September 17, 2012
There are two lessons to be learned about the dreadful spree of anti–American violence and protest that swept the Islamic world last week in apparent response to an anti–Islamic film that went regrettably viral.
First, America can no longer ignore the post Cold War reality that its place in the twenty-first century is more complex and attenuated than it was during four decades of simplistic East–West tension.
Second, we now understand better the volatile mix of politics and religion that—in the best of outcomes—will converge into Islamic democracies in the Middle East and elsewhere where America has only a part—if at all--in helping shape those democracies.
Last year’s Arab Spring remains every bit the historical turning point many of us judged it to be at the time. In nation after nation, decades of autocratic rule were ended by rebels (many of them democratically inclined, though they were of every imaginable hue), and America was at times a key player in this drama—even to the point of turning against its own client regimes.
We did not know then and we know little better now what kind of governments, institutions, legal regimes, and the like are to emerge from those months of upheaval. We cannot know, because we are looking at drastically underdeveloped political cultures with a lot of maturing ahead of them. All that seems certain is that if genuine democracy triumphs, with institutions as well as ballot boxes, it will be a rainbow of variations on the theme.
Despite the uncertainties, America as the world’s premier power now has to do something it has not managed since it first developed a world presence at the end of the nineteenth century: It has to stand back and let Egyptians, Tunisians, and (soon enough) Syrians and others realize their own ideas of what democracy will mean for them and how it will work. This is last week’s message; no one should miss it. “Idealist,” some may say. No, it is realism at its clearest.
The anti–Islamic film blamed for a sweeping wave of violence across the Islamic world seems to have been a shabby, hateful bit of rubbish purposefully intended to inflame fervent Muslims. Among other things, the Prophet Muhammad is shown as a philandering, child-molesting gay—all well-aimed at traditional Islamic conceptions of manhood and masculinity. In the end, it shook awake long-latent feelings against America and cost the lives of the American ambassador to Egypt and three other diplomats.
To understand the vast impact of a film trailer that went viral, it is essential to note not only what was in it but where it was made— in the West, Los Angeles to be precise. What we witnessed was a violent manifestation of a prevalent feeling of inferiority toward Westerners that is shared even among Muslims not given to hatred and brutality. That is why British and German embassies were considered fair game in the Sudan. And it is this sense of inadequacy, in part, that the Islamic world now struggles to outgrow. Everything that can be done to encourage this process should be done.
Note, in all of this, that the wide dissemination of the egregious film has not led to a corresponding response. So far as I know, no Muslim, from Egypt and Libya on eastward, has taken to burning the New or Old Testaments or creating caricatures of Jesus or Yahweh. This tells us something—just as the absence of malice toward the U.S. during the Arab Spring did. The issue is not a match of insult for insult; it is about Muslims being who they are and being accepted for it. And that is what America, more than any other nation, has a responsibility to do—for its own good as well as everyone else’s.
For many years we have been densely populated with experts who claim that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Doubtless more will make the assertion now. I have never accepted this as so. If we recognize that culture and society cannot be separated from the form democracy takes, it follows easily that democratic rule will look differently everywhere it takes root. We already have working Islamic democracies in Indonesia and Malaysia, to make the point plain. Egypt’s newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi, has his critics, and he dropped the ball after the U.S. embassy in Cairo was attacked. But this is not grounds for wholesale condemnation. Morsi still represents a modestly promising new start for a nation that has endured decades of autocracy, corruption, and a politicized military—and an impoverished public sphere.
It has been interesting to watch our two presidential candidates spar over how America should respond to uprisings in the Middle East such as we have just seen. It is interesting, if you will pardon the paradox, because it is so uninteresting. Nothing new has been said since last week’s events. Both sides are debating how America should express its traditional prerogative in global affairs. It would be sinful in either camp to suggest that this prerogative is not what it once was, that it must now be reexamined, and that classy, effective, twenty-first century diplomacy must begin with the acceptance of difference. Ironically, the birdbrains who made the offending video also made this point, if upside down.
Foreign policy has been a sleeper for most of this year’s presidential campaigning. It’s the economy and the domestic political chasm, stupid: This is what they must have been saying in Washington and at Mitt Romney’s headquarters until now. Suddenly, America’s stance abroad is four-square in front of the candidates and those who will choose between them in two months’ time. This is right. What place America claims in the twenty-first century world, and what it does with the power it has, are questions that have been too long flinched from.