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Saturday, March 7, 2015
- Anti-Western protests across the Arab Islamic world denouncing the anti-Islam video, reportedly produced in the United States, is a serious test for the new democratic governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere.
It is time for the new Arab democracies to explain to their peoples publicly and forcefully that individual actions in Western countries, no matter how offensive, do not reflect the policies of Western societies or their governments.
Western societies are diverse and complex and like Muslim societies should not be held responsible for the acts of one or more extremists, even if such acts are insulting to religion or the holy text.
Budding Arab democracies are producing diverse new leaders, ideologies, and centres of power, which their former dictators had stifled for decades. If Arab democracy hopes to succeed, it should not be a welcoming place for the narrow-minded, exclusivist Salafi ideology, which preaches hate and intolerance. Arab governments must act decisively to curb the rising tide of radical Salafism in their midst.
At least four factors are driving ongoing mass protests across the region. First, the newfound sense of democracy and empowerment, which former dictators kept under a tight lid, gives people the freedom to hit the streets whenever they see the urge to express their views on an issue. Once they get used to the idea of freedom of assembly, Arab publics would be less inclined to leave their jobs and hit the streets regardless of the cause.
Second, pervasive anti-Americanism, which has carried over from the (George W.) Bush to the (Barack) Obama administration because of perceived anti-Islamic policies, has been an undercurrent in the latest demonstrations.
Third, radical Salafis, who oppose what they call man-made democracy and peaceful relations with the West, have used the protests to undermine the nascent democratic experiment in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, and stir up anti-Western feelings in the Arab “street”. Salafi so-called jihadists have also been trying to hijack the anti-Assad revolution in Syria and paint it with the brush of extremism.
Finally, Al-Qaeda and its franchise groups in Yemen, North Africa, Iraq, and elsewhere have tried to use street protests to mask their terrorist plots against Arab regimes and Western personnel and interests in the region.
As Arab democracy takes root, governments must educate their citizens on the nature of Western democracies and the freedoms of speech, expression, and association that are the hallmark of democratic societies anywhere in the world.
Anti-religious vitriol and hate speech against Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, or Sikhs in the United States, for example, are usually renounced by most of the faithful. But they are begrudgingly tolerated, even by American Muslims, as part of the cultural and political mosaic of life in the United States.
For years, my analysts and I briefed senior policymakers that the Muslim world is diverse and complex and that only a small minority of them are extremists and terrorists. We judged vast majorities of the 1.6 billion Muslims are mainstreamers and reject the terrorist narrative, which Osama Bin Ladin and Al-Qaeida have advocated in the name of Islam.
We assessed that in the service of our national interest, our leaders should not paint the entire Muslim world with a broad brush of terrorism. Presidents Bush and Obama, for the most part, accepted the analysis and acted on it. They frequently stated the war on Al-Qaeida and global terrorism was not a war against Islam and that the West and the Muslim world share many common values.
By the same token, violent demonstrations and wanton destruction by volatile groups, many of whom have not even seen the offensive You Tube video, could lead some in the West to view the entire Muslim world as a place short on rational discourse and long on mob frenzy.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the anti-Islam amateurish video in the strongest terms. She emphasised the U.S. government and people have nothing to do with it and abhor its content and message.
While not much open source information is available on the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, the orchestration of the attack and weapons used reflect Al-Qaeda’s mode of operations. The terror organisation’s affiliated or franchise groups have executed similar operations in the region.
What is most tragic about the ambassador’s untimely death was his genuine commitment, in word and in deed, to engaging in a serious dialogue with Muslims.
He believed that Americans and Muslims shared many values, including love of family and a commitment to fairness and justice. Unfortunately, radical elements in those demonstrations whether Salafis or Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, oppose dialogue and view the non-Muslim West as “infidels”.
Most mainstream Muslims do not share this view and in fact welcome economic, political, and cultural relations with Western countries, including with the United States. Thousands of Muslim students are studying in colleges and universities in the United States, Australia, Canada, and Western Europe.
Radical Salafi leaders and preachers who have condoned, encouraged, and participated in violence and destruction in the recent demonstrations should be held accountable by their governments for the deaths, injuries, and property destruction that have occurred. Because of their tyrannical ideology and actions, these radical Salafi leaders and activists have lost the right to take part in the democratic transition.
Millions of Arabs marched in the streets last year denouncing the repression of their regimes. Fallen dictators used fear and torture to deny their people the most basic human and civil rights. They kidnapped, jailed, and killed pro-democracy writers, poets, filmmakers, comedians, and bloggers despite the peacefulness of their demands.
Radical Salafis must not be allowed to hijack the newly won democratic rights.
The new social media, which helped spread the message of hope and optimism during the heady days of the Arab Spring, unfortunately has a downside. The “Innocence of Islam” video is the latest symbol of that side.
*Emile Nakhleh is former director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at CIA and author of ‘A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World’.