Most of the debate over the current wave of anti-American demonstrations in the Middle East is, to be frank, pretty silly. It disregards both historical experience and basic political sense. Consider the following points:
–There have been several such waves before, notably over Salman Rushdie, the 2001 attacks, and the “Danish cartoons.” Leaving some death and destruction in their wake, these waves of demonstrations then fade away, bringing no significant political change. No amount of apology and groveling had any perceivable positive effect. This one will also end soon, but the battle for political power in each country continues, as does the decline in American credibility and influence.
–The causes of these demonstrations are not some act of Islamophobia, but the agitation of revolutionary Islamist groups that work systematically every day to build anti-Americanism, hatred of the West, and the loathing of Jews and Christians.
–As long as free speech exists in the West, there will always be events that provide pretexts for outrage. Radical Islamists will make sure that even the most obscure of events can be used. It has also been shown how things that happen in the West are deliberately distorted. For example, Danish Islamic clerics added cartoons that had nothing to do with those published by a Danish magazine to intensify anger and hatred.
–The task is not to stamp out “Islamophobia” any more than Soviet Communist or German Nazi propaganda could be dealt with by proving the West didn’t hate workers or did hate Jews. The problem is not some cultural misunderstanding or Western fault, but an ideology seeking to seize state power. That ideology and its many sympathizers and even a lot of its local enemies know that building hysterical hatred against America and the West, Christians, Jews, and Israel benefit them.
This is nothing new. I’ve seen the documents in which the U.S. government decided not to publicize the Nazi ties of some Middle Eastern leaders including Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. And the CIA decided (in 1950) not to pursue the Palestinian Arab leader Amin al-Husaini for war crimes, though he had been a close collaborator of Hitler. Why? Because it was concluded that such information might make them more, not less, popular.
–Examining the current developments, the precise situation in every country is different:
In Libya, the radical Islamists want to overturn a U.S.-sponsored government that will not give them a full Sharia state and which they see as a sell-out. The government doesn’t like the anti-American attacks, but its armed forces and administration are heavily infiltrated by radical Islamists, so it is not a dependable protector for the very Americans who put it in power.
In Tunisia, a country that is relatively secular by Arabic-speaking standards, the most extreme Islamists are especially frustrated. They are strong enough to cause trouble but not strong enough to pose a serious challenge to power. The Muslim Brotherhood controls the government but is in a serious coalition with moderates and is being cautious as a result. This makes the radicals all the more provocative. And since the Brotherhood, in part, sympathizes with them, it will not fully crack down.
In Egypt, the radicals are a front for the Muslim Brotherhood government. The Obama administration has taught them that radicalism and anti-Americanism pay, or at least cost nothing. The Brotherhood regime would like to figure out a way to prove it hates the United States without any cost. Now it knows how to do so. Let the radicals go into the embassy with no interference by the security forces, and the Obama administration will still give it $1.6 billion (including security assistance to an army now controlled by the Brotherhood!), help it buy two German submarines, plan to cancel $1 billion in debt, and make its president an honored guest at the White House. Since what the radicals do doesn’t injure the regime’s interest, it will let them do what they want. The Brotherhood will even join in the demonstrations. There’s nothing to lose.
In other places the goal is to build the revolutionary Islamist movement. And when everyone forgets about this silly little video there will be more pretexts: American support for governments including those of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Israel; anniversaries of past events; terrorists being held in prison; politicized Muslim religious festivities.
–The very numerous Islamists and lots of mainstream Muslim clerics and intellectuals stir up hatred of the West every day even when you aren’t watching. You see the demonstrations outside the embassies but you do not see the lessons in the classrooms, the sermons in the mosques, the articles on the websites, and all of the myriad ways that hatred is spread and radicalization carried out. And virtually no one dares dissent — or they would be quickly shouted down and threatened with death — except in the little ghetto enclaves of liberals and in the few more balanced newspapers and less radical television stations.
There is no end to their list of grievances. You can’t deny them an opportunity to make anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Christian propaganda because they will find one or invent one. You cannot appease someone who is totally determined never to be appeased and who prefers to advance step by step to total power, the fundamental transformation of their societies, the destruction of Israel, and the expulsion of the United States and all of its interests in the area stretching from Morocco through Indonesia
And as the Westerners waste time, ink, and conscience on “What did we do wrong?” and “Why do they hate us?” and “How can we prove we really love Muslims?” the radicals go on arming and organizing. The ultimate irony is that even if America gives them guns (Libya, Syria) and money (Egypt, Pakistan), or intervenes diplomatically on their behalf (Gaza Strip), or proclaims them the absolute best of buddies (Turkey), this will make not one iota of difference.
Imagine a capitalist trying to win over a convinced communist, or a Jew trying to convert the anger of a confirmed Nazi into friendship. At any rate, even the most clever act of contrition or politically correct statement will end up being filtered through the Middle Eastern society and the determined Islamist (and nationalist) propaganda interpretation.
Some years ago, the then-U.S. ambassador to Egypt, a man with a strong command of Arabic and a good understanding of the Middle East, wrote a beautiful September 11 anniversary declaration. It was perfectly worded, wonderfully balanced, and full of respect for Islam and the Arabs while also asserting American rights, defending American society, and pointing to the full horror of the terrorist attack. In the most polite of terms, he asked Egyptians not to accuse the CIA or Israel of having staged the assault but to understand that it had indeed been done by Osama bin Laden.
The immediate reaction was a massive wave of verbal attacks on the ambassador from the biggest newspapers and the most powerful journalists, including those with strong official backing. And this was under Mubarak. The general theme was: Who do you think you are, some kind of imperial governor, telling Egyptians what to think and do? A few brave souls defended the ambassador, but even then it was a lynch mob. The difference is, under Mubarak, it was just a blowing off of steam and an exploitation of prejudice. Nobody did anything; a generally pro-American policy continued.
In a country with a regime that generally supports U.S. interests, a bit of anti-Americanism is the “price of doing business.” In a regime opposed to the United States (and I include Turkey here), such behavior is like a hydroelectric dam generating power to keep the regime in office.
To keep the current situation in perspective, note that while a public opinion poll right now would show anger across the board in any Muslim population, the size of the demonstrations are not so large. Compare a few hundred demonstrators storming the U.S. embassy to 100,000 during the anti-Mubarak phase in Tahrir Square or the 1,000,000 who came out a few weeks later at the Muslim Brotherhood’s call.
So these waves of demonstrations are relatively small ways of advancing the ideological readiness of the masses to accept the radical Islamist groups’ programs. Of course, they benefit far more the main Islamist group, which means the Muslim Brotherhood in the Sunni Muslim world. And once the agitation is well advanced, the big groups can call out their forces and reap the I-hate-America benefits.
What Muslim leaders won’t go along with this fully, though even they feed and appease it a bit for their own benefit? Those like Mubarak who know that the problem is not some silly video but the revolutionary Islamists who want their heads. The governments left in that category include Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Iraq. One might add Afghanistan, too.
Qatar plays both sides, as does Pakistan. Syria’s dictatorship today portrays itself as a bulwark against Islamism when it was promoting revolutionary Islamism up to the moment of the civil war. Iran, Gaza, Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon are all controlled by Islamists of various varieties.
Then there are the courageous but always neglected real moderates in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, people for whom the West does pretty much nothing.
Generally speaking, Western policies are the exact opposite of what they should be. There is no sign of change in that regard.
If the Western elite doesn’t get any of this, it is necessary to educate and build a new elite. If the fashionable Middle East “experts” speak nonsense, you better find someone else to listen to. If politicians don’t get it, some who do comprehend what’s going on must be elected. If the mass media keeps missing the point, there must be an alternative mass media that can explain the truth to people.
This is not a theological dispute. This is not a therapy session. This is not a contest to say the right things so you get invited to a Washington dinner party. It is a political struggle for power in which the losers end up dead or fleeing into exile or having their diplomats shot dead.