Thursday, September 13, 2012

Is The Arab Awakening Going up in Flames?

This week, America watched in shock as three nations that toppled authoritarian leaders during the Arab Awakening protested and rioted, apparently against an Islamophobic “documentary” about the Prophet Mohammed. Though the film came out in July, on the 11th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 activists reacted to the Arabic-dubbed version of the inflammatory movie. Tragedy struck when Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American consulate employees were murdered in an assault on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. Amb. Stevens was a longtime scholar of North Africa, former Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and true believer in the hope of the “new Libya.” As protests continue throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Americans are left to wonder if the optimism that embodied the Arab Awakening is about to be replaced with extremism, anti-Western leaders, and more oppression.

Photo of the Consulate entrance, taken by a Benghazi resident.

To the contrary, the extremists who are using this film as a pretext to attack symbols of the U.S. know what Westerners seem ignorant of: the weakness of their position in the Middle East. Salafist groups have fragmented since the Arab Awakening, unable to gain widespread popular support for their extreme movements. They now contain militant, political, and peaceful wings, in a pattern that has played out in many other countries long plagued by Salafist groups intent on jihad. Many Muslim countries may be socially conservative but are unwilling to accept Taliban-esque sharia law. As I have written previously, Libya’s elections offered the only example of post-Arab Awakening elections in which Islamist parties not only lost, but lost in a landslide. Choosing technocrats over ideologues and economic growth and security over religion, Libyans shocked observers by failing to elect a single candidate from the political parties representing Salafi Islam.

Libya’s problem is not a current of extremism or Salafism in the general population. Libya has a long history of Sufism that most citizens value as a cultural tradition, yet Salafists condemn as heterodox, earning the ire of the average Libyan. Libya’s problem is that the General National Congress has not been able to bring militias, many of which have an Islamic bent, under the control of the new government. Weapons are easily available thanks to Western suppliers of the revolution, and many militant groups that have been “deputized” are only nominally under the control of the government. These groups have launched many attacks in recent months on Sufist mausoleums and mosques, British World War II graves, and the Tunisian consulate over an art display deemed offensive to Islam. The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was preceded by an IED explosion there on 6 June. The sporadic attacks have earned condemnation by cultural societies, women’s groups, liberal organizations, and moderate Islamists, representing a wide swathe of the Libyan population.

Attacks do not equate with power, popularity, or prestige within Libyan society. As with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the attacks are the last-ditch effort of extremist groups to scare Western powers away while attracting more militants to their cause. The film “Innocence of Muslims” gave them the perfect excuse to do so, a rallying cry that ordinary Muslims without extremist tendencies would respond to. Reports have already surfaced that the militant groups Ansar al-Sharia brigade or Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s group Omar Abdul Rahman brigades were the ones truly responsible for the attack, not a group of ordinary citizens who were moved to violence because they were offended by the film. Groups such as these needed an excuse to launch an attack, and the confluence of the film’s Arabic-dubbed release and the anniversary of 9/11 gave them a perfectly timed opportunity to do so.

More than just extremism is at play in Libya. If the Salafist movement does manage to drum up popular support given recent events, it will be because it has managed to attract members of disenfranchised tribes that have been victims of disproportionate aid. Libya is still very much a tribal society, like many other countries in MENA. While some tribes have been generalized as having supported the revolution and received the lion’s share of aid from the government, still others have been labeled “traitors to the revolution” and have thus been excluded and marginalized from the progress the country has made in the last year. They are the most eligible group of recruits should the government fail to evenly distribute resources. Benghazi is also a hotspot for extremism because of perceived regional disenfranchisement, which has led to calls for secession from Libya or federalism of its different regions. Distributing aid for revenge or reward based on the revolution of 2011 will only lead Libya down a path of destruction, not development. The coming months will test the government’s ability to reign in the militias, redesign aid policies, and make sure that every Libyan feels as though their citizenship is valued equally.

A burnt out, looted room in the embassy.

In other countries, protests have continued and U.S. embassies have been attacked. In Cairo and Sana’a protestors managed to scale embassy walls and replace American flags with Islamist ones, although it is unclear whether consulate staff members were still inside at the time or had been moved to another location. Yet other protests have occurred as well: counter-protests calling for a stop to the chaos and pointing out that this is exactly what the extremists want. Hopeful scenes of people in Cairo and Benghazi holding up signs denouncing violence have also been making front-page headlines in the global media. They represent the factions of society that may not agree with U.S. policies, but disagree with the use of violence even more strongly.

Counter-protests in Benghazi.

All parties involved need to weather this storm with cool heads. The film, after all, is laughably poorly produced. Despite claims that it carried a $5 million price tag, it looks as though it was created in a high school film class at best. The most inflammatory comments about the Prophet appear to have been dubbed on after production. In Arabic, many are quite clearly not correct translations of the English version. While this does not supersede the offensive nature of the film and the fact that it is extremely Islamophobic, it does point out that the film is a clear-cut piece of untruthful propaganda. Most Americans would dismiss it as hateful drivel, just as most Muslims would condemn the assassination of a U.S. ambassador. Giving into the impulse of anger against the film directly plays into its creators’ hands. They want Muslims to rise up violently, thus tarnishing their relationships with the West and standing in Western eyes. They want people to shout extremist slogans so that the West turns away from its Muslim allies and gives into anti-Islam rhetoric being spouted from several countries and groups.

Amb. Stevens’ murderers cannot be allowed to win, nor can the extremists on the other end that revel in the recent violence. Balanced, objective policy decisions need to guide the way forward from these tragedies should we wish to prevent their reoccurrence. Libya and the rest of MENA made impressive and unprecedented strides towards true democracy and freedom for all people within their borders. Preserving that progress and continuing to push for more is the key to a successful future. Giving into extremists, be they Muslim, Christian or Jewish, is to tarnish the memory of a man who worked for peace and liberty in a region he believed could be better.

But we also know that the lives these Americans led stand in stark contrast to those of their attackers.  These four Americans stood up for freedom and human dignity.  They should give every American great pride in the country that they served, and the hope that our flag represents to people around the globe who also yearn to live in freedom and with dignity.” -Pres. Barack Obama
Ambassador Chris Stevens

1 comment:

  1. A series of long-simmering conflicts have erupted across Muslim nations of North Africa and the Mideast. Western leaders are perplexed wondering how to deal with revolutions against former allies that have affected friendly and neutral governments as well as terrorist states. There are many factors at work leading to these conflagrations. Before we can make any judgments about the present situation, we need to understand the history of this conflicted region.

    Following World War II, the former European colonial powers drew the borders for their colonies, creating the nations we know today, and appointed their rulers. The 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war changed the political dynamics of the region with the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in its ancient religious homeland. Zionist Israel, supported by the United States and western Europe was surrounded by its Islamic enemies (from the seventh century AD). A series of wars by its Arab neighbors against Israel resulted in Israeli victories but also major changes. Among many events were Egypt’s nationalization of the British Suez Canal and an OPEC six months long oil embargo against the United States and western Europe. When the Shah of Iran was overthrown by Shia religious fanatics and the entire staff of the US embassy held captive for 444 days, Western attention became acutely focused on the Mideast. Many other crises contributed to our present dilemma.

    The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq provoked military action by the United States and its allies to protect oil supplies and shipping routes. After freeing Kuwait the allies pursued the Iraqi attackers but stopped short of toppling the government. When that government was subsequently believed to be developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and preparing to attack Western assets, a second invasion of Iraq was undertaken to replace its government, to destroy its war-making capabilities and to protect our oil supplies. No WMDs were found, so a new goal was announced—installing a model democracy to help stabilize the region, i.e., nation building.

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