It is easy to be disheartened by the protests across the Muslim world in response to the fraudulent anti-Islamic video that crescendoed in front of U.S. diplomatic missions around the world. Another example of the clash of civilizations, it seemed, of America’s damned-to-be-doomed approach in the Middle East, but with real consequences: murdered diplomats, shot soldiers, and more civilians killed in the violence.
But it’s all the more easy to mistake what is happening by viewing events through the Samuel Huntington prism of a collision between justifiably upset Muslims reacting to provocation and the Western freedoms the provocateur exploited to goad this predictable outburst of violence. Unfortunately, smart people who should know better are simply looking at the surface and seeing only what they want to see.
We get nowhere with this dangerously simplistic and bifurcated view of the Muslim world. More likely we are witnessing a political drama endemic to the Muslim world play itself out on a global stage. In this script, the United States is not a player but an offstage presence, a looming entity like Fortinbras of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. If we interpret the drama correctly, we will only enter at the end to assess the political damage. If we read it wrong, we’ll be hanged, meddling and uncomprehending, like the title characters of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
So here’s the likely reading of the drama before us, including recommendations for what to do.
This is not about us (with proper credit to Ross Douthat) – These protests were sparked by an American-produced video but ultimately this is about a power struggle in the Muslim world triggered by the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring. Conservative and Islamist groups, finding themselves no longer on the vanguard, are fighting back, using the video to stoke and mobilize their base. They certainly didn’t need the video, as the Internet is strewn with anti-Islamist rocks for them to pick up and throw. This was just a particularly good one to use, hand-hewn to the purpose. It only means that they’re on the defensive, fighting back against a political tide that threatens to them. Unfortunately, the response in the West has been virtually all about us: that our peculiar Western freedoms have once again provoked the hair-trigger ire of over-sensitive Muslims, and that this conflagration which has involved thousands and killed a score again represents our irreconcilable differences writ in blood. This is a fundamental misreading of an insular event.
We have a part in this fight – America has a Muslim population of 2.75 million. That’s more than the Muslim population of many Arab emirates like Qatar, and even some Islamic-majority European countries like Albania. In fact, the Muslim population in the United States has grown since 2011, and by 2030 we should have more than six million Muslims, which is greater than the current estimated Muslim population of France, which barring Turkey has the largest Muslim population in Europe. Moreover, despite the difficulty communicating what we’ve done in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has an extraordinary record of intervening on behalf of benighted Muslim populations – in Bosnia and Kosovo, Libya and Lebanon, Kuwait, Kurdistan, and Somalia. We have a stake. We can act with confidence.
Go all in – While the State Department pulls back non-essential personnel from some diplomatic missions, a timid political reaction threatens to double down on a defensive response at precisely the moment when we should go all in: a public, political and diplomatic surge, as it were, to isolate reactionary elements who are in fact reeling from the massive social and political upheavals across the Muslim world. To borrow a counterinsurgency analogy, this is the moment when violence initially spikes before it begins a long decline. The key to forcing the overall decline – and to play the winning hand – is to continue to pour the pressure on, to be unrelenting in supporting civil society, friendly religious groups, the free press and democratic institutions across the transforming Muslim world.
They don’t hate us – Ignore the public opinion polls that show consistently low public approval ratings for the United States. For one, the Muslim world is dramatically more dynamic and diverse than any single poll or protest, and thinking of the Muslim world as a block risks making the same mistake many in the West made about the Communist world during the Cold War. Muslims are no monolith. For example, broadly speaking Muslims like and respect American culture and our economy more than they do our policies and people – and that ranges from country to country. Moreover, the political dynamics of the Middle East have been completely upended by the Arab Spring. The young – a large, dynamic group who particularly like us – led the revolutions that conservative elements have only lately taken advantage of. We have supported the democratic reform movements across the Maghreb, were instrumental in overthrowing Muammar Kaddafi, and resolutely back the opposition in Syria. These are strengths we can play from in supporting the nascent democratic movements to isolate the reactionary elements that are fighting now from a defensive position.
Things still need to change – That said, if you talk to Muslims anywhere they will probably mention two injustices that must change for the United States to regain the full respect of the Muslim world. One is the Israeli occupation. Muslims feel it as an individual affront. But they also fundamentally understand that only the United States has the power to change the status quo. The other is our terrorist detention policy. This lacuna of U.S. and international law effectively permits indefinite imprisonment of individuals undefined as combatants or criminals. Muslims see both the occupation and indefinite detention as specifically targeting them. I recognize the complex legal and political nature of these two Gordian knots. But only through extraordinary leadership and creative policy will we be able to cut them. Nevertheless they must be cut, otherwise the tinder for another eruption of exploited fury will long remain for another hate-filled provocateur to spray kerosene onto it.
Nonetheless, don’t be surprised if in the coming years these two knots are cut or loosened and another flare-up of “anti-American sentiment” still bursts forth. That will be because the anti-American crowd needs these grievances to maintain popular support for their cause. When the grievances are gone, part of their own base bleeds away. They will cast about for another rock to throw, and just as with this wretched video, they will find one (they will always find one). But it won’t mean much more than the waning of their own influence. It is the same reason the flags were burned and embassies stoned – if they don’t do something, their influence could disappear altogether.