POLITICAL observations & opinions

* Why is the Arab world so easily offended? Here are excerpts from three recent articles which offer intelligent and useful analysis

Posted by Lew Weinstein on September 16, 2012


One of the least informed responses to that question came in a Facebook posting by a source I will not mention. He said … “The outbreak of violence against the United States around the world is proof positive that Obama’s foreign policy is complete failure.

That is an ignorant, politically based explanation, similar to that offered by Mitt Romney, that brings us not one whit closer to understanding what is happening here.

BTW … By that logic, the 9-11 attack was proof positive of the failure of George W. Bush’s foreign policy … which it was not. It may have been a failure of intelligence, or more likely a failure to pay attention to intelligence that was available, but a far more complex set of reasons, going back over 7 centuries is surely at play here.

Below are three recent articles which offer far more intelligent and useful analysis.

One aspect of the situation that is not mention in these articles but which I believe is very important, is the role of oil, the oil companies, and the western nations, including the U.S., who ruthlessly exploited the Arab countries, installed dictators who were supposedly loyal, and who showed for decades no evidence of interest in improving the lot of the majority of people living in those countries. To a great extent, those attitudes continue today. Such a history cannot be expected to foster trust.

If this material is too complex for candidates like Romney, and their supporters, to understand,

and if they believe that an attempt to understand the frustration, pain and anger in the Muslim world

is a sign of weakness, those are excellent reasons (among many others)

to keep Mitt Romney far away from the Oval Office.


 Ross Douthat writes in the NYT (9/16/12) …

  • THE greatest mistake to be made right now, with our embassies under assault and crowds chanting anti-American slogans across North Africa and the Middle East, is to believe that what’s happening is a completely genuine popular backlash against a blasphemous anti-Islamic video made right here in the U.S.A.
  • The mobs don’t exist because of an offensive movie, and an American ambassador isn’t dead because what appears to be a group of Coptic Christians in California decided to use their meager talents to disparage the Prophet Muhammad.
  • What we are witnessing, instead, is mostly an exercise in old-fashioned power politics, with a stone-dumb video as a pretext for violence that would have been unleashed on some other excuse.
  • The real issue is the desire of Iran’s leaders to keep the flame of their revolution burning after the debacle of the Iran-Iraq War, the desire of Pakistan’s Islamists to test the religious bona fides of their country’s prime minister, and the desire of religious extremists in Britain to cast themselves as spokesmen for the Muslim community as a whole.
  • As The Washington Post’s David Ignatius (see David’s comments below) was among the first to point out, both the Egyptian and Libyan assaults look like premeditated challenges to those countries’ ruling parties by more extreme Islamist factions: Salafist parties in Egypt and pro-Qaeda groups in Libya.
  • What we’re watching unfold in the post-Arab Spring Mideast is the kind of struggle for power that frequently takes place in a revolution’s wake: between secular and fundamentalist forces in Benghazi, between the Muslim Brotherhood and its more-Islamist-than-thou rivals in Cairo, with similar forces contending for mastery from Tunisia to Yemen to the Muslim diaspora in Europe.
  • Navigating this landscape will require an accurate understanding of the crisis’s roots, and a recognition that policing speech won’t make our problems go away.



Fouad Ajami writes in the Washington Post (9/14/12) …

  • Time and again in recent years, as the outside world has battered the walls of Muslim lands and as Muslims have left their places of birth in search of greater opportunities in the Western world, modernity — with its sometimes distasteful but ultimately benign criticism of Islam — has sparked fatal protests. To understand why violence keeps erupting and to seek to prevent it, we must discern what fuels this sense of grievance.
  • There is an Arab pain and a volatility in the face of judgment by outsiders that stem from a deep and enduring sense of humiliation.
    • A vast chasm separates the poor standing of Arabs in the world today from their history of greatness. In this context, their injured pride is easy to understand.
  • In the narrative of history transmitted to schoolchildren throughout the Arab world and reinforced by the media, religious scholars and laymen alike, Arabs were favored by divine providence.
    • They had come out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century, carrying Islam from Morocco to faraway Indonesia. In the process, they overran the Byzantine and Persian empires, then crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to Iberia, and there they fashioned a brilliant civilization that stood as a rebuke to the intolerance of the European states to the north. Cordoba and Granada were adorned and exalted in the Arab imagination. Andalusia brought together all that the Arabs favored — poetry, glamorous courts, philosophers who debated the great issues of the day.
  • If Islam’s rise was spectacular, its fall was swift and unsparing.
    • The Ottoman Turks overran Arab countries to their south in the 16th century, the Arabs seemed to exit history; they were now subjects of others.
  • The coming of the West to their world brought superior military, administrative and intellectual achievement into their midst — and the outsiders were unsparing in their judgments. They belittled the military prowess of the Arabs, and they were scandalized by the traditional treatment of women and the separation of the sexes that crippled Arab society.
  • Even as Arabs insist that their defects were inflicted on them by outsiders, they know their weaknesses.
    • Younger Arabs today can be brittle and proud about their culture, yet deeply ashamed of what they see around them.
    • They know that more than 300 million Arabs have fallen to economic stagnation and cultural decline.
    • They know that the standing of Arab states along the measures that matter — political freedom, status of women, economic growth — is low.
    • In the privacy of their own language, in daily chatter on the street, on blogs and in the media, and in works of art and fiction, they probe endlessly what befell them.
  • But woe to the outsider who ventures onto that explosive terrain. The assumption is that Westerners bear Arabs malice, that Western judgments are always slanted and cruel.
  • The storm that erupted this past week at the gates of American diplomatic outposts across the Muslim world is a piece of this history. As usual, it was easily ignited.
  • The offending work, a 14-minute film trailer posted on YouTube in July, is offensive indeed.

The ambivalence toward modernity that torments Muslims is unlikely to abate.

  • The temptations of the West have alienated a younger generation from its elders. Men and women insist that they revere the faith as they seek to break out of its restrictions.
  • These cultural contradictions do not lend themselves to the touch of outsiders.
    • President George W. Bush believed that America’s proximity to Arab dictatorships had begotten us the jihadists’ enmity. His military campaign in Iraq became an attempt to reform that country and beyond.
    • But Arabs rejected his interventionism and dismissed his “freedom agenda” as a cover for an unpopular war and for domination.
    • President Obama has taken a different approach … but he’s been caught in the middle, conciliating the rulers while making grand promises to ordinary people.

Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is the author of “The Syrian Rebellion” and “Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey.”



David Ignatius writes in the Washington Post (9/12/12) …

  • What’s happening in Cairo and Benghazi appears to be a case of political opportunism — no, not by Mitt Romney, though there was some of that Wednesday — but by Salafist Islamic extremists who are unhappy with the success that more moderate Islamist and secularist parties in Egypt and Libya have had in building political support.
  • it’s hard to know for sure what’s happening and who benefits, so my reporting comes with a basic caveat.
  • But based on conversations with sources who were on the streets Tuesday in the midst of the Cairo demonstration and who have been following events in Libya closely, it’s possible to pierce the fog a bit and offer some basic analysis:
    • First, the situation in Cairo:
      • The Arabic banners of the protesters moving toward the U.S. Embassy identified them as members of the Nour Partyand the al-Asala Party, the two leading Salafist groups that have competed in the Egyptian elections. The Salafists, whose name connotes respect for the Islamic “ancestors” of the prophet Mohammed’s time, are more conservative and less pragmatic than the Muslim Brotherhood, now ruling Egypt.
      • An analyst who was in the midst of that crowd Tuesday told me that he thinks the Salafist demonstrators were using the pretext of a supposedly anti-Islamic American film to send two messages: The first was obviously anti-Americanism, which is potent in today’s Egypt; the second and more interesting message was a challenge by the Salafists to their rivals in the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi.
    • The Salafists’ assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi at first appeared to be a “copycat” attack like the one in Cairo, but U.S. officials said it may have been planned by extremists linked to al-Qaeda.
      • They were augmented by a well-armed Islamic militia.
      • Their anger, again, is mixed between a baseline anti-Americanism (sadly, always a draw in the region) and a challenge to Prime Minister Abdurraheem el-Keib and the secularist parties that are the backbone of the new Libyan government.
  • Does America have an interest in the internal fights taking place in these countries still quaking from the Arab uprisings? Of course it does, especially when U.S. embassies are targets of protesters and U.S. diplomats get killed in the crossfire.

But this isn’t really about America: It’s about factions battling for power in a fluid political situation.

  • The delicate political balance in Egypt and Libya makes the blunderbuss campaign rhetoric of Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, especially unfortunate. His comments make this crisis more “about America” than it needs to be.
  • Let’s return to the main trigger for these events:
    • It’s the success of the tolerably non-extremist (I won’t say “moderate”) governments in Egypt and Libya in consolidating power,
    • and the anger of the more radical Salafists at this success.
    • Morsi, for example, has just won pledges of billions in financial support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Gulf Arabs are making a bet that over the next year, Morsi can stabilize Egypt and get the economy moving again. Despite Tuesday’s tragic events, the United States should make the same bet.



3 Responses to “* Why is the Arab world so easily offended? Here are excerpts from three recent articles which offer intelligent and useful analysis”

  1. Chris as (armchair diplomat) said

    I find it sad the majority of people I hear speaking about the events in Libya say the film is the cause.

    Is it possible that american intervention around the globe really is not wanted?

    The policy of the US was and is to take money from poor people (US tax payers) and give to rich people in poor countries.

    Those rich people us it to segregate large groups of the population for the own benefit and the benefit of large companies.

    You could say it is linked to Oil but perhaps profits is a better description.

    Going into Libya was less than a stellar move. Which interesting enough was pushed by several of the women in the administration.

    • Lew Weinstein said

      There is truth in what you say. Our history is not good. But still, we have to try to understand and deal with what we are faced with today.

      • Chris said

        “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”
        Albert Einstein

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