Flash Point
By Bobby Ghosh
September 24 in 2012

A chain of violence from Cairo to Benghazi raises the question, Did the Arab Spring make the Middle East more dangeros?

The violence looked spontaneous; it was anything but. Instead it was the product of a sequence of provocations, some mysterious, some obvious. It seemed to start in the U.S., then became magnified in Egypt and was brought to a deadly and sorrowful climax in Libya— all on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. The cast of characters in this tragedy included a shadowy filmmaker, a sinister pastor in Florida, an Egyptian-American Islamophobe, an Egyptian TV host, politically powerful Islamist extremist groups and, just possibly, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Libya. The instigators and executors didn’t work in concert; they probably didn’t even know they were in cahoots. Indeed, some of them would sooner die than knowingly help the others’ causes. Nonetheless, the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was the result of a collective effort, with grievous consequences.

As the Obama Administration struggles to contain the fallout of the killings — and even to piece together exactly what happened — there’s an increasing apprehension that this attack may herald a new genre of Middle East crisis. The Arab Spring replaced the harsh order of hated dictators with a flowering of neophyte democracies. But these governments—with weak mandates, ever shifting loyalties and poor security forces—have made the region a more chaotic and unstable place, a place more susceptible than ever to rogue provocateurs fomenting violent upheavals, usually in the name of faith.

Collectively, these hatemongers form a global industry of outrage, working feverishly to give and take offense, frequently over religion, and to ignite the combustible mix of ignorance and suspicion that exists almost as much in the U.S. as in the Arab world. Add to this combination the presence of opportunistic jihadist groups seeking to capitalize on any mayhem, and you can begin to connect the dots between a tawdry little film and the deaths of four American diplomats.

Start with the filmmaker behind Innocence of Muslims, a purported biopic of the Prophet Muhammad that, according to some accounts, sparked the demonstrations in Cairo and Benghazi. He goes by the name Sam Bacile, but almost nothing is known about him. Or even whether he exists. Some reports suggest the name is a pseudonym.

There have been other films about the Prophet, but since Islamic traditions forbid any depiction of Muhammad, Muslim filmmakers tend to focus instead on his contemporaneous followers and foes. In the 1977 film The Message, for instance, Muhammad remains always off camera and is never heard, but other historical figures (including his uncle Hamza, played by Anthony Quinn) address him.

The film made by Bacile makes no such concessions to Muslim sensibilities. Indeed, showing Muhammad is the film’s only innovation. The accusations it makes about him are rehashed from old Islamophobic tropes; the script is clunky and the acting high-school-ish. The movie was apparently made last year, and although the filmmaker claimed to have spent $5 million on it, the production values suggest a much more modest budget. Before going into hiding in the wake of the violence in Cairo and Benghazi, Bacile (or someone pretending to be him) defiantly told the Associated Press that he regards Islam as “a cancer, period.”

The film was screened in Hollywood early this year but made no waves whatsoever. Bacile then posted a 14-min. series of clips on YouTube in July; that too got no traction. But it caught the attention of Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-American Copt in Washington, D.C., known for incendiary anti-Muslim statements and blog posts. In early September, Sadek stitched together clips of the film and posted them on an Arabic-language blog. He also sent a link to the post in a mass e-mail. In the meantime, the film had attracted a singularly unattractive fan: Terry Jones, pastor of a church in Gainesville, Fla., who is notorious for burning the Koran and performing other Islamophobic stunts. He promoted the film online and added fuel to the flames by posting his own YouTube video, calling for the “trial” of the Prophet, for fraud and other supposed crimes. Jones’ video features an effigy wearing a demon mask and hanging from a noose.

Soon after that, the thread was picked up in Egypt by a TV host every bit as inflammatory and opportunistic as Jones: Sheik Khaled Abdallah of the Islamist satellite-TV station al-Nas. Supported by unknown backers, the channel traffics in demagoguery and hatemongering. Abdallah is its star. In previous broadcasts, he has called the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring “worthless kids” and condemned newspapers that don’t support his views. But he reserves his harshest criticism for the country’s Coptic Christians, who make up about a tenth of the population.

For Abdallah, the fact that a Copt was promoting an anti-Muhammad film endorsed by the Koran-burning pastor was too much. On his Sept. 8 show, he broadcast some of the clips, now dubbed in Arabic. In one scene that was aired, “Muhammad” declares a donkey the “first Muslim animal” and asks the creature if it likes the ladies. Abdallah’s show, complete with the offensive video, was also posted on YouTube, and it has attracted over 300,000 views.

Abdallah’s show was a dog whistle to the Salafists, a fundamentalist Islamic movement that makes up the second largest faction in the Egyptian parliament. For months, organized Salafist groups had been protesting in small numbers in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, calling for the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik currently in a North Carolina prison, convicted for plotting a series of bombings and assassinations in the 1990s. They were joined on Sept. 11 by prominent leaders like Nader Bakar of the Salafist Nour Party and Mohammed al-Zawahiri, brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s longtime deputy and now head of al-Qaeda.

The leaders had left by the time the mob attacked the embassy and took down the U.S. flag, while Egyptian security forces, hopelessly outnumbered, mostly just watched. The crowd eventually dispersed. Afterward, some Salafist leaders said the flag was snatched by members of a soccer-hooligan group known as the Ahli Ultras.

Not far from Egypt’s western border, in the Libyan city of Benghazi, on the anniversary of the 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center, the Muhammad movie had provoked another mob of several hundred mostly Salafist protesters to gather at the U.S. consulate. Many witnesses have since fingered a group known as Ansar al-Shari‘a for organizing the protests; the group denies it.

Ambassador Stevens, visiting from Tripoli, was an unlikely target. He had worked closely with the leaders of the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi and was well liked by most Libyans. But some reports now suggest that lurking amid the mob was a more malevolent force: members of the local chapter of al-Qaeda.

Only the previous day, Ayman al-Zawahiri had issued a new videotaped statement from his hideout, confirming the death of his Libyan deputy Abu Yahya al-Libi in a June U.S. drone strike and calling for him to be avenged. Reports from Benghazi say armed jihadists infiltrated the protesting crowds. An al-Qaeda-affiliated group known as the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades is suspected to have carried out the attack. The White House was still scrambling a day after the attack to piece together what happened and whether it could have been prevented. A senior Administration official said the Benghazi attack was “complex” and “well organized” but would not comment on reports that it was planned in advance by militants using the protest as a diversion.

The terrorists struck twice: one set of grenades forced consulate staff to flee the main building while a second targeted the building to which they were evacuated. The attack did not appear spontaneous or amateurish. Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith and two others were killed. The ambassador was declared dead from smoke inhalation.

If Muslims responded violently to every online insult to their faith, there would be riots in Cairo and Benghazi every day of the year. The Internet is full of malefactors who constantly say, write or broadcast appalling things about Islam. (And there are plenty of Muslim Web nuts who vilify other belief systems.) It is the outrage machine, manned by people like Bacile, Jones and Abdallah, who push matters into anger overdrive. They know the outcome of their efforts will be violence and subversion. These men are enabled by media — mainstream and fringe alike — that give them air to bloviate and a political culture that makes little effort to take away their oxygen.

Before the Arab Spring, this chain of events would likely have been stopped early. Dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Gaddafi either blocked Internet access to prevent their people from seeing inflammatory material (among other things) or used their security agencies to crack down on protests long before they could reach critical mass.

But democratically elected governments don’t have recourse to such draconian methods. Still unused to power, they are unsure how to deal with angry demonstrations, especially when they are mounted by powerful religious or political groups. The tendency has been to look the other way and hope the demonstrators run out of steam.

It doesn’t always work. The Salafists in Libya were emboldened by the failure of the government in Tripoli to crack down on them when they recently desecrated Sufi shrines. The Minister of the Interior (he has since resigned) said he didn’t want to risk the lives of his security forces in order to apprehend the culprits. “The Libyan authorities have been irresponsibly lazy in confronting this threat,” says Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “They have a choice to make. Are they going to be a country connected to the outside world, or are they going to allow a small number of people in their midst to make that impossible?”

At least Libya’s President Mohamed el-Magariaf swiftly apologized to all Americans for the attack on the consulate and promised to hunt down those responsible: 24 hours after the attack on the embassy in Cairo, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy had not issued a similar statement. When he finally did, he seemed less concerned with what had happened at the embassy and more with the affront to the Prophet, which he condemned “in the strongest terms.” The Muslim Brotherhood, on its Twitter feed, condemned the Benghazi attack but made no mention of the one in Cairo.

The Egyptian government’s almost insouciant response, hardly in keeping with the country’s status as the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, will rankle both President Obama and his domestic critics. In the hours after the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, Republicans piled on the President, questioning the wisdom of his outreach to Islamist political forces like the Brotherhood. Even political allies were moved to wonder whether Egypt could really be a reliable friend.

Morsy’s silence has been interpreted by Egyptian analysts as a reluctance to prod the Salafists, whose help he may need to get anything done in parliament. But other political figures were equally pusillanimous. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent liberal secular leader, tweeted, “Humanity can only live in harmony when sacred beliefs and the prophets are respected.” That kind of timidity empowers not only the Salafists but also instigators like Abdallah and his American counterparts.

For an understanding of what can happen when the industry of outrage is allowed to function without check, look at Pakistan, where hatemongers continually stoke anger not only against faraway foreigners but just as frequently — and with more deadly results — against their own people. Minorities like the Ahmadiyya sect are an easy target for extremist TV hosts like Aamir Liaquat Hussain, a former Minister of Religious Affairs. On his show broadcast by Geo TV in 2008, guest scholars declared the Ahmadiyyas “deserving to be murdered for blasphemy.” Soon after, two members of the sect were killed. Hussain was forced to apologize and leave Geo but has since returned to the station.

Other Pakistani provocateurs target the Shi‘ite community, which makes up 10% to 20% of the population. Militant groups with links to political parties as well as the country’s all-powerful military are frequently behind violent attacks against Shi‘ites. Criticism of such groups is often denounced by extremist preachers as blasphemy, which is punishable by death under Pakistani law.

When Salman Taseer, the governor of the country’s largest province and an outspoken critic of the blasphemy law, was killed by his bodyguard last year, the murderer was declared a hero by many. Munir Ahmed Shakir, the influential imam of Karachi’s giant Sultan Mosque, is just one of many who have pronounced as “non-Muslims” all those seeking to amend the blasphemy laws.

The new normal in Egypt and Libya is not as perilous as in Pakistan. Not yet. But as the fledgling democracies of the Middle East struggle to cope with the genies unleashed by the Arab Spring, you can count on the industry of outrage to work overtime to drag the Middle East in that direction.

Monday, Sep. 24, 2012
A Movie Designed to Provoke Does
By James Poniewozik

In a saner world, the trailer for Innocence of Muslims would get no response other than being seen as an example of terrible filmmaking. The 14-min. video, purporting to be excerpted from a movie propagandizing present-day Muslims and the life of Muhammad, is confoundingly awful, filled with incongruous accents, ludicrous dialogue and green screen so bad that the actors appear to be floating in the air. But we do not live in that saner world, and suddenly a risible piece of cinematic trolling posted to YouTube weeks ago has become deadly serious. The movie was allegedly made by a real estate developer who calls Islam a "cancer," though reports swiftly cast the filmmaker's identity in doubt. It begins with a homemade-video-quality story involving attacks on Egyptian Christians by Muslims (many of them with thick New York accents), which are then tied to a version of Islam's creation that paints Muhammad as a depraved, unstable sadist. Played by an actor reminiscent of a less talented Ashton Kutcher, Muhammad sneers and snivels through a slanted retelling of the founding stories of Islam. At the trailer's end, he swings a bloody sword, his clothing seemingly stained with grape juice, and cries, "Every non-Muslim is an infidel! Their lands, their women, their children are our spoils!" before being engulfed in a fireball. (The cast and crew have released a statement disavowing knowledge of the film's intent and claiming references to Islam were dubbed in later.)

The film is effective if you assume its sole purpose is to stir trouble, and it's hard to imagine another one. If it were actually meant to win over Westerners, its poor production and inscrutability would be crippling; if it were meant to persuade Muslims, it wouldn't be so transparently provoking. If only we were able to boggle at it and move on. Instead, we cringe, as provocateurs and violent extremists each do their best to vindicate the other's worst beliefs.

Flash Point






カイロやベンガジのデモの引き金になった映画だと言われているが、預言者ムハンマドの伝記映画と称する「無邪気なイスラム教徒(Innocence of Muslims)」の黒幕たる映画製作者から始めよう。製作者は通称サム・バシルだが、実体はほとんど知られていない。また現存しているかどうかもわからないし、偽名だという者もいる。









前日に、アイマン・アル・ザワヒリは隠れ家から新しいビデオ声明を発し、6月の米国無人機爆撃で彼の腹心アブ・ウアヒヤ・アル・リビが死亡したことを伝え、報復を呼びかけた。ベンガジからの報告では、武装したジハード戦士が抗議する群衆の中に潜入していたという。囚われのオマル・アブドゥル・ラーマン旅団(the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigade)というアルカイダ系グループが、襲撃を実行したとの疑惑がもたれている。ホワイトハウスは襲撃の翌日にはまだ、事件の全貌と事前に防ぐ手立てはなかったのかを、早急に解明しようとしていた。政府高官は、ベンガジの襲撃は「手が込んでいて」「非常に組織立っていた」と言っているが、過激派が事前に計画し、抗議を隠れ蓑にして襲撃を行ったというコメントまでは言っていないようだ。攻撃は2度行われた。最初の手りゅう弾攻撃で領事館スタッフは本館から避難し、2度目は避難先の建物が狙われた。攻撃は自然発生的なものではなく手慣れたものだった。スティーブンス、大使館職員のショーン・スミス、そして他の2人職員が死亡した。大使は煙を吸い込んだ結果死亡したと言う。








憎悪を掻き立てる活動家グループが何の歯止めもなく機能するなら、たとえばパキスタンのように、遠い他国の民衆だけでなく、頻繁に、しかもさらに悲惨な形で、自国の民衆に対して、扇動者たちは絶え間なく怒りを植え付ける。アフマディー教団のような少数派は、元宗教大臣アーミル・リアクアト・フセインのような過激なTVホストの標的に容易になってしまう。2008年にGeo TV局の自分の番組で、ゲストの学者たちが「アフマディー教団は神を冒涜した罰で殺されて当然だ」と発言した。その後すぐに同教団の信徒2人が殺された。フセインは謝罪を余儀なくされ、Geo局を止めたが、その後復帰している。




The Video: A Movie designed to provoke does
もっと正常な世界なら、「無邪気なイスラム教徒(Innocence of Muslims)」の予告編はひどい映画の見本だと無視されていただろう。14分のビデオは、現代のイスラム教徒とモハンマドの生涯を宣伝する映画からの抜粋だと言われているが、とても観賞に耐えるものではなく、不自然なアクセントが耳障りだ。意味不明の会話と幼稚なスクリーンは醜悪で、俳優たちはまるで空中遊泳しているように見える。しかし我々はそれほど正常な世界に生きてはいない。数週間前に挑発を目的としてYouTubeに投稿された馬鹿げたフィルムは、悲惨極まる事態を引き起こした。



September Surprise
By Michael Scherer
Monday, Sep. 24, 2012

Romney's first response to the Libya attack was to attack Obama. Was that wise?

Mitt Romney began the 2012 anniversary of Sept. 11 by calling for a suspension of politics. "There is a time and a place for that, but this day is not it," he said at a morning National Guard gathering in Reno, Nev.

Just hours later, Romney could no longer resist. Angered by YouTube clips of an offensive video that mocks the Prophet Muhammad, mobs had attacked diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt. U.S. diplomats in Cairo, hoping to stem local furies, had issued a statement hours earlier: "The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims--as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."

Romney saw an opportunity to tie his claim that Barack Obama apologizes for American greatness to the news cycle. At 10:09 p.m. E.T., before the full death toll was known, the Romney campaign sent an embargoed e-mail to reporters. "I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi," Romney wrote. "It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks."

In the hours that followed, the news got worse. The U.S. casualties in Libya grew to four, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. The White House made it clear that it had not approved the Cairo memo and condemned the events.

By Wednesday morning, stern condemnations from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for swift justice competed with a hastily called press conference by Romney to explain his late-night barb. "The statement that came from the Administration was a statement which is akin to apology," Romney said, standing his ground even as he acknowledged that the White House had neither authored nor defended the embassy press release. "I think [it] was a severe miscalculation," he said.

Presidential elections usually turn on big issues and broad trends, but sometimes it's the unexpected and unimaginable things that matter. What top Obama and Romney political strategists fear most in the final stretch of the 2012 campaign is the stuff they can't see coming--a terrorist attack, an economic crisis, a deadly weather event or a madman's rampage. No one could have predicted that an inflammatory attempt at moviemaking would imperil U.S. interests in the Arab world or lead to the murder of American diplomats. But when it happened, the contrast was striking, even if the full impact of the developing story remains unknown.

While Romney explained his political barbs Wednesday morning, Obama made no mention of politics or his opponent in his statement following the attacks. From the Rose Garden, he spoke only of the dead, of his personal outrage, of the greatness of America's freedoms and his plan for a national response. "Make no mistake," Obama said. "We will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people." Later that day, Obama took his shot in an interview with CBS. "Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," he said.

Romney begins this chapter at a distinct disadvantage, already roughly 12 points behind Obama in polls that ask voters about foreign policy judgment. He is also fighting off criticism of his failure to mention the U.S. troops or Afghanistan in his Tampa convention speech. Indeed, the tangible policy differences between Romney and Obama have sometimes been hard to discern. Romney has knocked Obama for not being tougher on Iran but has yet to lay out major policy alternatives. Like Obama, Romney supports a transfer of control over Afghanistan to local forces by 2014, but unlike Obama, Romney says he will not call that time frame a fixed timetable. Romney criticized "mission creep and mission muddle" after Obama authorized a NATO bombing of Libya but then praised the killing of the nation's tyrant, Muammar Gaddafi. "It's about time," he said.

The early reviews of Romney's reaction to the embassy attacks were not glowing. Former New Hampshire Senator John E. Sununu, a Republican, told MSNBC that Romney "probably should have waited" to release the statement. Others were more critical. "It is a natural product of the election, but it is the worst possible reaction to what happened," said Anthony Cordesman, a pillar in the Republican foreign policy establishment who has advised Senator John McCain. "We need to be extremely cautious about rushing out and politicizing it."

In the final weeks of a campaign of this scale, there are very few moments that really count. But when they matter, they can reshape the race. A day that began with Romney calling for national unity before politics in the face of terrorism ended with just the opposite. Voters will now get to decide if the shift revealed Romney as a statesman displaying the courage of his convictions or a politician seeking advantage in a time of turmoil.

September Surprise











A Moment for Moderates
By Fareed Zakaria
Monday, Oct. 01, 2012

If pluralism and radical Islam have a future, stronger voices of tolerance are neede.

Watching the protests and associated violence spreading across the Muslim world in recent days, I couldn't help thinking, Where are you now, Wael Ghonim? Ghonim is, of course, the former marketing executive for Google who was catapulted onto the global stage in 2011 as one of the organizers of the opposition to Egypt's dictatorship. He became the hopeful face of the Arab Spring--young, hip, modern and passionate in the cause of freedom.

Where is he, and the thousands like him, now that freedom is under assault in Egypt again? Over the past few weeks, mobs have gathered to demand the death of a filmmaker--not really a filmmaker but a bigot who made a crude Internet video satirizing the Prophet Muhammad. It provided a pretext that radical Islamists in Egypt pounced on to advance their cause. But whatever the trumped-up origins of the protests, the question facing a number of newly minted democracies from Libya to Afghanistan is clear: With freedom challenged by the violence of mobs and the intolerance of masses, will anyone stand up to defend it?

The answer is a cautious and tentative yes. Ghonim, it turns out, has been present. He has been posting comments on his Facebook page denouncing the violence from Cairo, where he runs a nonprofit focused on education. Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei, former presidential candidates, have also spoken out, as have prominent clerics in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Tunisia's President has deplored the violence. In Libya, the elected government has been outspoken in condemning the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others and denouncing the extremists responsible.

Over the past decade, I have often despaired about Muslim moderates, describing them as cowardly and defensive--too scared to speak out for their principles for fear that they will be branded bad Muslims. But in several countries where the protests took place, many have criticized the extremists and urged people to voice their opposition to the video in peaceful ways. This is new. Radical Islamists, rampaging mobs, drummed-up outrage, weak leaders and violence--these are familiar aspects of the modern Middle East. What is new is that there are some voices of sanity, and these voices are authentic. The moderates are quieter than the extremists, but that is true almost everywhere.

Think back over the past decade. The story seldom varies: a Westerner, or a handful of them, does something that attacks Islam (mishandles a Koran, attacks the Prophet). The episode is virtually unknown until radical Islamists publicize it to whip up frenzy, hatred and intolerance. Crowds gather outside U.S. embassies, and violence ensues. The regime disperses the crowds with tear gas and bullets. Order is restored, often by brute force, but the rage endures.

This time, however, many of the Arab regimes are no longer dictatorships, and their crowd-control methods are different. In Cairo, Tripoli and Tunis, governments are trying to navigate between listening to their people and guiding them.

Consider Egypt's President, Mohamed Morsy, who initially condemned just the movie and only later, after President Obama called him, the violence as well. Morsy is a radical who has spouted nasty conspiracy theories about the U.S. He won the presidency narrowly, largely because Egypt's secular and moderate vote split among several candidates. So he is pandering to his base while trying to act with some degree of responsibility as President. In other words, he's behaving like an elected politician. And that is good news of sorts.

Both the symbolism and substance matter. When al-Qaeda urges violence--as it did--the man responding is increasingly neither a military dictator nor a tribal prince but an elected leader. In Egypt, he is the leader of the region's most powerful Islamic political movement. The latter is likely to be far more persuasive in making Egyptians--and Muslims everywhere--understand that tolerance must become a core Islamic value in the modern world.

Complicating this picture is timing: these protests have come at a crucial moment in the Middle East. The Arab Spring of 2011 has been followed by economic collapse, political dysfunction and, in many places, the rise of political Islam. In hard times, it is easy to fan the flames of hatred and intolerance. But it is precisely in these hard times that modernity and freedom need to be promoted and defended. And they must be defended by those who have gained the most from democracy: the Islamic political parties. Freedom of speech has meant that members of Islamist parties in places like Egypt and Tunisia can finally express themselves without fear of being killed. Will they now offer those same protections to others?

Few in the Arab world are defending the kind of largely unalloyed freedom of speech with the vigor of those in the West. But it is important to remember that it took the West a long time to embrace broad freedom of expression, especially when it involved attacks on core religious beliefs and symbols. Blasphemy was severely punished even in Britain--thought to be the most liberal country in Europe--in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Even in the U.S., public tolerance for attacks on religion was low until recently. In their recent book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and David Campbell write, "In round numbers ... about two-thirds of [American] churchgoers who came of age before 1945 rejected free expression for antireligious views, whereas about two-thirds of churchgoers who came of age after 1965 tolerate such views." Egyptians are debating their new constitution, and many parties are advocating the adoption of blasphemy laws. If this is the path Egypt follows, it will be a blow to the country's progress and a setback for the already-too-slow modernization of Islam. Muslim countries need more tolerance, not less.

As people watch the crowds and the violence, they must surely be thinking, Why is there so much anger in the Arab world? In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, many serious scholars and journalists, myself included, wrote extensively about the stagnation and repression in Arab countries that had produced bitterness over their failings, anger with the West and a search for a solution in Islam. The U.N.'s Arab Human Development Report documented the region's backwardness. All those conditions--economic dysfunction, illiteracy, female subjugation--still exist. Indeed, some have gotten worse. But some conditions have improved in many Arab societies. There is greater openness, more freedom and some kind of fragile democracy.

That means that as Muslim societies begin to breathe, we are hearing a diversity of voices. Many are nasty, intolerant and bigoted. But others, like those of Libyans Mohamed el-Magariaf and Mahmoud Jibril, are moderate and modern. It's not clear who will win. The Arab world could witness the rise of illiberal democracies--places where people vote but individual freedoms suffer--or democracy and liberty could slowly reinforce each other.

And what about the U.S.? Did America cause this turmoil? The argument made by Mitt Romney and several other Republicans--that these protests are a consequence of Obama's policies--utterly misses the point. Muslim anger has been building for decades and stems from deep internal causes. Does anyone think Ronald Reagan's policies caused the death threats against Salman Rushdie? Some long-standing U.S. strategies do play into the grand Muslim narrative--for example, the decades-long support for Arab dictators and monarchs, policies toward the Palestinians and concern about oil supplies. But the frustrations being unleashed in the region today are a response to much deeper forces as the Arab Spring has opened up these cultures and people have discovered their own politics. Egyptians once had the freedom to denounce only the President of the United States. Now they can denounce their own President. This internal power struggle, not U.S. policy or White House rhetoric, is at the heart of the turmoil.

Every non-Western society is searching for a path to modernity that it can feel is in some way local, authentic and, in that sense, non-Western. It's tough because the West invented modernity. As these societies search for their own paths, the U.S. and the rest of the West can and should help them build modern societies and better the lives of their people. But we should also recognize that above all this is their fight. It really is about them.

A Moment for Moderates















The Madding Crowd: Beijing Inflames Popular Sentiment Against Japan
By Hannah Beech
Monday, Oct. 01, 2012

Beijing inflames popular sentiment against Japan, but it could get burned.

Thousands of angry locals vent their rage at a foreign embassy, hurling bottles, defacing flags and chanting murderous threats. These aren't Muslims swarming American diplomatic missions because of that tawdry, U.S.-made film ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad. They are Chinese protesters, and their target is Japan. Widespread resentment is still felt in China over Japan's savage wartime atrocities and a feeling that Tokyo has not adequately apologized for them. When the Japanese government decided earlier this month to buy some uninhabited islets in the East China Sea from private owners, a simmering territorial dispute with China over the same outcroppings escalated, and that long-held antipathy exploded.

China is a police state. Protests of this scale, which have convulsed dozens of Chinese cities for days, just don't happen unless the government approves of them. Indeed, Beijing authorities made clear their views on the islands, known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan, by blaring a recorded message near the Japanese embassy: "Japan has violated China's sovereignty. It is right for you to express your opinion." As protesters elsewhere in China destroyed Japanese cars, the police declined to intervene. Compare this with last year, when the faintest whiff of pro-democracy activism resulted in plainclothes thugs attacking foreign journalists who showed up to cover a possible rally in Beijing. Then, the security presence was so smothering that nary a Chinese protester showed up to express solidarity with the Jasmine Revolution.

In the Muslim world, anti-American protests have betrayed religious, societal and political fault lines graver than those in China. But be they in Benghazi or Beijing, the causes of the demonstrations run far deeper than their immediate pretexts. In China's case, the outpouring of hatred toward the Japanese isn't simply about who owns a collection of rocks in resource-rich waters.

The Chinese leadership, which is facing a once-a-decade transition in the coming weeks, couldn't have asked for a better diversion from the delicate power shift ahead. (In Japan too, a weak government facing an upcoming election may have benefited from looking tough on China.) Already, Beijing's leadership handover has been beset by political scandal, a slowing economy and the two-week disappearance from public view of Xi Jinping, the man expected to assume the helm in China. Vice President Xi finally reappeared on Sept. 15, just as China's state media ran headlines about Beijing dispatching surveillance ships to the contested islands. Banners unfurled in Beijing urged: SUPPORT THE GOVERNMENT! SUPPORT THE ARMY! KILL THE JAPANESE! Mission Distraction accomplished.

In a China where income inequality has spawned mass resentment, protests directed against an outward enemy serve as a release valve. Beijing has primed the pump through history lessons that stress Japan's cruel wartime record. But nationalism is a risky instrument. Xi and current Chinese President Hu Jintao were nowhere to be seen in the iconography of the anti-Japan rallies. (Instead, protesters held aloft portraits of Mao Zedong, whose wartime efforts against the Japanese are admired.) Online commentators called their government weak for not having stood up more forcefully to Tokyo.

In Chinese history, antiforeign rallies have a habit of morphing into anti-government movements. "The government thinks they can control [nationalism], but it can turn into something very dangerous," warns Wan Tao, who as a patriotic hacker a decade ago targeted Japanese government websites. "It's like playing with fire." On Sept. 16, among the few detained during the anti-Japanese protests were a trio in the southern city of Shenzhen who raised banners calling for democracy.

Back in 2004, while meeting a group of young nationalists in Beijing, I spoke with an impassioned man who believed in China's need to defend the disputed islands. Hu Jia went on to become a famous dissident and spent more than three years in jail for his activism. This Sept. 18, the anti-Japan protests took on further resonance because it was the anniversary of "9.18" — the day in 1931 on which Japan unleashed its invasion and occupation of China. As the demonstrations raged, Hu was stopped from leaving his home to buy vegetables by plainclothes officers who monitor him even though he is supposedly a free man. On Twitter, which is banned in China, the 39-year-old wrote: "This 9.18, the shame of the country comes from the existence of tyranny." He didn't mean the Japanese.

The Madding Crowd








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