Sep 15, 2012

Racism, Protests and Interpreting the Arab Spring

The recent attacks on American embassies and interests throughout the Middle East, north Africa and central Asia raise disturbing questions about the U.S. foreign policy, the spread of democracy and the west's perception of Muslims.

Earlier this week, partially in response to an underground film that ridiculed Muslims and defamed the image of their prophet, Muhammad, protests began outside the walls of embassies in Cairo, Egypt and Benghazi, Libya. Elements of these protests quickly escalated into full-blown assaults on the embassies. Later, these protests spread to Yemen, Lebanon and Tunisia, but nowhere did they reach the intensity of the Benghazi assault - an assault which resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomatic workers.

Many in the west are now quick to criticize the decision by U.S. President Barack Obama and other leaders to support the Arab Spring protests. I believe that this criticism is unwarranted. The Arab Spring  brought for the first time the freedom to protest to many of these countries. It brought them governments selected for the first time by free and open elections. Part of what these tragic attacks represent are the growing pains of democracy. In the U.S., many point out that such violence never happened in the West and must somehow be linked to an inherently violent temperament in the Arab/Muslim mind - how quickly they forget atrocities like the Boston Massacre or the hideous violence of the French Revolution.

Moving from the world of dictatorship and oppression to a world of liberal freedoms and democracies is never a quick and easy process - and it rarely happens in just one step. Nascent democracies are still working to control the wide geographical expanses and tribal, ethnic and sectarian factions within their borders.

Take Egypt, which a little more than a year ago shook off the oppression of the tyrannical Mubarak regime, a dictatorship handed down from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Anwar Sadat to Hosni Mubarak, 57 years where dissent was met with imprisonment and 'disappearances.' One moderate Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, was the target of much of this repression.

In Libya, the government of Muammar Gaddafi tortured dissenters, especially Islamists. Where secular governments existed throughout the Muslim world, the pattern remained much the same - meeting dissent with murder, rape, torture and imprisonment. It was this pattern of mistreatment that gave birth to hardline, militant Islamists like Sayid Qutb and Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who urged a return to the core principles of Islam to fight Western-style secular government that came to be equated with brutality and tyranny.

In all of the Arab Spring protests, Islamists played a role - but so did other Arabs, and other Muslims. To paint all the Arab spring protesters with one broad brush is racist. In other parts of the world, the press is quick to figure this out - but in the West, ignorance of Arab and Muslim affairs causes poor generalizations and clumsy analogies to proliferate, and that is destroying our ability to respond to events like this week's protests in a coherent manner.

Islamists are not all the same - some remain more moderate, like the Muslim Brotherhood, of whom Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is a member, and others continue to follow the path laid out by Qutb. It isn't fair or accurate to paint them all with the same brush. Though Islamists of all stripes were involved in the protests throughout the Muslim world this week, not all were storming the embassies and killing American citizens.

While some Islamist leaders sought to fan the flames of the protests, others called for restraint.

Yet in the West, many are quick to equate the government and the whole of the populations of countries like Egypt and Libya to the relative few who took part in the horrific attacks. This is a racist, bigoted and ignorant point of view. This is the kind of view that makes America such a hated country in most parts of the world.

When a bomb drops into a Palestinian town with the words 'Made in the USA' written on it and kills dozens of innocent women and children, some combine their ire at the bombmakers and the armies which drop the bombs into a large hatred of Americans as a whole - and these are the people who follow the hate speech of Al-Zawahiri - but most save their anger for the policy makers, for those who actually wage the wars. It shouldn't be asking too much for Americans and the rest of the West to do the same, to know that not all Arabs or Muslims are murdering our diplomats and most do not seek to do harm.

The same political groups in the United States who just 8 to 12 years ago called for political, economic and military action to spread American democracy around the globe are now hypocritically maligning the results of spreading democracy. They now claim that President Obama's support for democratically elected governments and lack of support for brutal dictators led to this tragedy. It has been, in part, America's support for tyrants like Mubarak that has led to the spread of anti-American feelings.

I think the real lesson, if any, to be learned from these attacks is the necessity of securing embassies. The marine guards at embassies are already armed and well trained to protect the staff, and as I have previously written, there is ample material security to safeguard against weapons being snuck onto the grounds for an assault. What really led to the deaths of Ambassador Stevens and his entourage was poor information security. The attackers knew exactly where and when to strike - and that suggests serious leaks from embassy staff.

Our response to the now receding wave of protests in the Middle East must be tempered with patience and restraint. Luckily, we have a president who is not fast to make rash decisions.

Sep 12, 2012

Religious Protesters Kill US Ambassador To Libya

Christopher Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya, was killed outside the American consulate in Benghazi in an assault that killed three others Wednesday. He was 52.

President Obama was quick to condemn the attacks.

"I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. They exemplified America's commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives."

The attacks were apparently in response to an independent anti-Muslim film by Florida pastor Terry Jones called The Innocence of Muslims that many found blasphemous. Response to the film included the storming of the American embassy in Cairo yesterday, where protesters desecrated an American flag.

You might remember Terry Jones (not of Monty Python fame) as the same man who caused unrest in the Arab world by his promises to burn a Quaran. Again, because of a conservative evangelical pastor, the United States is caught in the intersection of First Amendment free speech rights, which we hold sacred, and foreign policy.

While free speech is one of the most American of rights, we have never been afraid to put limits on speech. In Schenck vs. U.S., the U.S. Supreme Court said that speech can be limited when it may pose a clear and present danger to American citizens. That opinion was later narrowed in Brandenburg vs. Ohio, that holds that government cannot limit speech unless it is directed towards inciting imminent lawless action. There isn't a clear foreign policy application for either of these decisions - but in light of the impact of Terry Jones actions, perhaps there should be.

In a cooly calculated response, presidential challenger Mitt Romney issued a statement before the murder of Ambassador Stevens, sharply criticizing Mr. Obama's foreign policy.

"It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks."
It is interesting that this statement came before an official statement from the White House, and ahead of the assassination of Mr. Stevens. Strong words from someone who does not have a clear foreign policy.

Most American embassies in the Middle East resemble fortresses, with a maze of checkpoints, searches and metal detectors that visitors are forced to go through before visiting the ambassador or diplomatic staff. In the U.S. embassy in Lebanon, a car ride from the front entrance of the embassy to the ambassador's quarters is necessary, all within an enclosed compound. Diplomatic staff rarely venture from the compound.

After the recent unrest in Libya, for an American ambassador to be that exposed is unthinkable.

Sep 10, 2012

Fear and Loathing In the North Country

Fourteen months ago, my wife and I moved to Ogdensburg, N.Y., a small town on the St. Lawrence River.

I was chasing a new career - I work for the Watertown Daily Times covering municipalities and higher education in St. Lawrence County, New York's largest - and poorest - county.

Ogdensburg is a shrinking post-industrial city littered with swaths of empy, contaminated land and crumbling buildings, dilapidated houses and asphalt slabs which stand in contradiction to the beautiful vistas of the St. Lawrence River and the relative prosperity across the broder in Canada. A fifteen minute drive in any direction from Ogdensburg places one in areas of exquisite natural beauty.

It has its downfalls, however. Moving from Lexington, Ky, a bustling mid-sized city of 300,000 to a tiny New York burg of barely 10,000 has given us what I like to call 'reverse culture shock.'

We were used to Lexington's art scene, quaint coffee houses and ethnic dining options. We were used to living in a place where both of us could find decent-paying work, making ours a two-income household.

For the past 14 months, despite sustained efforts, my wife has not been able to find a job. As a result, our quality of life has declined. It is really difficult to look into your wife's eyes and tell her she can't have her medication, you can't buy her a Christmas present, you won't be able to celebrate your anniversary and that you can't afford enough gas to drive to see your closest friends.

In Lexington, we were able to find a niche in a community with a certain level of education and aculturation. In Ogdensburg, we stick out like sore thumbs. To exacerbate matters, we can't afford to cross into Canada or regularly make the drive to interact with people of similar intellect and ethic. We are very alone here.

I take some refuge in my work. I work in a vibrant newsroom full of fascinating people - not all of whom are pleasant, but at least they are interesting. My wife, on the other hand, does not have that luxury.

An important lifeline for us has been social media. If it weren't for Facebook and Twitter, we would feel abandoned.

In case you couldn't tell, I'm going to get more personal with these blogs as I try to navigate my journalism career and move up (and out) in the world, and my wife, Cheryl, tries to relaunch her graphic/web design career. Don't worry, there will still be some snark and wonk as time goes by.

Sep 6, 2012


Last time I wrote here it was March 2011, in the thick of the Arab Spring. I was drawing on my knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs to try to provide an informed view on what was happening in the region and what it portended for the future in a manner that Western audiences could understand.

 Since then I have worked for The Watertown Daily Times, a small newspaper in upstate New York. The daily slog of reporting work has slowed my productivity, but I intend to return to this blog to write about issues of local, state, national and global importance, including the ongoing Arab Spring. I am also experiencing a period of painful poverty, so expect the occasional post about how my wife and I are navigating that.

 I have grown a little more crusty in the past months - more conservative, more reclusive - and believe it or not, more jaded. It would be a shame not to post my ramblings to the internet for notoriety. 

Newspaper work, especially reporting on politics, has muzzled my opinions for the time being. I am still allowed to have my own beliefs, but I am committed to portraying all sides of a political argument in a fair and clear manner. Instead, this blog will help me break free of the rigidity of newspaper reporting and write pieces that are fun and entertaining. I don't think I'll write a post everyday, but I won't go for 15 months without a piece. Enjoy the reboot.