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On Salafists and Iron Fists

It’s truly remarkable that we live in an age where a cohort of extremist Islamophobes in the United States can produce a 14-minute film that destabilizes a fifth of the world, and consequently throws American foreign policy completely under the bus. I am of course referring to the massive protests that have taken over a large portion of the ‘Islamic world’ (I dislike that term, but it’s useful in its succinctness) in reaction to a film that purportedly (I haven’t seen it) portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a sexual deviant and fool. I won’t talk about whether free speech is a universal good and should be protected in this post (although, it unequivocally is). I want to reflect on the implications for American foreign policy, and whether the narrative of the ‘Arab Spring’ as evidence of an intrinsic and universal human longing for democracy emerging victorious over iron-fisted dictators will endure in the West.

The New York Time’s feature ‘Room for Debate‘ included a feature a couple days ago on this very issue (which featured my former Dean, and Director of Policy-Planning at the US Department of State, Prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter). Being an American diplomat is becoming significantly more complicated. In addition to the embarrassing setbacks of the US embassy cables leaked by Wikileaks, and the life-threatening nature of certain diplomatic missions, it is my suspicion that anti-Americanism will certainly trend upwards in the the Middle-East and North Africa region in the coming year, and may even become a chronic feature of public opinion in this region.

Democracy, with a capital ‘D’, is considered a sine qua non condition for other intrinsic qualities of a ‘good’ society as per Western liberal norms; societies where educated citizens, free presses, and free speech thrive. The assumption is that this is simply because, on average and over time, democratic polities will select policies that will lead to the greatest good (let’s forget about CA’s Proposition 8 for a minute). This set of beliefs was certainly prevalent in late-2010 and early-2011 when the protests began en force. Ben Ali and Mubarak fell, and Tunisia and Egypt were liberated. Certainly, there were a number of more pessimistic and scrutinizing analysts that noted the Salafist extremist specter looming across most of the region. Some argued that public discourse about the MENA region needed to move away from a chronic fear of Islamists (who come in many shape and colors), and focus on Salafists exclusively. But this didn’t happen.

Intervention in Libya was conducted by the United States by the book. You had UNSC Res. 1973, the Arab League’s mandate, and even civilian support from within the country. Libya was liberated, and Muammar Gadhafi fell (ok, that wasn’t by the book). And yet, a year later, you have Ambassador Christopher Stevens, a man dedicated to the cause of liberating the Libyan people, murdered in Benghazi by an enraged mob. It’s perhaps a little obvious to state that the subtlety that the United States’ government didn’t actively condone this offensive film is lost on many of these protesters. Regardless, this perception has catalyzed an extremist belt from Marrakesh to Jakarta in anti-American fervor.

Now, let’s pause for a second.

Suppose this represents the beginning of chronic anti-Americanism in MENA? Suppose these newly enfranchised peoples, even if their chains were broken by American air power and tomahawks, continue to perceive their faith under siege? Suppose they electorally punish any leader who many cooperate with the West? What then? I don’t think we’ll be seeing any Cold War-era regime change operations by the CIA, but I do think that the United States will fundamentally need to reconsider its approach to the region, especially public diplomacy efforts. The answer is certainly not a return to iron-fisted dictators.

This isn’t even an issue of the more moderate Libyans, Egyptians, and Sudanese marching in the streets, demanding the extremists to abate their misguided anger (as Prof. Slaughter argues in her ‘Room for Debate’ piece). Many of these ‘moderates’ risk would risk physical violence and other strife if they did these, and especially in places like Libya and Egypt, many people are just drained of all energy after the turbulence of the past two years. By and large, the moderates who came out and protested in the name of democracy largely seek normalcy in their day-to-day lives; vindicating American foreign policy is low on their list of priorities. Furthermore, ultimately, these protesters largely cannot be reasoned with given that the source of their anger is an American blasphemy so severe that it warrants death even for Europeans.

The top objective for the United States in the region will be dispel the theory that American foreign policy is a neo-crusade against Islam. George W. Bush’s post-9/11 foreign policy certainly set this goal back by quite a bit, but it isn’t too late. It was heartwarming to see a series of images of Libyans apologizing for the atrocities at the Benghazi consulate, but this won’t be enough. Active efforts are needed. Given that freedom of speech is so widely oppressed in MENA, these extremists see the United States’ refusal to censor YouTube as tacitly sponsoring the creators of video. It does not matter that this sentiment contains nary a drop of truth, but behavior, especially irrational, emotional, and violent behavior, is driven by perceptions (Jamie Bartlett’s piece sheds some light on how conspiracy theories have driven behavior in the region). Invading a country is easy, but invading hearts and minds is difficult (as Afghanistan will attest). Let’s hope that the ‘Arab Spring’ hasn’t led to an ‘Anti-American’ fall.

Post-Script: I studied the Jyllands-Posten affair a few years ago, and the whole issue of visual representations of Muhammad being a cause for violent retribution is entirely misinterpreted by these extremists. The reason that visual representations or ‘idols’ of Muhammad are forbidden are because they would in practice encourage the deification of a mere human being at the expense of Allah, the one god. This is also a stipulation meant solely for believers of the faith, as why would a satirical or offensive depiction of the Prophet inspire devotion in a believer at the expense of Allah? Kafirs (unbelievers) are essentially unbounded by this requirement, and there is no theological basis for putting those who would draw Muhammad to death (correct me if I’m wrong). Unfortunately, this subtlety is completely lost on those who have been quick to violence. By fanatically wreaking violence on others, they have precisely deified Muhammad at the expense of their devotion to Allah.

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