09/21/2012 08:36 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2012

Arab Disturbance, American Distress

As an Arab Muslim who shuttles often between my home in Morocco and the United States, I was triply pained by the killings and riots in Libya, Tunisia, and across the Arab world. The YouTube film that inspired the violence was personally hurtful. The killing of Americans that followed was a crime against a country I have come to love. And the whole affair has only stoked animosity between the United States and the Arab world at a time when these disparate cultures urgently need to come closer together.

People who move between the two worlds feel that the death of four US diplomats has made ambassadors out of us all. We are on the receiving end of heated questions from each side about the other, as if we were spokespeople for America in the Arab world and Islam's representatives to the United States. The challenge in responding, which must have been part of Ambassador Chris Stevens' lifelong challenge, is to confront prejudice without losing friends, and heals wound without distorting the truth.

Some young Arabs I know who supported last year's revolutions asked, "Since President Obama is the most powerful man in America, how can he claim to be a friend to Muslims if he doesn't block this video and imprison the people who made it?"

Every American is accountable under the law, I reply -- even the President -- and freedom of speech is one of the fundamental laws of any democracy. It is a law greatly cherished in the United States, which has been a historic haven for people fleeing tyranny and persecution. If you oppose the freedom of expression, I ask them, what were you fighting for last year on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and Tripoli? Over the past few weeks, President Obama proved that he respects Islam and Muslims by condemning the film, which is as far as his office allows him to go. The ugly film was created by a fringe of a fringe in the United States that does not represent the views of the vast majority of Americans. Just as this tiny minority enjoys freedom of expression, so do the vast majority -- and resoundingly, they have used this freedom to express their abhorrence of the film.

A few days later, an American lawyer I know in Washington relayed to me the question Hillary Clinton asked publicly after the killings in Libya: "How can this happen in a country we helped liberate?"

In the Arab world, I try to explain, there is always a large segment of the population that views American policy as an imperialist conspiracy, even if that policy was designed to help them. They may condemn America's support for Libyan rebels, and at the same time condemn America for not sufficiently supporting Syria's rebels -- without even acknowledging the contradiction in their worldview. This is the legacy of decades in which Arab publics were brainwashed to hate America by the very dictators with whom America was allied. During that period, the United States virtually ignored the aspirations of Arab democrats, even as it called for democracy throughout the world. Toppling a dictator can happen overnight, but the struggle to undo his damage to the mentality of the population may take a generation. Nor is success in the struggle to do so a foregone conclusion: As Arab liberals strive to transform state and society alike, so do Islamist extremists -- and so far they are ahead.

Ambassador Chris Stevens was a leader in the struggle to foster understanding in the Arab world, from his early years as an English teacher in Morocco to his final days on the front lines of the campaign for a free Libya. Far from the clamor of a few thousand rioters, millions of Arabs regard him as a hero and mourn his loss. The demonstrators who burned the American flag do not represent the Muslim world, any more than the pastor Terry Jones, who once proposed to burn the Qur'an, represents the American people.

Underlying my response to these questions is my own identity as a conservative Muslim, a proud Moroccan, and a lifelong friend of the United States. For inspiration, I turn to the Qur'an: Surat al-Ma'ida, verse 32, says, "[W]hoever kills a soul ... it is as if he had slain humankind entirely. And whoever saves one, it is as if he had saved humankind entirely." Perhaps this is the principle that inspired the late king of Morocco, Muhammad V, to protect his Jewish citizens from the Nazis during World War II. Perhaps adherence to this principle was also the reason that my own countrymen in recent weeks protested the anti-Islamic film without violence, in a series of peaceful demonstrations in the Moroccan capital Rabat. Their demand for civil society in the Muslim world and mutual respect between East and West is a nuanced message too seldom heard at this time of global conflict. It isn't easy to meet such a demand -- but my hopes and prayers are with those who try.

Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan magazineL'Observateur, president of Morocco's national MED Radio network, and chairman of the board ofAl-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya daily newspaper.