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.

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Keep it civil and pg-13, please.