The Provocateurs

Somewhere, Osama bin Laden is smiling. He has good reason to be happy. In the last week or so, the West has given his program of a relentless jihad against America new credibility, and delivered thousands of new converts to his doorstep. The Muhammad cartoon controversy, new photos of the Abu Ghraib atrocities, and a video of Iraqi kids being brutally beaten by British soldiers after a protest demonstration have all provided similar – and, more importantly, very visual – confirmation of al-Qaeda’s basic contention: that the U.S. and its Western allies are embarked on a crusade to humiliate and destroy the Muslim religion worldwide – and that nothing less than a merciless war against the infidels can stop them.

The visual element is key here: all three incidents bear the earmarks of classic propaganda techniques, which are meant to inflame and provoke a target population as a prelude to an armed struggle. Whether or not it was planned that way, this triad of outrages – with more, doubtless, to come – effectively serves as the means by which both sides in a looming world war prepare their people for the coming battle – and basically ensures that such a conflict is inevitable.

Consider how the origins of all three provocations are cloaked in murk and mystery. First of all, the cartoons: deliberately insulting and gratuitously obscene caricatures of the Prophet are published in a Danish newspaper of right-wing provenance and suddenly begin appearing all over Europe. The "explanation" offered up by the pro-war media is that this is all the result of a conspiracy hatched by "hidden masterminds," as the UK Telegraph put it. The assumption is that these "masterminds" were Danish imams and activists who conducted a protest campaign against the Jyllands-Posten newspaper for publishing the cartoons in the first place, but, as I pointed out here, this seems a dubious proposition at best. What Reason magazine, with predictable juvenility, calls the "Intoon-ifada," may indeed have been promoted by certain persons for reasons of their own: however, it is unlikely that the provocateurs are the same folks who are responding to the provocation.

The response was all too predictable: if Jyllands-Posten had been intent on bringing out all the feelings of resentment, persecution, and humiliation experienced by Muslims worldwide in recent years, the issue couldn’t have been illustrated in starker terms. What’s more, the controversy seems perfectly formed to dramatize for a global audience the more authoritarian, intolerant, and illiberal aspects of a faith that George W. Bush has called a "religion of peace." The authors of this outrage protest that this was not their intent, but whether by accident or design, the effect is the same.

The new Abu Ghraib images present another mystery in terms of their sudden appearance. Ever since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, the American Civil Liberties Union has been trying to wrest the unpublished material from the U.S. government. Although members of Congress were allowed to view them at their leisure, the hoi polloi were shielded from such an upsetting sight. So why, now, are we being treated to what seems like a controlled release of images that are sure to roil the Arab world and spark fresh protests against America? They appeared first on Australian television, but clearly other news outlets had them: where did they get them? Who is feeding us these horrific illustrations of the true meaning of Iraq’s "liberation" – and why at this particular moment?

Raising further questions is the nature of the photos themselves: they are far more graphic than the ones released initially. They show what appear to be a number of corpses – almost as if they embody some sort of premonitory threat. As if to say to the Arab-Muslim world: this is what awaits you if you continue to resist. It is a classic fear technique, made all the more potent because we are dealing here with images that resemble a vision out of Hell – and, unlike the Muhammad caricatures, depict real events.

The message, so far, is this: your Prophet was a murderous madman, and we are going to leash you like dogs. With the addition of the Iraq beating video, this scenario is given a specific locale and context.

The provenance of the Iraq video is particularly suspicious: according to the Telegraph, "An unnamed whistleblower approached the News of the World wanting cash for a video." This hardly fits the classic profile of the noble "whistleblower": these types usually want to assuage their consciences, not their bank managers. Although self-aggrandizement is never absent from human motivation, the genuine whistleblower is usually less direct about cashing in.

What’s interesting about the video itself is that the "narration," if you can call it that, is the voice of a British soldier clearly expressing approval of his comrades’ actions: the video, then, was produced by the military itself, and – somehow – found its way into general circulation. How? Why? And, most important, why now?

The British investigation is ongoing, and we don’t yet know how this material found its way into the public domain. What we do know is this: it couldn’t have come at a worse moment for the U.S. and Britain as they try – in vain – to beat off a burgeoning Iraqi insurgency and face the rising tide of the worldwide Islamist insurgency of which it is a part.

The idea that some agency is orchestrating these events and pushing to exacerbate increased tensions between the West and the world of Islam cannot be dismissed out of hand entirely. Governments carry out covert propaganda operations in foreign countries all the time, and given the proximity of these supposedly disparate events, and the specific context in which they occurred, the possibility that these exposures of Western perfidy are being coordinated cannot be discounted. Yes, I know this is a "conspiracy theory," but that accusation has less resonance in the post-9/11 era. After all, how else but via a good old-fashioned conspiracy did a band of 19 hijackers carry out the worst terrorist attack in American history? How did the London bombers pull it off? Or the Madrid bombers? Yet al-Qaeda is not alone in wanting to accelerate the conflicting religious and political passions that seem to be coming to a head all at once.

Granted the possibility that we are being played like so many violins, we have to ask: who is the conductor? Who wrote the score? We have to ask, in short: Cui bono? Who benefits?

We know who doesn’t benefit: America and Americans. All over the world, we are prime targets for every band of lowlife thugs suddenly imbued with a righteous zeal to avenge the honor of the Prophet. The Europeans, too, are put at risk: Muslim communities across the continent are in an uproar, and the prospect of a repeat of the French riots – this time on a much bigger scale – is quite real.

The Arab governments of the Middle East and the Iranians are similarly buffeted by these seismic effects: they may attempt to take advantage of the controversy in order to divert their peoples’ attention away from their own grinding poverty and endemic repression, but dictators like Bashar Assad and Hosni Mubarak are basically concerned with reining the protests in and controlling them, and fear their destabilizing effects – much as China’s authoritarian regime alternately encourages and seeks to rein in the nationalist fervor provoked by, say, Japanese textbooks that whitewash the crime of Nanking. Ultimately, these dictators stand in fear of their own people and are chiefly interested in tamping down rather than exacerbating their passions, especially political passions, because that kind of anger, once unleashed, can be turned on any target.

The chief beneficiaries are those who have profited most from the invasion and occupation of Iraq: first and foremost, al-Qaeda and its Islamist allies, especially in the Middle East. Hamas is reinforced, along with their more radical rivals, such as Islamic Jihad. This really marks the end of the secular resistance to Western colonialism and imperialism: the defeat and dissolution of the old Palestine Liberation Organization and the rise of Islamist currents throughout the region sound the death-knell of the old pan-Arabic nationalism embodied by a figure like Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Secondly, the Israelis, who have extended their influence into Kurdistan and cowed their Syrian adversaries, stand to gain the most from this new upsurge of Muslim radicalism. Once again, the lesson of 9/11 is reiterated: now you know what we have had to endure all these years at the hands of Muslims! Israel and the West are natural allies in a fight against the barbaric followers of a bloodthirsty Prophet – a Prophet of Global Terror. The idea that Islam poses a threat – military, as well as demographic – to Europe has gained new resonance. Israel’s growing isolation is arrested and even reversed.

As to which of these two beneficiaries would be in a position to come into possession of such materials as videos and photographs formerly in the possession of the U.S. and British governments, kept under lock and key, I leave it to my readers to decide. And I ask them to consider further: how is it that these presumably closely held materials happened to be released, under mysterious circumstances, all in the same week as the Muhammad cartoons let loose Muslim rage from London to Damascus?

The "war of civilizations" touted by the neoconservatives as "World War IV" is darkening the horizon with frightening speed. One has to be forgiven for wondering if, perhaps, someone is quite interested in hurrying it along.

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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].