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Americans must engage more – not less – with Muslims in the Middle East

The forces unleashed by the Arab awakening are in a sorting-out period in which the most extreme voices are getting the most media play. But they are not the majority. Rather than condemn the region or the Muslim faith, Americans should champion the voices of reason amidst the mayhem. 

By Janessa Gans Wilder / September 20, 2012

Demonstrators hold a message aimed at the US during a rally to condemn the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other staffers during an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 12. Op-ed contributor Janessa Gans Wilder says 'There are reasons to be hopeful. Many experts have already pointed out that the most recent protests [against the anti-Muslim video] were less violent, and more vocally opposed by local citizens than the 2005 protests against the Danish editorial cartoons depicting Muhammad.'

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters


Elsah, Ill.

I can hardly believe that just last month I was inside the US Embassy in Tunis, talking to local Tunisians about greater understanding between the Middle East and the West. How ironic that just a few days ago, this same place was overrun by protesters who torched cars, smashed windows, and pulled down and burned the American flag, replacing it with the symbolic black Islamic flag.

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COMMENTARY: Stephen Walt analyzes the many complex and vitally important issues underlying US-Middle East policy as part of the American Conversation Essentials series.

The flag is preferred by the Salafists, Islamic puritans now trying to wield muscle in a more open, post-Arab spring world. And its color is appropriate for the type of thinking the group’s philosophy embodies – intolerance, fundamentalism, and repression of women, minorities, and moderates. After years of experience in the Middle East, I'm not scared by "Islam"; it's extremism that scares me – whether it’s there under the specter of angry Salafists burning flags and employing violence, or here in the United States, in its subtler forms of insulting films, hateful mass emails, or media invective that ignorantly demean a global population of 1.6 billion for the acts of a few.

What we risk missing amidst the feeding frenzy of extremism on both sides is the incredible opportunity unfolding right now in the Middle East – a chemicalization process of transformation unleashed by the Arab awakening, which began just up the street from the embassy in downtown Tunis. While the temptation may be to condemn or abandon an entire region and its people, now is the time to engage even more in the region, not less, if we want to support their development, freedom, democracy, and religious moderation.

Consider this: When I asked my Tunisian audience what percentage of the population would need to be mobilized to reach the tipping point required for massive social change, they responded unlike any other group I’ve talked with. Usually, groups guess 75 percent or higher, but the Tunisians suggested just 1 or 2 percent. They added: “We know that it doesn’t take a lot for transformation. We proved that here with the Arab spring, which ignited change for the whole region!”

Societal transformation can be messy and chaotic. The turmoil let loose in Tunisia in February 2011 and that echoed throughout the region seems similar to how an Iraqi Shiite cleric characterized the pandemonium in Baghdad to me: “Saddam Hussein was the radiator cap that kept all of these pressurized contents under wraps. Then you Americans came and removed the cap, and the contents exploded. Now we’re having to deal with the result.”

The difference, of course, is that the Arab awakening was self-initiated and broad-based. The people took it upon themselves to remove the radiator caps and thrust the entire region into the throes of a massive political and social upheaval. But surely this tumult must be better in the long run for the health of these societies than a stultifying oppression under the guise of stability.

The region has lagged markedly behind much of rest of the world in terms of economic development, political freedoms, and tolerance. This is due to a combination of factors: the legacy of colonialism; the curse of oil that has delayed broader industrialization, innovation, and development; an abundance of dictators (often supported by the West) who repressed civil liberties, civil society, and education; and the rigid practice of a dominant religion – a religion which has not yet fully experienced a reformation, similar to what Judaism and Christianity have undergone.


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