09/16/2012 06:45 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2012

A Silver Lining to the Film and Riots Tragedy: Freedom, Diversity, and the New Competition for Arab Public Space

The shell shock to the West of the widespread demonstrations of rage against the United States, including the murder of an Ambassador, will taper off soon, but the lessons of this sad episode remain elusive and rather polarizing. Is the lesson that we in the West have to watch what our extremists publish? Is the lesson that the Arab Spring and the emerging freedoms was all one big mistake because it has unleashed extremist rage and command of the streets? Should the West buckle down, get out of the Arab world and leave the masses to their own devices? Should the Western countries play hardball and get behind a new set of 'dictators' who will control their miserable streets? Many thoughts are racing through the heads of average Westerners, policy makers, business people, and few of those thoughts are promising in terms of global relations.

To see forty sites erupt around the world in violent rage is indeed frightening and disheartening, but it is also misleading in our global village. It raises a serious problem, a real danger, but it is very deceptive. The truth of Benghazi came out slowly in the hours and days after this horrible crime was committed. We saw scenes and images from Benghazi that would have been unthinkable just a year ago. We saw mostly women, but also men, expressing their free speech, asserting that this violence did not represent them. We thus saw that the drive of self-expression, of freedom, did not die inside the violent upheavals of the Arab Spring. It is still there in Benghazi, in Cairo, in Damascus, all over the Arab world.

With the waning of the age of dictators we are witnessing the new, more realistic and more complicated Arab street. We are witnessing worrisome groups, criminal groups, conservative groups, but many groups committed to nonviolence, good relations with neighbors near and far, democracy and freedom expression, and a deep capacity to stand in the public square for what one believes in.

Western policy makers and officials, in addition to many other institutions, may shrink in horror from the violent radicals that periodically inhabit the public squares of a newer and freer Arab world, but they are mistaken to take these poor angry and misguided folks as the last word on the course and direction of Arab culture and civil society. With the removal of brutalizing police, or at least their waning power, we will see more violence from some, and more willingness by others to fight for their rights, and for nonviolent approaches to problems.

Scientific research on the increase and decline in violence globally suggests a strong correlation with at least four factors that will impact where a newly free society will go. It behooves us to pay attention to these factors and encourage their course and direction.

These four factors that encourage a less violent society and international relations include; 1. the power of 'gentle commerce', or good business that benefits and gives dignity to all parties; 2. The empowerment of women who consistently favor nonviolent engagement with strangers and adversaries; 3. The increase in empathy that comes from exposure to the literature, culture and life experiences of strangers and other peoples, 4. The growth of bodies of law, locally and internationally, that allow for civil society to develop and for human relations to proceed without fear within and across national boundaries.

We need to see the frightening demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo, as balanced out by deeply inspiring demonstrations. We need to see ourselves as agents of change, to see ourselves as capable of engaging and empowering fellow travelers overseas, as opposed to shrinking our presence and abandoning the powerful agents of change in the Arab world precisely when they need our friendship the most. This is the time to step forward.

I have received personal requests for conflict resolution training, business and conflict resolution, more than ever from so many parts of the Arab world in the last year. From young people, but also from many officials. It is as if there is something coming alive in the Arab world for the first time in decades. Now is the time not to shrink in horror and fear but to engage with courage and hope. We will find friends, we will be cautious with angry people, but the direction of history suggests that our nonviolent democratic friends in Arab and Muslim societies are on the right side of where history is going.

Now is not the time to cut and run from from Islamic societies, just when young democratic and nonviolent voices are asserting themselves everywhere. Now is the time to engage, to invest, to visit, carefully but with determination. We need to meet our new and more free neighbors in a global village that is filled with trouble but also filled with great promise, depending on how we welcome each other into global civil society.