The Middle East needs its activist moment

September 13, 2012

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


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Between Isms and values

Human behaviour is often closely linked to the social conditions and moral values. The further down the social ladder people find themselves, the more they are exposed to, and receptive to, social movements based on a certain religions, sects or set of values. Conflicts, war, the gap between rich and poor, the lack of social mobility and personal empowerment are also breeding grounds for a variety of movements that can have a positive as well as a negative effect on social progress.

There is no shortage of examples for the statements above. Just before the civil war broke out in Syria I visited Damascus, Aleppo, Palmira and Homs. I had good many discussions with people in the traditional Souk commercial centres. It was a history lesson that took me back to the period of trading and expansion along Palmyra, the Silk Route to China and Central Asia, as well as the churches and mosques that accommodated Christians and Muslims at different times. Places that are today being emptied of people and destroyed, and where centuries of history are being levelled to the ground.

Instead of developing trade and tourism, the Syrian regime chose to trail the same violence Bashar al-Assad’s father used against its citizens. Perhaps I, like many Syrians I met, believed that the young dictator would prove to be smart and choose to go down into history as the one that opened the Syrian economy and promoted social reforms. I can still remember the smile of two of the Aleppo carpet merchants that removed dollar and euro bills from their pockets and proudly said that the young Assad now allowed them to trade in foreign currency. Around the souks, there was widespread trust that the government would give the long awaited freedom to the class that for centuries constituted the fabric of Syrian secular society: its merchants.
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Posted by LinkedIn | Report as abusive

Whoever we are, wherever we’re from, we shoulda noticed by now our behaviour is dumb
And if our chances expect to improve it’s gonna take a lot more than tryin’ to remove the other race or the other whatever from the face of the planet altogether
They call it “The Earth” which is a dumb kinda name but they named it right ’cause we behave the same
We are dumb all over
Dumb all over, yes we are, dumb all over, near and far, dumb all over, black ‘n white, people, we is not wrapped tight
And nerds on the left, nerds on the right
Religious fanatics on the air every night, sayin’ the bible tells the story and makes the details sound real gory about what to do if the geeks over there don’t believe in the book we got over here
You can’t run a race without no feet
And pretty soon there won’t be no street for dummies to jog on or doggies to dog on
Religious fanatics can make it be all gone
I mean it won’t blow up and disappear, it’ll just look ugly for a thousand years
You can’t run a country by a book of religion
Not by a heap or a lump or a smidgeon of foolish rules of ancient date, designed to make you all feel great while you fold, spindle and mutilate those unbelievers from a neighbouring state
To arms, to arms
Hooray! That’s great, two legs ain’t bad
Unless there’s a crate they ship the parts to mama in
For souvenirs: two ears (Get down)
Not his, not hers but what the hey
The good book says, “It’s gotta be that way”
But their book says, “Revenge the crusades”
With whips ‘n chains and hand grenades
Two arms, two arms
Have another and another
Our Cod says, “There ain’t no other”
Our Cod says, “It’s all ok”
Our god says “This is the way”
It says in the book, “Burn and destroy”
And repent and redeem and revenge and deploy and rumble thee forth to the land of the unbelieving scum on the other side
‘Cause they don’t go for what’s in the book and that makes ’em bad
So verily we must choppeth them up and stompeth them down
Or rent a nice French bomb to poof them out of existence while leaving their real estate just where we need it to use again for temples in which to praise our god, ’cause he can really take care of business
And when his humble TV servant with humble white hair and humble glasses and a nice brown suit and maybe a blonde wife who takes phone calls, tells us our god says it’s ok to do this stuff, then we gotta do it
‘Cause if we don’t do it we ain’t “Gwine up to hebbin”
Depending on which book you’re using at the time
Can’t use theirs, it don’t work, it’s all lies, gotta use mine
Ain’t that right?
That’s what they say
Every night, everyday
Hey, we can’t really be dumb if we’re just following god’s orders
Well let’s get serious, god knows what he’s doin’
He wrote this book here and the book says, “He made us all to be just like him”
So, if we’re dumb, then god is dumb and maybe even a little ugly on the side
Dumb all over, a little ugly on the side
Dumb all over, a little ugly on the side
Dumb all over, a little ugly on the side
Dumb all over, a little ugly on the side

Posted by halligator | Report as abusive s-philosophy/obama-and-clinton-celebrate -freedom-to-insult-islam

An article from the other side

Posted by syrians_in_need | Report as abusive

I fundamentally disagree with your title and the statement that: “Egypt’s devout have no good mechanisms for registering their offended feelings, and some groups have obviously taken to violence to fill the vacuum.”

Such logic would justify the “necessity” of Nazis in pre-WWII Germany if the bubbling prejudice of that violent minority against any and all influence of Jews in their society were to find an effective and pubic outlet.

Just as every child, immature Islamist fundamentalists must learn and accept the fact that a civilized society must be able and willing to control mobs, whether or not spontaneous. If they do not learn this from wise leaders who love and understand them, they risk a much harsher lesson from nations able to turn sand into glass if and when their citizens and national interests are unreasonably threatened.

Self-restraint is an absolute necessity for responsible self-governance. No exceptions!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Excuse me, but what’s happening in the Muslim world today is the normal reaction of peoples who have been attacked daily for the past decade. Are Americans so “in the moment” as to forget all the civilian Muslim dead at the hands of its military all these long years? Get used to the violent reactions because this period is just the beginning of a long war to remove the neocolonialism of the latest anti-Islam Western imperial power. Have a nice day.

Posted by mustafaspeaks | Report as abusive

“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. ” No you are making a mistake the murder ot the American Ambassador is the work of the absurd and caricatural film maker.

Posted by meleze | Report as abusive

There is an activist movement in near east it is the Muslim fanatics> Be careful what you wish for.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

The world is drowning in ignorance.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

Activist Movement? Are you kidding me?? The United States, Great Britain, Russia and all corners of the Earth are among some of the nations targeted for attack and invasion by Universal Islam. It is infantile to believe that these Islamists have brought their 1,400 hundred years war to the West because of America’s support of Israel…or that a You Tube video was posted, of a French editorial cartoon of mohammad.

Universal Islamic Jihad PREDATES the birth of the United States and Israel by a 1,000 years, and already has conquered much the Middle East and parts of Europe…and this cancer is spreading.

America and the rest of Western Civilization is falling prey to the same overt and covert strategies and tactics. Terrorism has been only one of those tactics…and hence it is really stupid (yet politically correct) to call it a “War on Terror” when terror is simply a tactic. The “Who” are Muslims who practice “true” Islam and Sharia law and of course the “Why” is Islam as founded by their self proclaimed prophet muhammad!

Posted by InfideHere | Report as abusive

And what does that say about Islam if you are murdering innocent people for it’s sake. And just because of dumb film. If anything, that makes you look dumber. This has nothing to do with neocolonialism, anti-Islam Western imperial power, being attacked daily, etc. That’s pure b.s.! No, it’s just pure DUMB. And let it be known the law of Cause and Effect is very strict no matter what religion you profess to follow.

Posted by Tmrw2044 | Report as abusive