Criminals and culture clashes

2012-09-22 10:26

So many different things are happening simultaneously across the Middle East and in Arab-Israeli-Iranian-American relations, it is hard to know where to start analysing the situation and separating the important and lasting developments from the merely fleeting issues.

In my years of following sports and politics, I have always found the scorecard a good place to start. The many new and evolving players on the scene in a fast-changing Arab world represent the heart of the story at hand.

The criminal tragedy of the death of four American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, rightly captured the attention of the world and raised questions about whether attacks against embassies are a reasonable way for people to manifest their anger (they are not).

It is clear the three things we witnessed – spontaneous mob scenes, pre-planned orderly demonstrations and organised military attacks against US facilities – represented three different phenomena, each of which reflect a significant political reality in the Arab world today.

Why these three all gravitate mainly to US embassies or other targets is a relevant question that deserves more analysis, but that’s for another day.

The vulgar and deliberately provocative film by anti-Islamic criminals in the US (including some of Egyptian Coptic origin) know that if they insult the Prophet Muhammad they will incite demonstrations and violence across parts of the Arab-Islamic world.

A small number of virulent Islamophobic movements in North America and Europe regularly vent racist insults through websites, publications and other means, and when these are translated into Arabic and spread through the digital world, the result is what we witnessed in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and other countries as far away as Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Malaysia.

It is crucial to separate the contributing factors into their individual strands if we hope to make sense of what is going on and not fall prey to simplistic explanations that are driven by ignorance or anger, or both.

The first is the spontaneous anger of pious Muslims across the world against the deliberate denigration of their prophet.

The second is the pent-up resentment and anger against the US and other Western countries for a variety of reasons (biased policies on Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Islamism and democracy, for starters).

The third is a huge cleavage among politicised Muslims between the now-mainstream Muslim Brotherhood types and the more hardline fundamentalist Salafists who are seeking to shape their national political systems.

Fourth is the continued regional expansion (post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq wars) of terror groups linked to al-Qaeda that deliberately target US official or public facilities.

So many players are involved in what appears, from a distance, as simply another round of violent demonstrations and anti-American attacks by wound-up Muslims.

In the Arab world, we have the added complication of many new and different players who have emerged during the current deep transformations of Arab political systems, or, in cases like Libya, the birth of totally new national political and governance systems.

Small groups of armed Salafist militants carry out operations like the attack against the US consulate in Benghazi, while the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other such Islamists tend to stick to orderly and peaceful demonstrations.

Spontaneous groups of angry citizens fell somewhere in between this when they vented their anger at the film by storming US embassies.

These groups collectively represent the US equivalents of the terrorist Timothy McVeigh; Christian fundamentalists who blow up abortion clinics; the non-violent rightwing Tea Party; those many Americans who spontaneously gathered, danced and celebrated when Osama Bin Laden was killed; the million-man marches in Washington; and those few Americans who have burnt down mosques, Sikh temples or black churches across the country.

Criminals in this mix must be viewed and dealt with very differently from others who are angry, energetic and excitable, but not necessarily criminal in either their intent or their conduct.

The novelty in the Arab world is that these and other political groups are competing politically and finding their place in society during a concentrated and tumultuous period of change, when central governments often do not have full control of security systems.

This gives the impression the Arab world is in some chaos – not really the case in most places.

After being stunned by recent events, all Arab governments have taken forceful security measures, condemned the attacks against foreign embassies, and moved to arrest the perpetrators.

I am convinced the overwhelming majority of Arabs reject and condemn actions like the attack against the US consulate in Libya, just as virtually all Americans condemn the burning of mosques in the US.

But criminals abound in all societies, and we must not allow our anger at their terrible deeds to taint our views of the majority of Arabs or Americans who embrace tolerance and the rule of law.

The really difficult question that must be answered through a deep process of introspection and dialogue is about the attainable balance between freedom of expression and the dictates of social peace.

American society sees individual freedom as the highest national value, including total or absolute freedom of expression that allows the creation of deliberately hateful films or websites that seek to incite violence.

In the Arab-Islamic world, personal freedom is not the greatest value. Rather, I would say, it is communal or collective respect and dignity.

When the occasional excesses of total freedom in the US lead to deep insults to Arabs’ and Muslims’ deep sense of self-respect, we can expect to witness conflict.

Arab societies in transition will soon settle down into stable countries where legitimate governments provide security and criminal groups are brought under control.

The question of how to balance freedom with respect will remain with us for years to come, so the sooner we deal with it seriously, the better off – and safer – we will all be.

»Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. Follow him on Twitter @ramikhouri

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