Assessing the Arab Maze - Contemplating Recent Events in the Middle East
By Younus Abdullah Muhammad
For many American observers, the killing of their ambassador to Libya last week and the protests that followed across Muslim countries only confirmed many of the suspicions that drive anti-Islamic sentiment. The events also thrust relations with the Muslim world, which had remained a non-issue, to the forefront of the U.S. presidential election and thereby public consciousness. But perhaps more importantly, reaction to the events documented just how xenophobic and fanatic perceptions in both the West and the Islamic world remain as we try to wind down over a decade of war on terror and cooperate in the wake of the Arab Spring.
The remarkable acts against U.S. embassies indicate that the Obama administration's efforts to pivot toward Asia in order to lighten America's footprint in the Middle East may prove difficult. It should now be evident that Arab animosity is not derived solely from opposition to Arab authoritarianism and that large segments of the Muslim world view the West's sudden embrace of democracy there as a sort of counterrevolution. Now that some sentiment has subsided, it is important to reflect on some of the incidents that contextualize the week's events and their implications for going forward.
The most important takeaway should not have been the mere confirmation of Muslim radicalism. Instead onlookers should have noticed a pernicious irrationality underlying perceptions in both the West and Muslim world. The dilemma started with protests in Egypt and Yemen on Wednesday September 11, 2012 in reaction to an anti-Islamic film posted on YouTube in June. The video was translated into Arabic and aired on Egyptian television only in the days that preceded the events. As a popular Egyptian Facebook page pointed out, before such spectacle the video had a mere 500 YouTube views. Public outcry was then craftily exploited by a group of Libyan jihadists who mobilized an attack on the American consulate and by the time Americans woke up on Thursday they were inundated with news about the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The events were quickly declared as "an act of war," and the massive displays that followed only documented the ability of Al-Qaeda inspired ideologues to utilize isolated incidents to confirm their conspiratorial views and the desire of the West's powerful institutions to use them to continue a clash of civilizations.
It was almost as if the perpetrators of the attack acted on a predictable American overreaction. Paternalistic and patronizing public figures immediately fed into news coverage that portrayed a typical anti-Arab bias. Press, pundit and politicians of both the liberal and conservative stripe trumpeted an Islamic exceptionalism, the notion that that Muslim world is inherently unfit for democracy. This stereotype appeared alongside the typically unrecognized American hubris touting the U.S. aid and intervention that assisted removing Gaddafi but refusing to reminisce on its longstanding support for monarchy and dictatorship or the haphazard consequences of American occupation over the last 10 years. Instead media figureheads were awestruck by Arab rage and resentment. As CNN's Carol Cenello reiterated in clips running repetitive over half hour blocks, "How can they do this to us after we brought them democracy?" Amazingly, protests spread like wildfire across the Muslim world.
Mitt Romney pounced on the opportunity to resuscitate his dwindling campaign and quickly denounced a White House memo that criticized the anti-Muhammad movie and its makers. "It is disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn the attacks on our diplomatic missions but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks," Romney said. Unfortunately, Romney's team failed to realize that the memo was released hours before the attacks in Benghazi occurred.
Nevertheless the criticism elicited an immediate response for Obama who refused to be portrayed as a dove. "We're gonna bring those who kill our fellow Americans to justice," he repeated as he launched two Navy Destroyers and dozens of Marines to the shores of Libya, authorized unmanned drones to hum over Benghazi, deployed an FBI investigation team and then classified the democratically elected government in Egypt "a work in progress," while refusing to label it an ally.
American congressmen followed suit and called for freeze of aid to Egypt after its Islamist president Mohammed Moursi failed to criticize his public's will and immediately condemn the protests. Within hours, demonstrations spread across the region and the "experts" began wondering whether the reaction was solely about a film or perhaps had something to do with more widespread anti-Americanisms. A week of vivid imagery confirming the stereotypes of Muslims and Arabs followed.
The Collapse of Obama's Pivot from the Middle East
It is difficult to predict what will ensue but future reflections on the events will most certainly mark an official conclusion of Barack Hussein Obama's rhetorical approach to the Middle East. Four years ago, those in Washington hoped that Obama's lofty rhetoric would automatically change Muslim sentiment after eight years of direct imperialism under Bush. Obama's trip to Cairo in his first year was to reestablish relations between the West and Muslim world soften some of the anti-Americanism. However, as we near the end of his first term, direct occupation may be over in Iraq but the country is in shambles, the Afghan surge is complete but little has been achieved and western-backed Arab authoritarianism has been replaced by the rise of moderate Islamist regimes; Osama bin Laden may be dead and General Motors is alive but Al-Qaeda linked groups have established all sorts of new sanctuaries in the wake of the Arab Spring. And Public opinion polls document an approval rating for Obama in the Middle East on par with Ayman al-Zawahiri's, Bin Laden's successor. That is hardly a successful record on foreign policy.
It should be evident that Obama's course in the Middle East actually conforms to what scholar Fawaz Gerges calls a "structural, institutional continuity in American foreign policy" viewed through a lens of Israel, oil and strategic interests. The animosity visible during the week of uproar confirmed what Professor Gerges explains in his new book Obama and the Middle East as the birth of a multipolar world [where] America no longer calls the shots as before nor dominates the regional scene in the way it did after the Cold War ended. America's ability to act unilaterally and hegemonically, unconstrained by local context, has come to an end."
The Obama administration was reluctant to get involved in the Arab Spring. Some experts have attributed such reluctance to Obama's realization that the massive protests were not about America at all. A more realistic assessment would recognize that the administration hoped its distance would
Somehow preserve the status quo, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt. But by the time protests erupted in Libya, western powers recognized any failure to endorse region-wide alteration would dissolve any ability to influence the eventual outcome.
It is perhaps ironic that awareness of America's limited influence will come about as a result of events in Libya. Obama belatedly supported intervention in Libya and did so only after it became apparent that rejecting a responsibility to protect civilians there would further dampen Arab opinion of the West. However, the refusal to apply that principle in Syria since has documented that such principles only apply where they coincide with broader U.S. interests. There was certainly awareness that supporting Libyan rebels would help the West shape its new government and provide potential lucrative opportunities for foreign investment. Additionally, American planners saw humanitarian intervention as a possible means of preserving its hegemony over the region.
As soon as talk of NATO-US intervention began a heavy, covert CIA presence was evident on the ground and the Libyan Transitional National Government was greatly assisted. To cite just one example, 30-year U.S. resident Ali Tarhouni, a Libyan economics professor at Washington University, miraculously returned to assist the rebel regime equipped not only with comprehensive plans for a private central bank but while simultaneously negotiating an immediate deal with Qatar to take rebel oil to market. He and other former U.S. and European residents now play a predominant role in their U.S.-backed secular party which recently won a majority in Libya's new parliament. This represents the only real secular alternative to Islamists in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and was to be the model for counterrevolution.
Developing the oil-rich nation's new government was to provide a counterbalance to Islamist regimes rising in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. In reality, post-Gaddafi Libya was to be the Democrat's version of the "social engineering project" initiated unsuccessfully under Bush's plan for democratization at the barrel of a gun. The actual objective of liberalizing economies, civilizing populaces, and imposing regimes loyal to U.S. interests’ remains however, but this time liberals must skillfully craft a democratic Islam that preserves western dominance.
The situation should remind serious onlookers not of an actual embrace of democracy but rather as similar to the transition from direct to indirect rule that marked European colonialism and then the U.S.'s own support for decolonial authoritarianism throughout the Cold War. Today, by necessity, western powers have been forced to embrace a role for an Islamism they helped suppress for decades and must be careful to portray accepting support for the choice that accompanies democracy while intervening to make sure that choices inside Islamic democracy produce outcomes that sustain the present international order. That social engineering project has been only partially successful and, if decoded, the massive protests that raged across the Muslim world may prove precursors for what is to come.
The Economic Dimension
Dominant coverage of the protests may have assisted in dwarfing a seemingly unrelated story that may cause mush more turmoil in the months ahead. On Friday September 14, U.S. Federal Reserve chairman
Ben Bernanke announced another round of quantitative easing, or QE3. Such policy will ultimately insert billions of new U.S. dollars into the international economy and exert tough inflationary pressure on the economies of the developing world. The last round of quantitative easing (QE2) occurred just before the Arab Spring. While mostly unrecognized, the immediate inflation it spurred in staple food prices across the globe was a significant factor in sparking the initial protests of the Arab Spring.
This third round of quantitative easing may prove particularly damaging for it comes on the back of international global droughts that already pushed the price of food up 10% in July. Add that reality to QE3's inflationary pressure, which may prove particularly turbulent if speculative investment flows into the Middle East, and the conditions for a food crisis followed by massive future protests are set for the future as well. Attach that awareness to a widely reported study showing that Americans throw away 40% of their food each year and it becomes quite evident that yet another round of Arab rage lingers on the horizon. If that occurs, publics will blame not only America but the moderate Islamists they claim to support as a preference to ultraconservatives.
The ramifications are potentially dangerous for America's economy as well and not just because its central bank is running out of ways to stimulate the domestic economy. The Obama administration has continued to emphasize that, "the tide of war is receding" in the Middle East specifically because they hope that economic investment and growth there can help prevent a return to global recession. That is why after promising 16 months ago to relieve Egypt of $1 billion of its 3$ billion U.S. debt, the U.S. and Egypt recently neared a deal that will make debt forgiveness contingent on a $4.8 billion dollar loan from the IMF. U.S. representatives have sought to modify the billion in flat debt forgiveness into "debt swaps" - where debt would roll over and go to training and infrastructure projects to help liberalize the Egyptian economy.
President Moursi has been supportive so far. His recent meeting with representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and leaders of 50 U.S. multinationals was classified by the New York Times as, "one of the largest trade delegations ever." His party originally rejected IMF loans on the grounds that they were essentially a violation of the country's sovereignty but he has acquiesced under deteriorating economic conditions. Adopting such measures will probably not prove popular with Arab publics. The liberal activists that played a predominant role in the Arab Spring protested earlier efforts to sign World Bank- IMF loans and the working class population has already lived through neoliberal reforms induced under Mubarak. These reforms sent massive profits to the elite, further suppressed worker's rights and wages and even empowered many wealthy members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many forget massive Tunisian protests that followed IMF structural adjustment in 1983. These protests eventually spread to Algeria and Morocco. The non-resource rich Tunisian government is seeking assistance with advanced liberalization as well. However, the economic background suggests future turmoil that could advance animosities and thereby extremism in both the West and Muslim world.
An Ultra-Right Wing Reaction
And so, with the Obama Doctrine endangered, right wing commentary filled the void with tough talk and a heightened sense of extremism. The mainstream media's coverage led many Americans to question
Obama's embracement of the Arab Spring. Fouad Ajami called protests in 20 Muslim countries, "a grand personal failure for Barack Obama and a case for hubris undone." Right wing Islamophobes boldly put forth their proposition to deliberately sabotage any and all collaboration with Muslims in the Middle East. Their sweeping generalizations forced Obama to show his own right wing side and set the path for further resentment. rage and conflict.
In the days that followed his initial criticisms, the Romney camp lessened their attacks on Obama's response but continued to reveal a neoconservative perspective that would mark their candidate's presidency. "A strong America is essential to shape events," he said while his foreign policy director explained that Romney believes in, "peace through strength" - a slogan that uncannily resembles the Orwellian euphemism that 'peace is war.'
The Obama campaign would not be outdone in an election season. "No act of terrorism will go unpunished," he remarked on the campaign stop in Colorado, obviously not noticing that he was essentially returning to the rhetoric of his predecessor who waged an unsuccessful global war on terror that Obama worked so hard to rebrand as a war only on Islamic extremism. It is important here to mention that for years America has been waging world war on an abstract tactic while refusing to identify a specific definition for the term under international law for fear that a consensus definition may label U.S. foreign policy as the largest terror network in the world. Irrationality certainly dominates the day.
Publics in the Muslim world will certainly be made all too aware of these contradictions in the coming period, when Salafi jihadi propaganda skillfully selects from a fresh array of new imperialist and Islamophobic quotations. For example, Ayan Hirsi Ali, vehement anti-Muslim bigot, was granted Newsweek's front page for her story, "Muslim Rage - How I Survived it - How we can end it." The title was emblazoned on top images of irate Muslim protesters. Yet her solution pulls more so from the pages of right wing fascism than the libertarianism she claims to uphold. It is the antithesis to the liberal's indirect neocolonialism. Her solution? Rather than accept Islamist regimes and democracy the West should simply orchestrate the entire region's failure, or as ancient anti-Arabism Bernard Lewis put it to CNN's Fareed Zakaria, "let the region lapse into insignificance."
For Ayan Hirsi Ali and the millions of Americans and Europeans that sympathize with her, the new Islamist regimes, "will begin to fail as soon as they set about implementing their philosophy: strip women of their rights, murder homosexuals, constrain the freedom of conscience and religion of non-Muslims, hunt down dissidents, persecute religious minorities, pick fights with foreign powers, even powers such as the U.S. that offered them friendship." Instead this widely popular perspective argues that Muslims should be made to suffer through economic hardship. "After the disillusion and bitterness will come a painful lesson," she writes. "In one or two or three decades we will see the masses in these countries take to the streets - and perhaps call for American help to liberate them from the governments they elected."
The sad thing isn't so much that this argument ignores that Islamist regimes have thus far rejected any ultraconservatism but that her position is an absolute rejection of the principles that underlie support for freedom and the democratic process. She and those like her fail to recognize that in an interconnected world of globalization, failure in the lands of the Arab Spring could cause failure in all nations. Hers is a position not unlike the bigoted, ultraconservative one that preceded previous world wars. She concludes, "If we take the long view, America and other western countries can help make this happen in the same way we helped bring about the demise of the Soviet Union." It is as if to suggest that America won the Cold War through non-intervention, as if to ignore overt and covert wars that to only killed millions in places like Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa but that also birthed the modern jihadi movement in Afghanistan in the 1980's. It is important to recognize that Newsweek, CNN and other major media outlets represent the mainstream and so another lesson unlearned from the last few weeks is that extremist influence is growing all over the western world.
Hope for Change
Some of the reaction to the controversy provides reason for optimism however. It is perhaps cliché to state these days that Clinton gets it, but the work of Hillary Clinton's State Department actually provided a sensible voice of balanced rationalism. Clinton was the first to remark that, "The U.S. government had absolutely nothing to do with this video," but she also emphasized that, "we absolutely reject its content and messages. But there is no justification - none at all- for responding to this video with violence." She went on to explain American values and longstanding commitment to freedom of religion. And while the mainstream press concentrated on vitriolic statements from Obama and Romney juxtaposed against images of angry Muslims in the streets, Clinton's remarks led to a few mostly unacknowledged benefits.
Mohammad Moursi cancelled planned Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations on Friday that could have sent tens of thousands into the streets. Moursi's salafist counterparts of the Al-Nour party called for calm as well stating, "We appreciate and value... the statement from the U.S. embassy that condemned the insult on Islam and its Prophets." Morocco's new Foreign Minister Saad-Edine al Othmani offered condolences and emphasized his country's, "clear position against violence and against any confrontation as a way of solving problems." Even Ansar al-Shariah, the group blamed for the killing in Libya, renounced violence. Sadly, the mainstream media covered little of it and refused to emphasize that protests thereafter remained predominantly nonviolent. It is hopeful that in coming month’s rational discussion between Middle East populaces and their political leaders will contribute to advancing a new, pluralistic Middle East.
Rather than seek to sabotage Arab democracy by forcing conflict with salafists or promoting elitist economic models, Americans should reflect instead on the development of their own democracy. many of the debates playing out now in the Muslim world hearken to the early birth of the American republic: to James's Madison's tirade against "mob rule", to the Federalist Papers argument for a strong national government, to questions about the role of religion. Likewise the struggle of minorities, women, labor, and dissidents played out over more than 200 years. Arab democracy will certainly differ from America's but faith in freedom and liberty is rooted in an inalienable belief in when people everywhere and anywhere are given the freedom to choose they will choose to check the irrational tyranny of both government and fringe extremists. If anything, it was a refusal to apply that belief across the board that scarred America's own development. Americans cannot and should not want to shape events in the Muslim world anymore than they would like others to dictate the terms of their existence. Americans would be much better off if they sought genuine dialogue with the Muslim world. The rhetorical approach alongside efforts at social engineering will fail. All efforts to manipulate Arab publics will only provoke more rage.
The Obama administration's immediate response to the protests was to declare, "It is a response not to U.S. policy, not to the administration, not to the U.S. people but it is a reaction to a video." That denial continues unto today, but we will soon learn that coating reality with rhetoric only serves as a temporary Band-Aid. Deceptive measures to manipulate the postmodern Middle East will fail first in the Muslim world and then at home where America's own extremists lurk in the shadows waiting to wage World War III.
As world leaders arrived in New York for the UN General Assembly meeting this week it was telling that Hillary Clinton and not Barack Obama was front and center. While Hillary will remain engaged throughout the week, the president was first seen Monday on the View, a popular television talk show that reaches the intellectual level of gossip. Obama spent Tuesday in front of the UN speaking with discriminatory application of principle, warmongering against Iran, and threatening economic isolation of the Middle East and more patronizing rhetoric that is sure to fall flat with populations in the Muslim world. Yet, Secretary of State Clinton also runs the risk of using rhetoric to placate angry Arab publics while initiating actual policy with the potential for disaster in the long term. In an interview with Jim Lehrer at PBS before Egyptian presidential elections she warned, "We are always better off on the side of democracy but we have to keep our eyes wide open... it wasn't long ago, during the Cold War, that if somebody was elected, somebody we didn't like, we took some action." That call is not at all different from Ayan Hirsi Ali's.
Today it seems obvious that American efforts at social engineering in the Middle East are set to continue. As Senator John Kerry explained it, "There will be moments of danger and moments of setback and confrontation but we have to continue to push our interests, and you can't retreat." As the FBI team arrived in Libya, Hillary Clinton parroted Obama, "we will not rest until the people who orchestrated the attack are found and punished," she said. The U.S. is pressuring governments all over the Muslim world to crack down on salafists. The Libyan Army expelled members of Ansar al-Shariah from its headquarters over the weekend. But as Mustafa Abu Shegour, Libya's next prime minister put it, attacking salafist groups is not the best way to deal with the threat of extremism. "These groups are small segments of society. They grow in an oppressive environment and we don't want to mimic the environment in which they were created," he said.
CNN's Carol Cenello kicked off Wednesday's Morning Edition with quotes from the presidential candidates about American football's replacement referees. "Many Americans don't care about politics," she explained, "but they all care about NFL football." The issues around the protests will continue to wane from public consciousness over the next few weeks but unconscious stereotypes will remain and a growing global irrationality will likely sustain. We would do much better were we to reflect on the fact that Libyan Prime Minister Abu Shegour's reference to the environment that he stressed created extremism is not limited to the environment of the Gaddafi regime but includes an environment the West helped create and sustain throughout the Muslim world through its suppression of freedom and support for authoritarianism. When Americans are ready to recognize that reality they will realize the true reason so many Muslims show up to protest movies and cartoons.
Younus Abdullah Muhammad is an American Muslim and Master of International Affairs. He is presently incarcerated in the U.S. Federal Prison system. To contact him or assist his family please emails firstname.lastname@example.org.