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Opinion

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. 

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Given these circumstances and history, it should not be surprising to see the manifestations of these conditions showing up by way of terrorism (the weapon of the weak), violence, ignorance, “barbaric” practices of religion, oppression of women and minorities, and hyper-sensitivities to insults, such as the anti-Islam film. With no ability to vote, speak freely, or practice civil discourse, what other outlets of expression have there been?

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The forces unleashed by the Arab awakening are in the midst of a sorting-out period, in which the loudest and most extreme voices are getting the most media play and attention. But they are not the majority, and they do not deserve the spotlight. Rather than generalizing and condemning the region or the Muslim faith, Western observers should be championing the voices of reason amidst the mayhem.

There are reasons to be hopeful. Many experts have already pointed out that the most recent protests were less violent, and more vocally opposed by local citizens than the 2005 protests against the Danish editorial cartoons depicting Muhammad. In 2005, more than 100 people were killed, local governments made no significant moves to condemn the violence, and average citizens were not stepping forward using technological channels and social media to voice their disapproval of the violent reaction.

America wants the moderates to come out on top in this transition, for their sake and for our own. While condemning violence and the murder of innocent Americans is merited, Americans must avoid further fanning the flames of extremism by spewing hatred and general scorn onto an already beleaguered region. Now is the time for not only our policymakers, but for everyday citizens to be more informed, to identify and acknowledge the moderates and visionaries in the Middle East and Muslim faith, and to support their efforts, thereby enabling them to make stronger stands against the din of extremism.

Where this region goes matters much to where America is headed, especially in a world as interconnected and interdependent as ours now is. In few places is this more true than in the Middle East – a region where American security, energy, and religious ties loom large. It’s no longer a possibility to imagine we can just leave those in the Middle East to sink or swim by themselves. This is a time to think fearlessly, openly, and tolerantly, and engage with a part of the world whose future is intimately tied to our own.

Janessa Gans Wilder, a former CIA analyst, is founder and chief executive officer of The Euphrates Institute.

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