In the aftermath of the tragic attack of the US Embassy in Libya that claimed several US diplomats' lives, American flags burn across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, in over 12 countries. Many non-Muslim Americans are asking themselves: "why are they so enraged about an amateur film?; or, "why do they hate us?" The protests are no longer about the film. Increasingly, the public displays of anti-Americanism today reflect the state of affairs between the US and the 'Muslim world'.
Of the non-Muslims in the West, 58% consider Muslims fanatical and a median of 50% believe Muslims are violent. According to Pew Research surveys from 2011, median percentages of Muslims who identify the U.S. and Europe as violent, greedy, or immoral, is above 50%. On these facts, the ideological divide between the Muslim and Western world is a matter of concern to both U.S. public diplomacy and for the emerging democracies of the Middle East and North Africa.
With regards to the current crisis sweeping the Middle East and boxing with America's diplomacy, there are four important concepts to keep in mind.
First, the violent attacks on US embassies are promoted by, if not entirely designed by, extremist networks seeking to weaken the momentum of Arab civil society, who have bravely lead the calls for change across the region. Extremists were sidelined in 2011. With their leadership lost, terrorist and extremist networks are ready to destabilize their communities and social and political gains by emerging democracies. With inconsistent funds and no central leadership, the physical terrorism of the last decade increasingly is taking a constructivist turn. The extremist networks of today seek to impose cultural unity via the ideological fuel of existing trust deficits between America and Muslim majority societies. To this end, the reality of emerging networks of Islamophobia in the US have become the new tool of ideological terrorist for rapid destabilization across the Middle East.
Second, already there is chatter that the US government will scale back programs in support of public diplomacy for security and financial reason. Yet, it is in these times that the US government should dedicate itself to expanding robust US led programs for cultural exchange and education with the 'the other.' Diplomatic capital and cross cultural civic engagement is needed in times of crisis, not in just times of stability and peace. Additionally, existing networks of cultural ambassadors and global citizens from the Fulbright Scholarship and the UN, both in the US and the Muslim world, need to be mobilized to counter the ideological fires raging today. It was networks like the Peace Corps, the Fulbright, or the UN's Alliance of Civilizations that spawned great messengers of peace like Ambassador Chris Stevens of Libya, who served in the Peace Corps in Morocco or the great diplomat Richard Holbrooke. Ambassador Stevens won the trust of Libyans and died fighting for improved US bonds with Libyans. We need more like Ambassador Stevens.
Third, the sporadic, yet, widespread reactions are symptomatic of a two-level theory to Islamophobia. The first level is represented by anti-Islam networks in the US, representing a tiny minority of the population active on social media. These networks, led by anti-Islam activists such as Pamela Geller, promote the false narrative that Muslims are agents of violence seeking to penetrate and crush Western civilization. The influence of such networks we have seen this summer. A man attacked worshipers at a Sikh temple, allegedly making no distinction between Sikhs and Muslims; a mosque was burned to the ground in Missouri; right wing government representatives like Michele Bachmann started a witch-hunt for Muslims working in the US government. It was revealed earlier this year that the NYPD was spying on Muslim university students, challenging the civil liberties of Muslim-Americans. And most recently, there is the film trailer demeaning the Prophet of Islam.
The second level to Islamophobia deals with internal fissures in some communities across Middle East and South Asia, and is led by political and religious elites who colonize spaces for spiritual evolution, independent interpretation, and pluralism. These elites are guided by a fear of losing control under a decentralized practice of Islam and diverse Muslim identities. It is this internal level of Islamophobia where religious elites and political parties constrict a religion and mold it into a tool for power and consolidation. The overall effect places blinders on some Muslim communities getting to know the expansive and pluralistic history of Islamic civilization, as well as, the intentions of people from outside the Muslim majority societies. The knowledge gap is filled by a small group of ideological terrorists, both in the East and the West, such as those promoting an anti-Islam video on You Tube. The desired end of such tactics is to mobilize the community and achieve political ends.
Lastly, for the minority of Muslims protesting around the world today, it is worth exploring Islamic history and asking, "how does the reactive behavior of a few today stand up to the founding principles of Islamic civilization and the teachings of Muhammad?" Mecca, the birth place of Islam, was a city that had abused the prophet Muhammad and the first Islamic community. When Muhammad had just defeated his enemies and was returning to Mecca, the Prophet did not promote violent protests and revenge, but instead declared a day of mercy. According to historians, he did not kill the murderer of his uncle Hamza, nor did he kill or destroy the property of enemies such as Abu Sufyan.
Assuming the skewed logic that 'offending the Prophet means offending Islam and therefore, justifies violent reaction', then why aren't the same protests happening every time there is discrimination against Shiites or other Muslim minorities? Why are there no protests when girls attending school are poisoned by extremists in some parts of Afghanistan, or, when a suicide bomber kills women and children in a market in Pakistan or Iraq? Are there similar protests across over 12 Muslim majority countries, expressing solidarity with those being attacked and murdered by Assad's regime in Syria?
Additionally, while political polices may sometimes be flawed double games, the myth that 'Americans are out to dominate Islam and demean the Prophet' is in direct contrast to the available evidence of US assistance to those in need in Muslim majority countries. Since January 2011, $100 million in grants have been provided by USAID to support job creation, humanitarian assistance, and poverty alleviation in Egypt. In 2006, USAID funded plans helped eradicate diseases like Polio in Egypt. In the Palestinian territories, USAID repaired more than 380 km of roads in the West Bank that now connects 84 previously isolated villages. In 10 years, USAID has renovated over 5,500 classrooms in the West Bank.
In 'The Second Coming,' poet William Butler Yeats wrote, "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity." It seems this quote represents the state of the world today. Yet, what I have seen, related to the Middle East, is contrary to Yeats's claim and my hopes are that he today would be wrong.
In a recent trip across the Middle East with the UN's Alliance of Civilizations, there were stark differences from country to country. A singular Arab identity, or, a singular Muslim identity does not exist. The same can be said for Americans and America for that matter. The concept that 'they', in the Middle East, hate 'us', in America, is a false narrative. Most all the university students, teachers, activists and artists respect the need for cultural exchange and reform. Women are leading projects for child education and social service delivery to the handicapped in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and for economically disadvantaged in Kenitra, Morocco. University students are mobilizing their peers for workshops in self-expression and debate in Jordan and fashion designers are exploring how to mesh their spirituality with their art across the region. When asked about the main issue that causes distrust and anger, most all the respondents I met with repeated one topic: the Palestine question. Domestically, most all youth said job-availability is a chief concern to them and internationally, several voiced concern with Islamophobia in America and Europe. Most youth feel torn on whether the Arab Spring, a term they hated, was in fact organic or manufactured. There was no clear consensus on whether or not it is a good thing or a bad thing. In some spaces, an evolution was desired over a revolution.
Despite division on what to do with the Arab Spring, one thing was for certain, the educated classes of young people felt this was their time to take the lead and push the envelope. They are seeking to do so on their own timeline and in their own terminology, without dictations from the outside. For many youth in the Middle East, there was acknowledgement that large support is needed from American diplomatic efforts to offer educational and technical support, cultural exchange opportunities, and spaces for expression and understanding. Ambassador Stevens worked towards this end.
We will probably not forget how Ambassador Stevens died, but we also must not forget what inspired him and what shaped him. It was America's drive for peace and development, it was Arab history and culture, and it was the Arab youth of today. Diplomacy and cultural exchange will prevail. The best of us need passionate intensity for public diplomacy, the kind that Ambassador Stevens exuded, as well as, those still serving our country in consulates and classrooms across the world.