09/26/2012 10:51 am ET Updated Nov 26, 2012

Together Americans and Muslims Can Save the Arab Spring

As the unrest surrounding the "Innocence of Muslims" simmers down, we must face the upsetting conclusion that the last two weeks' events have followed the ideological script of the hatemongers who made the video. These cowardly people need not make a sequel; they can simply watch tapes of the riots and marvel at their own success. In the aftermath, many Muslims and Americans now discuss their actions and their options in terms that are totally consonant with the unbridgeable antagonism that the video seeks to promote.

The video's makers intended to dishonor Muslims, particularly amongst American audiences. Religious extremists in the Muslim world have done them a great favor, reinforcing the most degrading stereotypes that circulate through our media. Those who resorted to violence, attacked innocents, and breached the sanctity of foreign diplomatic missions helped to achieve the video's desired outcome of increasing hostility between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Islamic extremists know this very well. There are many indications that the perpetrators of the deadly assault on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, were not riding the momentum of a spontaneous protest, but rather taking advantage of the crowds to carry out a carefully orchestrated plan. The heavily armed attackers, with suspected ties to al Qaeda, likely planned to attack American targets regardless of the video. Such hardliners seek to exploit every local factor they can in order to demonstrate their firepower and to intimidate moderates in the (now more) open playing field of political competition in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere. Blasting their way through the walls of an American consulate brandishes the remorseless violence that militants can wield against states undergoing the difficult transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Even if the extremists can't control the post-dictatorship governments, they seek to bully them.

But having overthrown Muammar Gaddafi with American military support, Libyans do not wish to inherit a scenario like Afghanistan after the Cold War, where the U.S. also armed Islamic militants to bring down a shared tyrannical enemy -- only to turn our backs on the country while fundamentalists turned their guns against the populace.

Attacks on American targets are also aimed at leaders like Egypt's religious President Mohammed Morsi and Libya's secular President Mohamed al-Magariaf. The rioters in these countries seek to discredit the democratization of the Arab states and to jeopardize their nations' participation in the global norms of diplomacy, amity, and mutual respect.

But there is a way forward, if we will only resist the hate-baiting of the Islamophobic video makers and their ideological mirror reflections in the Muslim world. In fact, the shocking efforts to drive a wedge between Americans and Muslims prove that extremists on both sides are deeply unnerved by the potential for the Arab Spring to bring us closer together. The moral force that inspired these revolutions offers Americans and Muslims worldwide an unprecedented opportunity to support one another along the difficult road out of the wars, terror, and mistrust of recent decades.

The Arab Spring reminded Americans of the irresistible power of the people to unite and overcome insufferable oppression. The Arab Spring revitalized the language of our common demands for responsible democratic participation, engaged civic activism, and the right to resist abuse at the hands of the few, whether they are religious extremists, corrupt dictatorships, or an economic elite bent on using the political system as a means for personal profit.

But every revolution brings out one old guard or another, groups that seek to hold us in the past and sabotage any opportunity for genuine transformation. To defeat these saboteurs, Americans need to understand that the crowds that cross the line into violence do not represent an entire society, religion, or even the historic sweep of the Arab Spring. Across the region, there are many brave reformers and democrats, religious and secular, Muslim and Christian. We must redouble our efforts to support these men and women. And we must challenge our own media for giving an immediate platform to the most outrageous political voices (here and abroad). By focusing on such odious rhetoric and violence, we become complicit in hiding the real revolutionaries who use far less "camera-ready" means to promote change: organizing disenfranchised citizens, debating opponents civilly, and, if necessary, opposing brutality with non-violence. These tactics brought down ruthless despots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, and it is these radically democratic methods that the militants seek to discredit. And yet we help extremist, anti-democratic forces when we act as if they are the only ones on the other side.

The riots have a way of serving as a "smokescreen" for violent fundamentalists to hijack revolutions, as Hamid Dabashi writes. This diversion also steers us toward a deceptive simplicity: we talk about our own "defense of free speech," on the one hand, and the figure of the "intolerant, violent" Muslim, on the other. Such a response to the unrest is tempting to many Americans. Yet it is exactly the debate that the hatemongers want us to conduct because it comes with a pre-ordained and all-too-familiar conclusion: there is a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. This jingoism only invites endless, senseless war.

A worthwhile debate must take place on the relationship between free speech and religious belief. But this requires a level of open-mindedness, originality, and even self-criticism from each side that appears unlikely at a moment as polarizing as this. The need for a responsible conversation has fallen victim to the alarming volume of recent events. The pretense of having this otherwise vital discussion can actually obscure more than it reveals.

We can push back against this aggressive momentum by looking at the many factors on the ground that have little to do with the alleged conflict between free speech and religious offense. Robert Worth of the New York Times reported on a few of these, such as digital media that may be disseminated on an unprecedented scale, providing an instantaneous global audience for inflammatory words and images of all kinds. This video is not the first or only instance of technology stretching the delicate balance between free speech and actual violence to a breaking point.

Worth also notes the growing influence of radical preachers who operate outside traditional systems of Islamic law, which is one of many social phenomena that take on a distinct shape in each location. Since the Egyptian uprising began in January, 2011, soccer hooligans have played instrumental roles in violent demonstrations, such as those against the U.S. embassy two weeks ago, and those that threatened the Israeli embassy on September 9, 2011. Across the Arab world, paid thugs and even simple demographics can add to the likelihood of protests spinning out of control. As with any riots, it would be unwise to attribute too much religious sentiment or ideology to young men with a visceral taste for shouting, burning, and looting (and bribery).

Yet we must also consider the differences between the American experience of free speech with, for example, Egypt, where a draconian dictatorship could have you arrested, tortured, or killed for saying the wrong thing, even in private, and where much of what was said in public was stage crafted by the authorities. To protesting Egyptians, as with many living in former or current police states, it may not be self-evident that a video can come out of America without some form of official support. It is worth clarifying these distinctions to both sides, as our embassy in Cairo attempted to do (to the ill-timed dissatisfaction of Mitt Romney). Such clarification in no way amounts to an apology for our values. Educating people abroad about how free speech works in America is the greatest form of advocacy for our principles. But crudely endorsing the right of hate speech to supersede censorship misses the point. Free speech is not about our (American) right to offend you (Muslims), but about coming together to create and protect a common space in which people will not face physical violence as a result of their opinions. This, after all, was a central theme of the Arab Spring demonstrations, evident in the groups of Muslims and Coptic Christians who locked arms in circles to protect one another from police brutality during each group's prayer times in Tahrir Square.
Ultimately, there will always be people who spew unfounded or distorted resentment. But this does not permit us to overlook the hard truths about America's relationship to the Muslim world, even if that means acknowledging sources of legitimate outrage. Too few Americans appreciate the devastating consequences of our wars in the region, the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed and the millions made homeless across Iraq and Afghanistan. Many still fail to recognize the gravity of allowing our government to invade and conquer a country on the basis of outright lies. Years of military occupation came on top of decades of American coddling of monstrous regimes, subjecting millions of human beings to conditions of cruelty, deprivation, and civil chaos that Americans would never tolerate at home.

None of this justifies harming civilians or diplomats. No act of violence against innocents justifies further violence against innocents. But recognizing underlying grievances, in both directions, is the only way for us -- as nations, societies, and individuals -- to hold ourselves accountable for the wars, terror, and destruction that remain in our power to prevent.

It is not possible to eliminate the fringe elements that will do anything to make us believe we are on opposite sides of a divide over essential values; they will use our best ideals and our worst habits against us, from ignorance and paranoia to free speech and religion. Such people not only seek to attack diplomatic missions, they seek to drive out the very ideas of mutual understanding and respect inherent in diplomacy. But it would be a mistake to think that these ideas are exclusively Western or Islamic. Only together can we forge the humility and fortitude necessary to protect these values. We must not allow the flashes of an instantly updating stream of inflammatory video to dull our conscience.