system they are more apt to take action. A more open political system invites greater participation of all forms by the constituency. By welcoming political participation, the state encourages the perception that the populace affects government actions, which may lead to institutional (electoral politics, petitions, litigation etc.) or extra-institutional (protest, political violence, demonstrations etc.) political participation (Meyer, 2007). Second, divisions within the elite of a state encourage groups to pressure the government for influence. Divisions internal to the government weaken the state and its ability to resist external pressures since the internal conflict ties up resources and energy. Third, the availability of elite allies bolsters the propensity for action by providing an opportunity to gain influence. Allies can come in many forms including elected officials, government regulators, religious authorities, high profile media sources and the intellectual elite. Allies bring legitimacy and public attention to a cause, which in turn builds support among the populace. It is not uncommon for elite divisions and availability of allies to interact with one another. Divisions can pressure political elite to seek out new support in order to build or solidify personal power. Finally, reduced state repression allows for greater political participation in all forms. With the threat of imprisonment, injury or even death, removed people are more likely to attempt to influence the state. Each of these forms of political opportunities may serve to either encourage or discourage political participation depending on the context.
All four of these forms of POS were present in Egypt and Libya prior to September 2012. In both cases, the opportunities served to encouraged political participation. The countries exhibit parallels caused by recent revolutions in each. These events caused political structures in these two countries to enter a state of fluctuation as new ways of governing develop. Since the countries are in the process of determining fundamental features of their governments, the potential for influence is far greater than when a political structure is well entrenched. Thus, those desiring sway over government having greater reason to push their claims since the responses to those claims may be enshrined in the fundamental structure of the emerging state. Though Egypt and Libya show the presence of the same forms of POS, each has its own distinct character resulting from the unique political conditions of the country. These differences require evaluation of each country individually.
The Political Environment of Egypt
Prior to 2011, the formal political system of Egypt was a multi-party semi-presidential system with power split between the President and the Prime Minister. In reality, the President wielded a majority of the power. A state of emergency declared in 1967 lasted until 2011, with an 18-month break in 1980-1981. Under Emergency Law the Egyptian government repressed opposition; censored information; controlled legal political parties; imprisoned individuals without trials; tried civilians in military courts; and outlawed demonstrations. The government maintained control of the press through intimidation; journalists could be fined, imprisoned, indefinitely detained without trial or even tortured for violating the law. The ban on non-governmental political activity required government approval for political parties and banned street demonstrations. This effectively prevented political participation by the populace. For 30 years, from 1981 to 2011, Egyptians lived under the autocratic rule of President Hosni Mubarak who ran unopposed in many single candidate elections. In fact, the multi-candidate election in 2005 resulted in the imprisonment of the opposition candidate after the election (Bush & Mercer, 2012, Dalacoura, 2011).
All of that changed in 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptian citizens took to the streets in mass protest to the rule of Mubarak. These demonstrations resulted in his resignation on February 11, 2011 (Abdelrahman, 2011). Since that point, the government has been in flux. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces assumed power until elections the next year. On June 30, 2012, Mohamed Morsi became the first democratically elected Egyptian president. Parliament has been dissolved, then reinstated and selected a constitutional assembly to draft a new constitution (Bush & Mercer, 2012). The courts have challenged the legitimacy of the constitutional assembly and parliament. President Morsi has ousted the military leadership and assumed legislative powers. This creates a great deal of uncertainty in the political environment, which can be conducive to collection action. By September of 2012, Egypt exhibited all of the elements previously outlined political opportunities: increased access to the political system, elite divisions, availability of elite allies and reduced state repression.
Under Mubarak, the public’s access to the political system was extremely limited. The regime held all the power with little concern for change or reform. During that time, the regime outlawed some political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood of which president Morsi is a member. Furthermore, the state did not tolerate opposition and censored dissent from the public eye. Following the 2011 change of power, the government has allowed political parties to form and thereby granting greater respect to dissent as well as providing a legal public forum for the expression of opposition. This has sent a clear signal to the populace that the government is potentially open to address grievances. The open democratic elections demonstrated that the political system was open to influence by the populace through electoral politics. No longer were parties and elections controlled by the government, instead the populace could now vote for candidates and parties which represent their beliefs. This newfound influence over government serves to encourage political participation both institutionally and extra-institutionally by cultivating the perception that the government is open and responsive to the claims of the constituency (Meyer, 2007).
Tilly (1978) proposed the concept of a curvilinear relationship between the openness of a political system and protest. Simply put, when a society is at the extremes of openness (i.e. extremely open or closed) protest is at its lowest point. Within closed political systems, there is little protest since there is functionally no prospect for influence over the system. At the other extreme, in an open political system protest is reduced since it is unneeded to gain influence. Yet in the middle, protest activity is at its greatest since there is both potential for influence as well as frequently good reason to desire change. Based on the idea of a curvilinear relationship between openness and protest, one would expect there to be an increase in protests in Egypt after the revolution (Tilly, 1978). The move from extreme repression to more openness has indeed shifted the Egyptian political system toward the center of the curve where protest activity is highest. Furthermore, since the previous regime has been overthrown there is an interest in the current regime to be more responsive to the constituency. All of this combines to show that the Egyptian political system is currently more open under Morsi than under Mubarak.
Internal divisions have characterized Egypt’s post-revolution political system. Since the revolution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved parliament and attempted to curtail the powers of the president. President Morsi has since reconvened parliament and expanded his own powers (Bush & Mercer, 2012). The Supreme Court decision is currently pending on potential dissolution of Parliament and the Constitutional Assembly. Furthermore, Morsi has replaced most of the military leadership, which is bound to create divisions within the military. A divided political system invites challenge by demonstrating the weakness of the political system. A divided opponent has resources tied up with the internal struggle, which leaves fewer resources available to engage an outside challenger. Internal division can result in pronounced resource depletion since resources utilized on both sides of the conflict weaken the government as a whole. Weakened opponents signal challengers to the system that the time is right to make a move. This serves to encourage more challenges thus weakens the system even more. Additionally, internal conflict can cause political actors to fear for their position leading to desperate decisions to end the conflict both internally as well as externally. Those decisions lead to hasty agreements or the acceptance of terms that otherwise would not be considered. The relations between political actors are strained and uncertain. Egypt’s newly elected Parliament has no precedents for relationships; therefore, any alliances are new and untested. There is no certainty as to where other political actors or the public stand on any particular issue. There are probably many issues and situations that political parties and political actors have not considered. That is because the political parties, candidates and members are new to politics, and have not developed positions on every issue. That creates an opportunity for those seeking influence. Political actors will be force to take sides if an issue is pushed. That serves two purposes, first it can create political division making the state an easier target to influence and second it can create allies among the political elite. These divisions serve to encourage political participation since resistance to challengers is more difficult for the weakened Egyptian state.
There were favorable elite allies in the case of the September 11, 2012 Egyptian protest. The Muslim Brotherhood performed very well in the parliament elections and succeeded in getting President Morsi elected. Thus when it comes to protesting a film denigrating Muhammad it is fair to assume there would be many elite allies available. The support by the political elite offered a greater chance of influence over policy especially in regards to the defamation of Islam since they should be open to the claims of the protesters and more apt to make choices that are beneficial to the protesters. Additionally, when political elites are sympathetic to a cause, it signals to the populace that the risks of protesting are likely minimized. The outrage toward the film presented in the media further enhances this, which creates the perception that the populace would support a protest against the film even if they do not directly participate. This created a favorable cultural climate to push for more extreme demands such as ejecting the US ambassador. Outright rejection of such extreme demands is the likely outcome in the absence of both popular support and political support. Whereas with popular and political support, it is much more likely that traction will be gained and the government will potentially act on the demands. Finally, the presence of both political and media allies creates a perception of legitimacy for the protesters, they know that others support their position and thus increasing the validity of their actions. For each of these reasons the presence of elite allies encouraged the populace to participate in protesting “The Innocence of Muslims”.
The final indicator that Egyptian politics were open to popular participation is diminished political repression. Mubarak outlawed protests and repressed opposition using the police. However, after the revolution that was no longer the case. Policing is a good measure of repression and political openness for three reasons, it is ubiquitous across nations, it has direct impact on social movement participants and it is a direct government response to the social movement (della Porta, 1996). Policing makes sense as a variable to measure the openness of a system since all nations have some form of law enforcement, which allows for cross-national comparisons. It is an important measure because it has a great deal of direct impact on the participants of a protest or social movement. If the police brutalize, imprison or kill protesters then few will chose to participate due to the high cost of being involved. On the other hand, police tolerance or even acceptance of protests minimizes the potential cost of participation thus encouraging more people to participate. Finally, since policing is a direct response from the state it serves as an expression of the state’s receptiveness to social movements and protests. The diminished state repression in Egypt, since the revolution, indicates to the populace that the government will potentially be receptive to the claims and challenges of the population, which serves to encourage greater participation in the political process.
The combination of increased in political openness, division among the elite, presence of elite allies, and diminished, repression served to encourage protests over the film. This minimizes the potential risks of participating, while maximizing the possibility of influence. Public outrage and sympathy from political elites legitimized the choice to protest. That left the political climate optimal for the protests of September 11, 2012 to take place in Cairo.
Libyan Political Climate
The assault on the US embassy in Benghazi is fundamentally different from the Cairo embassy protests with one critical commonality, the recent expansion of political opportunity in both countries. Libya experienced the same four forms of POS in a similar manner to Egypt. Though Libya and Egypt both successfully ousted an autocratic regime, the path each took was drastically different and those differences guided the variations in political opportunity between the two countries. In order to understand the exploitation of political opportunity in Libya, an understanding of the situation prior to September 11, 2012 is necessary. Then it is possible to examine the political opportunities present, which show parallels with Egypt, as well as its own unique character.
Shortly after the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, a revolt began in Libya resulting in the death of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. On paper, the government in Libya was an open direct democracy and Gaddafi only held a ceremonial position with no real power. Yet in reality, Gaddafi ruled the country with an iron fist. Dissent was illegal; in fact, the founding of a political party was grounds for execution. Opposition resulted in imprisonment, execution or assassination. Furthermore, the government censored the press to an extreme degree. According to Freedom House, Libya was the most censored state in the Middle East and North African area (2009). On top of that, Transparency International declared Libya to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world (2010). Over the years, Gaddafi amassed a tremendous fortune including tens of billions of US dollars and over a billion British pounds in assets in the UK (Kerbaj, 2011, Lichtlbau, Rhode & Risen, 2011). Grievances over corruption, repression, censorship and other human rights violations erupted into an armed revolt against the state in February of 2011.
Unlike Egypt’s short and largely non-violent revolution, Libya suffered through an 8-month violent civil war to overthrow the regime. The revolution began as protests and quickly escalated with security forces firing live ammunition on protesters. From there the protests quickly evolved into an armed rebellion. Gaddafi, in his effort to quell the unrest, utilized snipers, artillery, gunships and even warplanes on the civilian uprising. In March 2011, the UN intervened in Libya by enforcing a no-fly zone, a naval blockade and logistical support for the rebel forces. Despite the additional support, it still took another 7 months of bloody conflict to resolve the civil war. The aftermath left tens of thousands dead and injured, the entire political structure destroyed and civilians armed with military weaponry. The National Transitional Council (NTC), aided by official recognition of the UN, assumed the responsibility of governing for ten months. During that time, the NTC faced factional fighting from Gaddafi loyalists and civilian militias. In August 2012, the NTC handed power over to the newly elected General National Congress (GNC) (Dalacoura, 2012, Kinsman, 2011).
Despite the differences between the Egyptian and Libyan revolutions both resulted in expanded political opportunities. The same four forms of POS are present; Libya now has increased political access by the populace, divisions among elite actors, available elite allies and diminished state repression. Much like Egypt, Libya’s population has greater access and influence on the political system than ever before. In Libya, the uprising replaced the entire regime, as opposed to Egypt where much of the political power structure continued. This leaves Libyans with potentially more influence since the entire structure is still in development.
Under the rule of Gaddafi, Libyans held very little influence over the government. Corruption and repression successfully closed the system off from political participation. The potential for positive outcomes was much smaller than for negative outcomes such as imprisonment. However, since the revolution, the political system is far more open than ever before. In fact, the system opened up in much the same manner as Egypt by holding free elections and undertaking the development of a new constitution. Free elections not only allow direct political participation but also signal to the public that the government is receptive to the concerns of the people. Furthermore, Libya is in the process of creating a constitution and more importantly, a new national identity. That means there is the potential of influencing the fundamental structure and conception of government. The choices the government makes at this stage in its development will alter its final form. The malleability of the political structure encourages political participation due to a much greater potential for success. In a newly formed state, the impact of political participation may reverberate through the system for decades to come. The most critical aspect is opening the government to political participation both institutionally and extra-institutionally.
Unlike Egypt, the political system of Libya is nascent. In Egypt, because Mubarak stepped down, the revolution resulted in the continuation of a majority of the political structure. Whereas in Libya the armed revolution required the formation of an entirely new government, which meant any alliances and associations are untested and coalitions might be fragile. It also means that there are likely to be divisions within the government and that allies are likely available. Additionally, new political leaders are untested and the new leadership’s reaction could affect future policy. Under these conditions, it is possible to find allies for one’s position even utilizing violence and terrorism. Extremism can force an issue before the public and government; in doing so, it forces political actors to take sides on the issue. This serves a dual purpose of dividing political actors while potentially gaining allies holding a sympathetic position. The polarizing and destabilizing effects of terrorism further enhance the available political opportunities by dividing and weakening the government. Additionally the reactions of untested public officials may greatly influence the direction of the state. Government instability serves to encourage political participation.
The final and most important change in Libya is the discontinuation of repression. When the revolution ended, there were no police or any form of law enforcement, which had to be developed as part of the rebuilding the country. While at the same time, a great deal of military weaponry was available to the public from raided military depots during the revolution, which has left many heavily armed groups within Libya, whom law enforcement were ineffective at controlling. This created an ideal situation for the use of political violence. Not only is law enforcement weak and weapons are available but also the government is more open to influence that in the past.
September 11th and the Framing of the Events
Freed from the Leviathan’s tyrannical grip the populace of Egypt and Libya found themselves afforded greater political opportunity than ever before. The political opportunities created an environment conducive to political participation yet a spark was required in order to ignite the situation. In Egypt that came in the form of an anti-Islamic film called “The Innocence of Muslims”. The media had begun reporting on it 3 days prior and it received heavy coverage. The conditions were ideal for protesting the film because of the presence of Islamic allies within the government, diminished state repression and recent successful use of protest to evoke change. On September 11, 2012, hundreds of protesters march on the US embassy in Cairo chanting slogans against the film and chanting “Say it, don’t fear: Their ambassador must leave” (“Mysterious anti-Muslim…”, 2012). Protesters gathered around the embassy and despite the presence of riot police, they scaled the walls. Once inside the courtyard protesters brought down the American flag and replaced it with a black flag that said, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah” (Ahmed, 2012). During all of this, the riot police did not utilize any forceful interventions; rather they took a passive role in the event (“Mysterious anti-Muslim…”, 2012). The crowd of protesters grew into the evening before dissipating; estimates vary between 1,000 and 5,000 protesters present with 2,000-3,000 being the most commonly reported numbers (Ahmed, 2012,”Egypt protesters…”, 2012, “Egypt Clashes”, 2012, Bradley & Nissenbaum, 2012, Elyan, 2012). This event was highly documented by amateur video as well as the presence of an Egypt Independent reporter on site early in the protest.
In Benghazi, the situation was ideal for a different form of political action. The accessibility of weapons combined with weak law enforcement allowed for the staging of an assault on the US embassy. The spark may have been the film like in Egypt though it might have been the anniversary of 9/11 or simply a convenient opportunity. Regardless of the spark, several hours after the Cairo protests a group of armed men attacked the US embassy in Benghazi with assault weapons and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). The initial assault killed US ambassador Chris Stevens and one another American. Early the next morning the remaining embassy staff were attacked a second time which resulted in the deaths of two former Navy Seals.
Whether or not the two events were truly connected does not matter since the media connected two events in news reports. The media associated both events with the film “The Innocence of Muslims” in a variety of news sources including NY Times, NPR, AP, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Egypt Independent. Most news articles contained information on both events, most stated that the film was a cause and most mentioned protesters or rioters in Benghazi. This created a perception that protests over the film caused both incidents; only in Cairo is this verified to be true. It is important at this point to note that the perception of the events on September 11, 2012, plays a far greater role in the subsequent protests than the reality of the events. Most of those involved the subsequent protests were not present at the original two events thus media was a primary means of acquiring information. For that reason, the focus will be on news accounts from the first days of the protest cycle not subsequently revealed facts.
Several key features of the media accounts influenced the framing of subsequent protests as violent. The message conveyed by news sources depicted both events as being connected to each other, associated with protests over the film “The Innocence of Muslims”, aggressive / violent and resulting in no negative consequences for the participants (“US Envoy Dies…”, 2012, “US Missions…”, 2012, Kirkpatrick & Myers, 2012, Neuman, 2012, Peralta, 2012,”US ambassador…”, 2012). Furthermore, there were facets of the reporting that made it particularly influential; the events appealed to Islamic identity, the images from Cairo were especially vivid and the inaction by riot police legitimized the concerns of the protesters. Underlying these disparate aspects is a unifying principle; social norms. When dealing with norms a critical distinction to make is the difference between descriptive and injunctive norms. Injunctive norms represent people’s beliefs about what ought to be done in a situation whereas descriptive norms represent people’s beliefs about the prevalence of behaviors others engage in. When descriptive and injunctive norms combine with positive outcome expectations and an appeal to group identity, they are most influential (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005).
In the past-perceived denigration of Islam or Muhammad has resulted in protests for example the Danish cartoons (Laegaard, 2007), the US military accidentally burning Korans (D’Souza , 2012), the threat to burn a Koran by Terry Jones (Goldman, 2010) and the Dutch film “Fitna” (Hartoyo, 2010). The degree to which one observes others performing a behavior directly correlates to the belief that the behavior is correct (Cialdini, 1984). The frequency of these events combined with international media coverage has created a descriptive norm to react to attacks on Islam and Muhammad by protesting. Furthermore, many saw the images from Cairo on September 11, 2012. The video shows thousands of people surrounding the embassy chanting, whistling and even cheering. This makes it very salient that many people participated in the protest, which in turn bolsters the descriptive norm to protest.
Injunctive norms are beliefs about what one ought to do in a situation enforced through sanctions. When an individual does not adhere to injunctive norms others, who are aware may socially sanction the offender. The sanctions come in a variety of forms such as criticism, shame, disapproval and more. The key is that adherence to injunctive norms is enforced. Based on news articles there is evidence of an injunctive norm to protest because the next day Islamic leaders and governments condemned the film and some called for protests or violence. Hezbollah, Hamas and Afghan President Karzai denounced the film. The Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian state media called for protest while the Taliban and Basij called for violence. These responses are clearly expressing a course of action that one ought to engage in. This indicates social support for protests and condemnation of the film in fact the calls for action invoke an injunctive norm to protest. This is critical because norms are strongest when combining injunctive and descriptive norms and weakest when injunctive and descriptive norms are opposed to each other. In this case, past occurrences as well as the events of September 11, 2012 demonstrate a clear descriptive and injunctive norm to protest.
Next, outcome expectations affect the influence of norms. “ Outcome expectations are conceptualized as the product of a mental calculus that people perform between the benefits of taking actions and costs associated with those actions” (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005, p.134). Outcome expectations are improved both by reducing the costs of action and by increasing the benefits of taking action. The absence of repercussions in news articles minimized the perceived cost of action in Cairo and Benghazi. There were riot police in front of the embassy in Cairo who were passive during the protest. This demonstrated that there is little risk to violent protesting. With little risk of action, it takes much less benefit in order to motivate action. Potentially, protesting could result in benefits including influence on government action or policy but also it could provide cognitive and emotional benefits (Drury & Reicher, 2005, Drury & Reicher, 2009, Fedi, Mannarini & Rovere, 2012). The prospect of altering government action or policy is often is an important motivation for taking action, in fact the potential for government influence was particularly high due to the POS present at the time. Furthermore, individuals participate in protest for a variety of cognitive and emotional reasons. Group solidarity and expression of anger can be empowering while bearing witness to evil and participating in important events can be profoundly satisfying (Jasper, 1997, p. 82). These provide a benefit to individuals and can influence estimations of outcome expectations positively. At the same time the risk was shown to be minimal, which also impacts outcome expectations positively in turn these factors bolster the influence of the norm to protest the denigration of Muhammad.
Finally, group identity impacts the effect social norms have on individual behavior. If a norm appeals to a group identity and the individual shares that identity then the norm will effects behavior to a greater extend. In fact, the influence the norm to protest the film has over individual behavior directly relates to the degree Islamic identity is central to the individual’s identity (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005). Meaning, the norm to protest is most persuasive to those with a strong Islamic identity and least persuasive to those without an Islamic identity. The events of September 11, 2012, were particularly appealing to Islamic identity. Disparaging depictions of Muhammad, inherently related to Islamic identity, the primary driver of the protests. Second, the use of flags by the protesters made Islamic identity salient. The protesters carried black flags that read, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah”. In addition, they took down the American flag, destroyed it and replaced it with theirs. This was a symbolic victory over the opposition while at the same time reinforcing the group identity of the protesters. Finally, communication is more persuasive when all parties share a group identity (Cialdini, 1993, Myers, 1999). Communication of the norm by protesters, Islamic leaders and governments all of whom share Islamic increases the persuasiveness of the norm to protest.
The combination of descriptive and injunctive norms with heightened outcome expectations and a salient appeal to group identity has created a strong norm. This norm is a major factor in the spread of protests to other countries. However, it is not enough to cause action by itself; there must be an opportunity to act.
The next wave of protests erupted on Thursday September 13 in Cairo, Yemen, Tunisia, Gaza Strip, Iran and Iraq, which resulted in four deaths, over 200 injuries and damage to the US embassy in Yemen. Each of these countries is politically unstable and that can offer greater political opportunity for action. Tunisia like Egypt and Libya went through a revolution in 2011 resulting in many of the same conditions as the other two (Dalacoura, 2011). Yemen has an exceptionally weak state (Dalacoura, 2011); in fact, Ansar al-Sharia (an affiliate of Al Qaeda) has taken control of some geographic areas. Iran has faced a disputed election and sporadic protests recently. Gaza has been engaged in violent conflict with Israel off and on for decades. Iraq is barely governing independently and still requires international support. These political instabilities can allow for the opportunity that is necessary for the protest norm to translate into action. It is also worthy of note that in three of the six countries that protested September 13 had a call to protest the day prior. In addition, statements denouncing the film came from Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the Al-Azhar scholars who are theologians at the 1st mosque founded in Cairo. Public condemnation combined with the violent protest of the 13th feeds into the descriptive and injunctive norm to protest the film. The quantity of protests, protesters, damage, deaths and injuries fueled descriptive norm for violent protest of the film. The injunctive norm is strengthen by the number of public statements against the film, the calls for protest and calls for violence all done by groups associated with Islamic identity.
On September 14, protests occurred in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Sudan and Jordan resulting in eight deaths, dozens of injuries and damage to the British and German embassies in Sudan. Like the previous countries, instability may have played a role in the opportunity to protest. Sudan has recently split into two countries and has continued conflict over that. Hezbollah in Lebanon called for protests that day. There political conditions allowed protests to take place and the protest norm encouraged individuals to participate in protests. The further protests and violence served to strengthen the descriptive protest norm and thus increase its influence. The protests spread further from there causing property damage, injuries and deaths in dozens of countries by the end of the protest cycle. Each subsequent protest further strengthens the norm to protest and thus increases the influence of the norm on behavior.
Thus, the presence of increased political access, political divisions, elite allies and diminished repressed, served to promote political participation in Egypt and Libya making possible the events of September 11, 2012. Then the media connected the events to one another and the film “The Innocence of Muslims”, which established a norm for violent protest in response to the film. The combination of a descriptive and injunctive norm to protest with positive outcome expectations and an appeal to Islamic identity created a powerful norm. This norm then influenced individuals to protest the film, especially those who have a strong Islamic identity. Countries with greater political opportunities provided a fertile environment for protests to take hold. The further protest then enhanced the norm for violent protest and the stronger norm led to protests spreading to other countries especially those with political opportunity. These protests in turn bolstered the norm. This process resulted in a reciprocal loop in which political opportunity and the social norm to protest fed into one another strengthening both. This spread the protest and norm for violence far and wide to more than 50 countries causing dozens of deaths, hundreds of injuries and damage to a half dozen embassies.
As a final note, it is important to understand that conditions present in September of 2012 are the basis of this analysis. The political environment is continually evolving in many of the countries involved in the protest cycle spawned by “The Innocence of Muslims”. Future revelations may provide further insight or clarification to relationship between political opportunity and the norm to protest.
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