So many different things have happened across the Middle East and in Arab-Israeli-Iranian-American relations this week that it is hard to know where to start in analyzing the situation and sorting out 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 – actually, an imperative place to start in this case because I think that the many new and evolving players on the scene in a fast changing Arab world represent the real heart of the story at hand.
The criminal tragedy of the death of four American diplomats in Benghazi has rightly captured the attention of the world and raised questions about whether attacks against embassies are a reasonable way for people to express their anger. It is clear that the three things we witnessed this week – spontaneous mob scenes, pre-planned orderly demonstrations and organized military attacks against American facilities – represent three different phenomena, each of which reflected a significant political reality in the Arab world today. Why these three all gravitate to American embassies is a relevant question that deserves more analysis, but for another day.
At the other end is the spark of this week’s dynamics, namely the vulgar and deliberately provocative film by anti-Islamic criminals in the United States (including some of Egyptian Coptic origin) who know that if they insult the Prophet Mohammad 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 vent their 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 this week in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and other countries.
But what, in fact, did we witness? It is important to try to understand the separation lines between the different players comprising the new scorecard of Arab political cultures in a process of deep transformation, and, in cases like Libya, that also represent the birth of totally new national political and governance systems. Small groups of armed Salafi militants carry out operations such as the attack against the American 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 fall somewhere in between when they vent their anger at the insulting film about the Prophet Mohammad by storming American embassies and tearing down or burning the flag.
These groups represent the equivalent of the American terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the ideological Tea Party, those many Americans who spontaneously gathered, danced and celebrated when Osama bin Laden was killed, and those few Americans who burned down mosques around the country. The criminals in this mix must be viewed and dealt with very differently from the 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 very concentrated and tumultuous period of change, when central governments often do not have full control of security systems. This gives the impression that the Arab world is in some chaos, which is not really the case in most places.
I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of Arabs rejects and condemns actions like the attack against the American consulate in Libya, just as virtually all Americans condemn the burning of mosques in the United States. But criminals abound in all our 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 hard question that must be answered somehow through a deep process of introspection and dialogue is about the 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, but rather respect and dignity. When the occasional excesses of total freedom in the United States and the insult to Arabs and Muslims’ deep sense of self-respect due to the ugly film about Islam clash, we witness conflict, violence and death.
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.
(The writer is a columnist at the Lebanon-based Daily Star, where this article was published on Sept. 15, 2012)