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Ahmed Shihab-Eldin

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Libya's Lesson: Extremism Begets Extremism

Posted: 09/12/2012 10:05 am

Were it not for YouTube, perhaps Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, would still be alive.

For as much as I've hailed the Internet as a powerful platform to connect like-minded individuals and groups in the Arab world fighting for their right to self-determination, today we are reminded of another powerful, if tragic reality.

Yesterday an amateur film uploaded to the Internet and deemed offensive to Islam's Prophet Muhammad connected extremist groups in the West with those in Egypt, Libya and across the Arab world.


Such is the world we live in, where an outlandishly offensive film attacking the Prophet Mohammed and Egyptian media's coverage of the 14-minute trailer for the video could prompt thousands to storm the US embassies in Benghazi and Cairo, leading ultimately to Stevens' death, which itself was documented online as images purportedly of Ambassador Stevens circulate on social networks as I write this.

Some of my smartest friends also took to Twitter on Tuesday to dismiss the protests at the U.S. embassy as largely insignificant -- that is, until the news broke of Stevens' death in Libya.

Obama may have killed Bin Laden, but like those men who stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo yesterday, pulling down the U.S. flag, and raising an Islamic flag, Obama has not killed anti-American sentiment in the region.

"Take a picture Obama, We are all Osama," they chanted at the US embassy.

These tragic events point to two things worth noting. First, the ongoing security vacuum that still threatens day to day life in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere in the region. But more importantly, the speed with which misguided and misinformed extremists voices in the US were able to use the Internet to mobilize extreme Muslims through an inflammatory video mocking Islam's prophet Mohammed.

To ignore the significance of the deep-seated resentment shared by Arabs and Muslims on the ground, even if they are a minority, when it comes to America's meddling in regional affairs would be a mistake.

But equally, holding an American Ambassador, a veteran of American diplomatic missions in Libya that was widely admired by the rebels that fought to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi is as misguided as the "insignificant" video itself, that all of a sudden is very very significant.

This is not the first time the walls of a U.S. embassy or consulate have been breached since the Arab uprisings. It sadly is also unlikely to be the last.

But it is duly important to recognize that extreme voices, like those behind the chants, even if they are on the fringe, can wield a profound amount of power in the absence of a fully-functioning state.

Still, after the Arab uprisings and military intervention in Libya, an abundance of weapons (many of which are largely unaccounted for) and proliferation of weapons and the easy access to these weapons have provoked the kind of chaos that let to the loss of four Americans in Libya on Tuesday.

Sure, it does seem that America is damned if it does involve itself and damned if it doesn't. Sure, the politicization of this tragedy in the context of the presidential campaigns is ill-advised and regrettable. But there is a conversation we should be having. What is the new role of America in the new Middle East?

I do not have the answers. But as an Arab-American who suffered at the hands of the prejudice and demonization of all things Muslim and Arab that consumed American politics and the media following 9/11. I am compelled to promote tolerance, even as we try to understand the reasons we have lost an Ambassador in Libya. After all, as we saw with the unfolding events, extremism begets extremism.

As Libya's Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagur put it in a condemning tweet on Wednesday "the cowardly act of attacking the U.S. consulate and the killing of Mr Stevens and the other diplomats" is a product of hate and bigotry.

As the New York Times reported, the trailer was uploaded to YouTube by Sam Bacile, whom The Wall Street Journal Web site identified as a 52-year old Israeli-American real estate developer in California.

He told the WSJ he had raised $5 million from 100 Jewish donors to make the film. "Islam is a cancer," Mr. Bacile was quoted as saying.

I say intolerance is the cancer. The demonization of the other is the cancer. The cure? Tolerance.

 

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