Riots

The real reason the Middle East is rioting

Within hours of the killings last week of four Americans diplomats, including US Ambassador J Christopher Stevens, in Libya, more than a dozen blog posts popped up around the internet asking, “Who is Sam Bacile?”

It was a natural question to pose: “Bacile” is the pseudonym of the filmmaker behind The Innocence of Muslims, an American-made video whose insulting depiction of the prophet Mohammed appears, at this point, to have incited anti-US riots in Benghazi, Cairo, Tehran, and Sana’a, Yemen [and a suicide car bomb attack in Afghanistan, killing eight South Africans this week].

It now appears, however, that the attack on the diplomatic mission in Libya was a planned assault by religious extremists, who used the protests as cover to murder the four Americans. As truly awful as his film is, “Sam Bacile” appears to be at least something of a patsy. Moreover, there’s another important way in which the American media and political classes, in their focus on The Innocence of Muslims, have missed the forest for the trees.

A scene from the YouTube version of the “Innocence of Muslims,” which has been seen as the spark for recent attacks on US diplomatic posts in the Muslim world. Is food insecurity the tinder for this blaze?

In cases of broad social unrest, catalytic incidents are important insofar as they take the measure of people’s passions and attach a vivid narrative — a shot heard ‘round the world — to a mass movement. But wood has to be dry for a spark to catch; populations of people have to be primed for unrest. And in both the run-up to the Arab Spring and now, a research team at the New England Complex Systems Institute has demonstrated convincingly, that priming factor is skyrocketing food prices.

A study released by the team under the direction of professor Yaneer Bar-Yam in September 2011 (PDF) charted fluctuations in global food price since the financial crisis of 2007-8 and showed that, with each successive peak, citizens in food-importing countries reliably destabilize the political leadership.

“When food prices go up,” Bar-Yam says, “when food becomes unavailable, people don’t have anything to lose. That’s when social order is itself affected.” The most recent such peak came in late 2010-early 2011 and yielded what is commonly called the Arab Spring.

Bar-Yam also says that the team’s model predicted another massive food price spike this fall/winter, even bigger than the last. This foreseeable crest was only exacerbated and expedited by this summer’s drought- and heatwave-bred corn disaster. And, indeed, the World Bank recently announced that food prices have reached record highs worldwide. As predicted, we have begun to see the concomitant rise in political instability in various forms, including riots and strikes.

As critical as it is to consider food price vacillations when contemplating this wave of political instability, it is perhaps even more important to understand why food price is spiking and plunging so dramatically — and so reliably. Bar-Yam’s team released another study dealing with this question, also in September 2011, attributing careening food price to a combination of state subsidy of agribusiness in the United States and commodities speculation…..

Pacific Standard: Read the full article