The wave of protests at U.S. diplomatic installations in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, which resulted in the tragic death of several Americans, reminds Americans, if such a reminder is needed, of the speed and intensity with which misunderstanding and anger can inflame the Middle East and the U.S. In the midst of such heat, I offer some simple grounded rationality about what these popular outbursts actually tell us. I start with the good first, then move towards the bad and ugly dimensions of these events.
The Good: Limited, partially-contrived Arab Muslim reactions with significant popular counter-reaction
The evidence so far is that the protests were a hiccup rather than a broad, mass Arab Islamic sentiment, particularly in Libya. While it is true that Salafi (assertive Islamist political) activism has been growing in Libya in recent months, this may well be a movement in search of a cause. The relative power vacuum in post-Gaddafi Libya, similar to the situation in Yemen, means that determined fringe groups can have more of an impact than in better-ordered societies, such as Tunisia, where small efforts by Salafis and al Qaeda at political provocation have been mostly contained.
Moreover, in Libya, both government officials and diverse citizens have gone out of their way to condemn the violence. Former U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens was known in the country as an individual committed to improving Libyans' rights with deep experience in, and even love for, North Africa. Middle Eastern historian Juan Cole reminds us that the Benghazi protests both got out of hand quickly and occurred at the same time that Libyans elected a non-Islamist prime minister democratically. The many Libyans who took to the streets in Tripoli last August to celebrate the end of Gaddafi's repressive rule with chants of "law, law, law" are not looking for impassioned protesters to take Libya away from its transition into a government more accountable to the rule of law.
In short, the anti-American Arab protests, which likely included an element of planned incitement by extremist groups, are not signs of a sudden groundswell of mass hatred for the U.S. or support for groups like al Qaeda, especially in a country like Libya that has recent evidence of tangible support for political self-determination from Washington. Instead, these protests should be looked at more subtly as an ad hoc grouping of a group of people who were generally riled-up after a soccer match (Egypt), a smaller number of Salafi Islamists who are not necessarily broadly representative, and a tiny set of al Qaeda operatives looking to exploit these situations. What happened, especially in Libya, should not be read as a strong slap in the face to Americans' hopes for the Arab Spring, even if it is definitely a bump in the road.
The Bad: Real social and political differences that can't easily be wished away
That the violence in Libya was a bump in the road is rather evident in a different way. There is no quick fix to centuries of bad historical ties, tricky politics and divergent social experiences between the West and the Arab World. It is entirely understandable for Americans to be angry and frustrated that a small group of Muslim Arabs would attack American government targets for the hate speech of private individuals, who, ironically, may turn out not even to be Americans. I certainly believe that the people who made the "film" defaming the Prophet Muhammed were deliberately being insensitive and inciteful, and would strongly encourage people I know to exercise much greater tact. Yet the centrality of open-minded freedom of speech is not a principle for which Americans should have to apologize, even if it's hard to see some of that speech these days as supporting the ideals of truth and rational discourse that have been used to justify it famously in the works of John Stuart Mill and elsewhere. In the U.S., mean-spirited jerks looking to start trouble cannot, and should not, be stopped by law from making asses of themselves.
Yet, Arab Islamic societies' history and practice of having strong collective norms against blasphemy and communal defamation are also significant in these societies. Worse, the overall Arab historical experience of Western colonial coercion and values hypocrisy, fairly or not, creates a real trend towards thin skill around attacks on Islam. When powerful European, and even occasionally American, governments have in the past trumpeted lofty principles while squelching Arab political autonomy, it is far too easy for what seem to us to be clear distinctions of peculiar individuals and the country as a whole to get lost. The consulate attack and other Arab protests unfortunately remind us that there is not just an ocean, but a sea of divergent experience and misunderstanding, that makes it very challenging for some Arab Muslims and some Americans to get what the other thinks or feels. This can only change gradually, and through mutual engagement that does not depend on abandoning deeply-held values on either side.
The Ugly: Deliberate provocateurs who seek a civilizational conflict whose time is past
The evidence is not yet clear, but I don't believe the 9/11 timing was a coincidence in terms of the agitation on the Middle Eastern side that provoked the protests. On the side of the anti-Islamic film-maker, the evidence is getting clearer. The point of the "film" was to piss off deliberately exactly the sort of al Qaeda-type folks who could propel a new cycle of increased misunderstanding and violence. We should know since 9/11/01 that nasty rhetoric (and violence) can effectively trigger nasty rhetoric (and violence). The Arab uprisings of last year have showed that most Arabs want better economic prospects and more political freedom, just like Americans. The fact that religion still matters to most Arabs, as indeed it does to most Americans, should not be conflated into arguments that would grant extremists anywhere a new chance to ramp up violence. Even though the Benghazi tragedy highlights that relationships between the U.S. and the Arab world are never simple or unidirectional.