The events of the last week — killings in Benghazi, attack on US and allied installations throughout the world, a marked upswing in killing of US troops and trainers by Afghan police and army trainees — have been feeding the Islamophobia of those who believe all Muslims are out to get “us” (e.g. westerners, especially the U.S.). They also have led Republicans to declare Obama’s foreign policy a failure. (Not that there isn’t much to criticize; Eliot Cohen’s diatribe has much with which I agree).
The hatred that a small minority of Muslims have for the U.S. is not unfounded. The U.S. has invaded and occupied two Muslim countries. In Afghanistan, we had good reason to avenge al-Qaeda’s attack on 9/11. Yet instead of going after bin Laden, we stayed for 10 years, reshaping the government, intensifying rather than reducing local conflicts, and leaving the Afghan people at the mercy of a hopelessly corrupt government and local warlords. Why? In Iraq, we invaded on what turned out to be the pretext of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, allowed the entire infrastructure and professional bureaucracy to be destroyed or fall apart, failed to prevent a vicious sectarian war that killed tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and displaced millions from their homes. Why did the most powerful country in the world do that? In Iraq and Libya, we argued that the US acted not from self-interested obsessions with oil or controlling the Middle East, but from generous motives of unseating vicious dictators and preventing the humanitarian crises of mass killings. Of course, now that Syria is suffering from a vicious dictator who is killing tens of thousands of civilians, including women and children, and driving Syria into the largest humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, the U.S. is doing — nothing. Why?
One does not have to be a wild conspiracy theorist to imagine that the U.S.’s actions in the Middle East and North Africa are purely self-interested, focused only on obtaining oil and attacking Israel’s foes, supporting oppressive local regimes, and having no regard for the people of the region.
In a way, it is remarkable that there is not more widespread hatred of the U.S. and suspicion of its motives. But fortunately, people in the region do have some direct contact with the U.S., through relatives who have worked in the US or been students there, through business contacts, and through popular culture, most of which portays Americans as prosperous but normal human beings with a very free, pluralist society.
But when an American pastor burns the Koran, or a film maker produces a trailer that boorishly depicts the Prophet, or a Danish cartoonist pokes fun at him, it easily fans fears that Westerners have no regard for Muslims or their beliefs, and that the dignity of the Islamic faith must be avenged.
The best way to respond to these events is NOT to over-react. Just as we prefer that Muslims not over-react to a few extremists in the US or Europe who insult their faith, so we must not over-react to a few hundred extremists in Islamic countries who act violently in response.
Of course, many will say the responses are not the same — Muslims protesting by the tens of thousands or comitting violence by the hundreds or thousands. But the context too is different. Westerners today live in open, pluralist societies with guaranteed freedom of speech. But it was not always so — just a few decades ago London was being bombed not by Muslim militants, but by Catholic terrorists fighting what they saw as Protestant occupation in Northern Ireland. Did we condemn all Catholics or all Irish then? Or did we recognize that under conditions of long-standing religious conflict and perceived occupation, a terrorist threat had emerged that required isolating, targeting, and stopping terrorists while negotiating with the broader Catholic and Irish population?
The Middle East is still fighting three simultaneous wars. One is the legacy of colonialism, still being fought over — should Islamic societies adapt and adopt to the principles of their former colonial masters, such as secularism, pluralism, and women’s emancipation? Or should they affirm their own heritage and traditions and seek to build distinctive Islamic versions of modern societies? A second is among advocates for different versions of Islam — a tolerant and limited Islamism that thrives in private and community practice but plays a limited role in government and adapts to the contemporary world, or an intolerant and fundamentalist Islam that is deeply entwined with government and insists on confining daily life within traditional interpretions of Koranic law. Yet a third is between the different schools of Islam — the main branches of Sunni and Shi’a, and such sub-branches and offshoots such as Alawite and Sufi. This latter war has become a geostrategic fault line across the region, with Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iraq, the government of Syria, and the population of Bahrain all seeking to maintain and extend local Shi’a dominance, and with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates, and Egypt seeking to maintain and extend Sunni rule.
These three wars are not fought just in the realm of political and ideological debate. In a region where regimes ruthlessly attacked their opponents, both domestic and international, and where efforts to reshape regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and now Syria only were effective because of mass protest and violent civil wars, it is hardly remarkable that these three wars should also be contested with mass protest and violence.
There is nothing the U.S. or any external actor can do to quickly or easily resolve these three wars in the region. What we can do is urge that these conflicts be fought and settled through open debate and elections and respect for basic internationally recognized human rights, not through intergroup violence. We can praise actions that are praiseworthy, and condemn those that are oppressive and violent. We can offer aid and support to those fighting for democracy, and act (as we should act in Syria) to try to forestall state-led killing and protect the innocent. But above all, we should refrain from condeming all Muslims, from characterizing terrorist threats as a general Islam vs. Western conflict. And we shall have to be patient — much as it may trouble us, these simultaneous wars in the Islamic world will continue, whatever we do.