President Obama offered renewed hope when he promised to usher in an era of mutual respect with the Islamic world. To jumpstart this new era, President Obama addressed Muslims in two key speeches: one delivered in Turkey, the last seat of the Sunni Islamic caliphate, and the other in Cairo, the last seat of the Shiite Fatimid caliphate. Then two critical events brought all those efforts to a halt.
First, the U.S. administration failed to help the Palestinians and Israelis make progress towards a peaceful resolution of their 64-year old conflict. In fact, the failure was multifaceted. The administration neither abandoned its involvement nor pushed the two parties harder to enter into serious negotiations. Instead, without principle or vision, it engaged the two parties selectively which frustrated Arab leaders, Palestinians, and Israelis alike. For example, when the Palestinians complained that the Israeli government is violating international law by continuing its settlement activities on occupied land, the administration agreed and called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to freeze these activities and restart peace talks on the basis of the 1967 boarders. Netanyahu rudely challenged that proposal in a speech before a joint session of U.S. Congress, telling Obama that the 67 border is indefensible. He then continued to build more homes on Palestinian lands.
With peace talks going nowhere, the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, decided to go the UNSC to ask for statehood. Although 122 nations had by then recognized the State of Palestine, the Obama administration threatened to veto any UNSC resolution recognizing the Palestinian state and worked very hard to prevent a vote on the resolution. The Arab peoples saw that action as taking side with the Israeli government. Again, the U.S. found itself on the edge of two seats, neither here nor there. It was neither fully engaged in negotiations nor allowing other nations and UN organs to find a solution. Consequently, Netanyahu became unhappy with the Obama administration, while the Arabs see the U.S. as a protector of Israel at the expense of the legitimate rights of the Palestinians.
Second, the U.S. administration’s hesitance in backing the Arab Awakening cemented the perception that the administration plays a direct role in protecting Arab authoritarian leaders and ignores the legitimate demands of the peoples. The fact that the first dictators to fall (Ben Ali and Mubarak) were embraced by U.S. administrations as “moderate” leaders increased the Arab masses’ cynicism and suspicion. In fact, one could argue that one of the reasons the Syrian regime retains power is the enthusiasm of the U.S. administration and Saudi rulers for removing Assad’s regime from power. Some people who initially wanted regime change reasoned: sure, we don’t like Assad, but we don’t like the Saudis and the Americans even more. That split seems to be enough to allow Assad to hold on to power despite all the loss of life and destruction of property.
Moreover, commenting on the recent protests in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, President Obama demoted Egypt’s relation with the U.S. by suggesting that post-revolution Egypt, where the president is now elected, is “neither an ally nor an enemy.” The notion that an Egypt ruled by the authoritarian Mubarak was an ally and an Egypt ruled by an elected president is not betrays the U.S.’s ostensible commitment to democracy and further exposes the administration to charges of hypocrisy and support of authoritarianism in the Arab world. An emerging democracy needs support, despite the mess that may characterize its early stages. Supporting emerging democracies is a wise long-term investment that is far more constructive than supporting unelected rulers like the Saudis, the Bahrainis, and the Qataris.
It is within the U.S. administration’s ability and power to change this fragile relationship with the Islamic world into a durable, mutually beneficial one. A relationship where U.S. diplomats’ and U.S. citizens’ safety is not in the hands of extremists. A relationship where neither ordinary Americans nor Muslims are waiting for the next shoe to drop, the next Rev. Jones to burn the Qur’an, the next career criminal to make a repulsive movie about the Prophet Muhammad, or the next supremacist to draw an insulting cartoon. Because in the end, this conflict is not about American values and Muslims oversensitivity; it is not about a clash of cultures between the civilized and non-civilized; it is not about Islam and Christianity; and it is not about any other simplistic explanations that racialize the victim and the victimizer and the offended and the offender. In the end, this conflict is about geopolitics.
It was no coincidence that the producer of the insulting movie claimed that he was an Israeli Jew and that hundreds of Jews invested in it. It tuned out that neither he nor his supporters were Israeli Jews. But that lie speaks to the role of geopolitics in keeping hatred alive.
Indeed, this insulting movie was not the first nor will it be the last to insult the Prophet Muhammad and other religious symbols. In fact, classical Arabic literature and art from the golden age of the Islamic civilization contains crude and profane content about the Prophet and the Qur’an. There was no purging of Islamic heritage. One could find these materials in most libraries today. A simple Internet search will reveal countless images and documents that are insulting to the Prophet. I have not heard calls to purge the Internet either. But when geopolitical conditions are right, any “insulting” work, even when created by insignificant persons, can and will be used to settle some political or military score. Politics is what made these clips an issue on September 11th, although some of them were on the Internet months before that date.
The U.S. in particular (and the West in general) needs to find creative and just ways to solve the geopolitical mess they left behind in the aftermath of their colonial misadventures and military interventions. Importantly, the U.S. administration ought to embrace non-violent approaches when dealing with cultural and civilizational conflicts. Extremism thrives on violence. Military interventions create the very discourse—a violent one—in which terrorists are so proficient.