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.
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.
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?
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.