The Middle East needs its activist moment
Two days after the death of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, protesters continue to mass outside of U.S. embassies in Egypt and Yemen. The protesters are apparently reacting to a low budget, anti-Muslim video made by Americans that was distributed in a trailer-like segment on YouTube. The murder of Stevens and three of his aides in Libya seems to be the work of a paramilitary group using the protests for cover. That group may or may not be affiliated with al Qaeda.
In the West, this all sadly reads as another example of Islam proving unable to deal with the consequences of free speech. It recalls the threats surrounding the publication of Mohammad in a political cartoon in a Danish newspaper, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theodoor van Gogh and the late 1980s fatwa (death sentence) decreed by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini against the novelist Salman Rushdie. The strictest adherents to Islam will tolerate no heresy, even from outsiders. Meanwhile, in the U.S. and Europe, prevailing law largely gives individuals the right to be as offensive as they want.
This is a particular problem as the pace of liberalization in the Middle East quickens. New democracies are forming. Minority voices that had been oppressed by dictators in Egypt and Libya are now being heard. More tolerant governments are replacing regimes that once tightly censored media and the Internet. More than ever before, the Muslim world is on a collision course with ideas that many of its people will find offensive, if not blasphemous.
In the U.S. and Europe, the religious faithful are exposed to such ideas all of the time, and yet we have not seen the pronouncements of death sentences, the tearing down of embassies or the murder of filmmakers. We’re all human, so it seems unlikely that a citizen of Sana, Yemen would be more prone to violent outbursts than a citizen of Cupertino, California. Islam also doesn’t seem to condone violence much more or less than any ancient religion, where the founding texts were born in violent times.
The difference between the U.S. and Europe and the emerging Middle East was identified in Johns Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum’s 2007 book Democracy’s Good Name. Mandelbaum argued that for democracy to take hold, a country needs a fully functional civil society. This is more than just clear laws and good governance. It’s chess clubs and trade organizations and non-defamation leagues.
The problem is that in places like Libya, Iraq and Egypt, which have been subject to long decades of totalitarian rule, people are unlikely to form religious advocacy groups that also function as lobbyists for various causes and as a hub of communications and information for the faithful. One of the insidious effects of living under the watch of secret police is that your neighbor or co-religionist is also a potential informant.
Religious people in the U.S. are no less likely to take umbrage at expressions of heresy than people in the Middle East. For example, the right-wing Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, run by William Donohue, has launched numerous peaceful protests over the years, including of Martin Scorsese’s film adaption of The Last Temptation of Christ, of episodes of The Simpsons and South Park, and of the display of a portrait of the Virgin Mary covered in elephant dung at the publicly funded Brooklyn Museum. As much as I abhor Donohue’s tastes, I think the world would be better off if fundamentalist Islam were to adopt his tactics of boycotts and rhetoric to counter speech that they find offensive. I might not like that Donohue can bully Comedy Central into canceling an episode of a cartoon, but my beef there is more with Comedy Central than with Donohue, who is merely expressing his preferences.
Over the summer, the anti-same-sex-marriage views of the family that owns the Chick-Fill-A restaurant chain led to boycotts organized by social interest groups on the American left and an organized fried chicken binge by groups on the right. Issues were generally aired with a lot of snark, but few thrown rocks and no Molotov cocktails.
In the U.S. and Europe, well-established interest groups that have sway in the marketplace give people influence well in advance of the need for any violence. But these groups were not allowed to assemble under dictatorships. Without such assets, Egypt’s devout have no good mechanisms for registering their offended feelings, and some groups have obviously taken to violence to fill the vacuum.
An example of the authoritarian mindset still at work: Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi asked the U.S. to take “all legal measures” against the filmmakers who caused the mess with their amateurish video depicting the Prophet as a swindler and a child molester. But there’s very little the U.S. government can or should do.
The U.S. and Europe can provide a model for the type of social institutions and interest groups that are needed in the Middle East. Large nongovernmental organizations like OxFam International have successfully helped to build homegrown institutions in Western Africa, particularly in the early years of Nigeria’s democracy. Ultimately, the democratizing Middle East will need groups of this sort in order to marry Islam to self-governance.
PHOTO – Protesters climb a fence at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa September 13, 2012. Hundreds of Yemeni demonstrators stormed the U.S. embassy in Sanaa on Thursday in protest against a film they consider blasphemous to Islam, and security guards tried to hold them off by firing into the air. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi