After this week’s violence in the Middle East, two things are apparent. First, a lot of Arabs in the region believe that “the United States” created a video mocking the Prophet Mohammed. And second, a lot of people in North America believe that “Egypt” and “Libya” attacked U.S. diplomatic outposts and killed an American ambassador.
Few protesters in Cairo or Benghazi believed that the video Innocence of Muslims could have been created by a largely unknown group of anti-Muslim activists in California, a group so obscure that it took U.S. reporters more than a day to identify them – or that this network of bigots could be allowed to exist simply because American laws protect freedom of speech. This could only be a direct product of Washington.
After all, this was, until recently, how things worked in their own countries. If something was allowed to exist in Egypt or Libya, the authoritarian government must have encouraged it to exist. Ergo, this wasn’t some fringe oddball in California offending them; it could only have been the United States assaulting them.
Likewise, many Americans, including prominent ones, simply could not believe that a consulate or embassy could be stormed by anti-American protesters without the active consent, and likely direct involvement, of the country’s government. These attacks prove that America has “lost Egypt” or “been betrayed by Libya,” commentators wrote, likening this week’s relatively small-scope protests to Iran’s 1979 revolution.
“These are not acts of senseless violence,” Newt Gingrich wrote on the day of the attacks. “These are acts of war.” Even as the Libyan people were hailing U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens as a hero of their democratic revolution and denouncing his fringe killers, Donald Trump expressed the view of many Republicans by writing on Twitter: “An attack on our Embassy is an attack on our soil. We have been attacked by Libya.”
It should hardly be necessary to point out that the Arab Spring remains largely a success, that these attacks are an aberration and, at best, a poorly organized effort to slow its momentum. But there are large and alarming constituencies of extremists who remain a threat, backed by some members of a confused and ill-informed public who can easily be swayed.
Also, the United States is home to a dangerous and increasingly well-funded movement of anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists, although they remain shunned by the current leaders of both major political parties and the majority of the public.
We need to take three lessons from this week’s events.
The first is that both Arab and Western citizens – and sometimes politicians – are failing to appreciate the polyphonic nature of democratic nations. This has always been a problem for the U.S. and its neighbours: One-note nations such as Russia and Iran have never really believed that every political statement, protest march and YouTube video emerging from a diverse Western country isn’t orchestrated by the national government.
But now it’s also a problem for the new Arab democracies. Suddenly, they are large, and contain multitudes. They have become polyphonic. We should not mistake the signal from the noise, even when things become very noisy, indeed.
The second is to realize that the new freedoms – both political and electronic – allow the most obscure and marginal figures to dominate the agenda. Those in Benghazi who killed the ambassador do not represent any main current in Libya (where secular liberal democrats dominated this summer’s election). The anti-Muslim activists in the U.S. have failed to seize either major party’s agenda. But both groups have come to “represent” their countries on the world stage – by using the Internet, social media and television to bypass conventional politics.
The third is to realize that, as a result of this, these fringe movements are increasingly threatening, far out of proportion of their actual numbers, not just within their small sphere of action but on a larger stage. The past decade has seen a largely unnoticed ascent of the circle of xenophobic activists behind the short film that triggered this violence, their rise into mainstream politics, and the failure of mainstream conservatives to confront and denounce them.
Likewise, the liberal and Islamist parties of newly democratic Arab states have failed to confront the more radical Salafists and jihadists in their midst. By pretending that the violent few are irrelevant, these parties have allowed them to set the international agenda, and have threatened their own credibility.
This is a new, wide-open world – one whose freedoms, if we aren’t careful, can easily be seized and abused.