The attacks on the U.S. embassies in Cairo and Benghazi that took place last night were deplorable, and the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his staff in Benghazi was particularly outrageous. Yes, the anti-Muslim movie of the allegedly Israeli-American filmmaker in California that sparked the riots was repulsive and offensive; but no insult, no matter how grave, justifies even the murder of the offender, let alone the murder of innocent bystanders.
Of course, what I just did was too easy. It is just as easy for me to condemn these horrific murders as it is for someone in the middle of a Benghazi protest to condemn that repulsive anti-Muslim film. But building a better future where these types of incidents are less likely to occur takes more than condemnations and enhanced security measures (without taking anything away from their importance). The speculation that there was a political agenda behind the timing of the film's release, or the signs that Al-Qaeda planned the Benghazi embassy attack and merely took advantage of the chaos, doesn't change the need to address the deeper societal problems at play.
The relationship between the Muslim fanatics who whip up into violent frenzy and the Islamophobes who incite them is very similar to the relationship between a violent and emotionally troubled school kid and the schoolyard bully who taunts him. But there is no school principal to send the bully to detention and the troubled kid to a therapist. What we have are bigots who are rightfully protected by the First Amendment and religious fanatics who, for a variety of factors, have a damaged moral compass and an unhealthy worldview.
What is required both here and abroad is a campaign of education, as well as a campaign of marginalization. Rightwing circles in Muslim societies should undertake a serious effort to educate people about how counterproductive and outright criminal it is to respond to insults with violence. When I went to school in several Arab/Muslim countries in the Middle East, I learned about how Muhammad was taunted and abused by his neighbors in the early days of Islam, and how he only responded with kindness. The rioters who claim to be Muslim would do well to remember things like that. And because no campaign of education could ever eliminate fanaticism entirely, societies themselves should shun the fanatics and marginalize them so that no misguided youth could hope to gain admiration for taking up violence "to defend the faith" in this abhorrent fashion.
Here at home, Islamophobia has grown into a serious problem. We have to undergo a campaign of education, particularly on the right, to bust the myths that anti-Muslim bigots spread, from the imaginary threat of Sharia to misleading terrorism statistics. But, again, no campaign of education could ever root out bigotry altogether; the bigots should be marginalized so that no one can get a short-cut to fame by uttering bigotry against Muslims. The media plays a crucial role here: as long as people like Ann Coulter, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer are given airtime on major news outlets, the battle to keep anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry out of the mainstream will be an uphill one.
It is also just as important that politicians not play politics with tragedies of this sort, and fan counterproductive sentiments for their narrow political gain. Mitt Romney was quick to exploit the legitimate outrage over these events by attacking the statement released by the U.S. embassy in Cairo as evidence that Obama was "apologiz[ing] for America's values," when the statement (which the administration actually distanced itself from) did no such thing. It would have been fine if Romney raised legitimate criticisms of Obama's handling of the crisis, but to manufacture a grievance in order to play partisan politics is not only distasteful, but also counterproductive in the long term.
Those of us who value building a better and more peaceful world for future generations outnumber those who seek to exploit divisions for personal gain. The only question is: are we willing to put in the work to achieve the needed progress in our societies to bring that better world about?
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