It seems bizarre that right-wing pundits would be so desperate to use the recent anti-American protests in the Middle East—in most cases numbering only a few hundred people and (except for a peaceful Hezbollah-organized rally in Lebanon) in no cases numbering more than two or three thousand—as somehow indicative of why the United States should oppose greater democracy in the Middle East. Even more strangely, some media pundits are criticizing Arabs as being “ungrateful” for U.S. support of pro-democracy movements when, in reality, the United States initially opposed the popular movements that deposed Western-backed despots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, and remains a preeminent backer of dictatorships in the region today
What incited many of the protests was an outrageously offensive anti-Islamic movie produced by Christian extremists in California, but there is a lot more to the protests than this triggering event. For years, the Christian right and Islamic right have sought to provoke extremism and hatred as part of an effort to seemingly validate the stereotypes of the other. The attacks on two U.S. consulate offices in Benghazi, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya, are far more significant, though these appear to have been the work of Ansar al-Sharia, an extremist Islamist militia which took advantage of a protest to launch their armed assault avenging the killing of a Libyan-born al-Qaeda leader by a drone strike in Pakistan. Ironically, the United States allied with these extremists in the armed uprising against the Gaddafi regime last year.
Where uprisings against dictatorships came largely in the form of unarmed civil insurrections, radical Islamists have been severely weakened, as the popular revolts demonstrated how U.S.-backed regimes could be toppled without embracing terrorism or extremist ideologies. The need to manipulate a hysterical reaction to an obscure, albeit offensive, film is indicative of just how desperate the far-right-wing Islamists have become in asserting their relevance. Ironically, the Prophet Muhammad faced worse defamation in his lifetime but refused to curse his enemies, following the words of the Qur’an to “Repel evil with something that is better, lovelier.”
In short, anti-democratic forces in both the United States and the Arab world want to discredit the pro-democracy struggles in the Middle East: on the one hand, Republicans and others who unconditionally support pro-Western dictatorships, U.S. interventionism, and the Israeli occupation; and, on the other extreme, radical Islamists who want to counter their increasing marginality. Fortunately, the reactions by these chauvinistic forces are more a relic of the past than they are a harbinger of the future.
In thinking about an appropriate U.S. response, it is important not to repeat the mistakes of U.S. policy in recent years. It is extremely unlikely that such vitriolic anti-American protests would have taken place were it not for decades of U.S. support, during both Republican and Democratic administrations, of allied dictatorships and the Israeli occupation, not to mention the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the ongoing military strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Indeed, interviews with demonstrators in Yemen and elsewhere not surprisingly found grievances towards the United States that went far beyond the film itself.
It is particularly tragic, then, that the victims of last week’s upsurge in violence included Ambassador Christopher Stevens, one of the United States’ most knowledgeable and respected diplomats. The outpouring of grief and remorse from Libyans and others indicates that most Arabs, despite their understandable resentment of U.S. policy, recognize that there can still be good individuals representing the United States abroad.
The best thing that can be done in the memory of Stevens and other victims, then, is to redouble efforts to end U.S. support for Arab dictatorships and Israeli occupation forces. Indeed, the best defense against extremists are political systems that honor people’s demands for freedom and justice. [Abridged]
© 2012 Foreign Policy In Focus http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/09/18
Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco