Taking (and Giving) Offense in the Middle East

The Post Arab Spring period seems to be one of disillusionment. One observer suggests that citizenship skills are yet-to-be-learned:

The fall of dictatorships does not guarantee the creation of free societies. There is often a period in which we witness the legacy of tyranny. The Arab uprisings have overthrown tyrants in Egypt and Libya, but the populations and lawmakers have yet to grasp that democracy is not only about free elections but creating free societies.

When sexual harassment of women increases on the streets of Egypt, when centuries-old shrines of Muslim saints are destroyed with explosives in Libya, when screenings of films such as “Persepolis” trigger riots in Tunisia and Christian minorities across the Middle East feel under siege, then we must stop pretending that all is well with the Arab Spring. But all is not lost either.

Arab societies are on a journey. They can easily take the wrong turn. The attacks on the American embassies in Libya, Egypt and Yemen are examples of the ongoing presence of intolerant, tyrannical actors in Arab societies.

via Arab Spring nations dont yet grasp freedom of dissent – CNN.com.

Longtime Middle East observer and professor at Johns Hopkins Fouad Adjami asks why these protests erupt here but not as easily in other locations:

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. Freedom of speech, granting license and protection to the irreverent, is cherished, protected and canonical in the Western tradition. Now Muslims who quarrel with offensive art are using their newfound freedoms to lash out against it.

These cultural contradictions do not lend themselves to the touch of outsiders.

via Why is the Arab world so easily offended? – The Washington Post.


12 thoughts on “Taking (and Giving) Offense in the Middle East”

  1. The idea that these countries are “on a journey” is a very romantic one, and unfortunately one that most Americans seem to like to believe. We like to believe that any revolution of any sort (especially ones we instigate or help) will bring democracy, maybe with just a bit of meandering on the path of their ‘journey’. In that respect, the journalist is right, it is going to take time for the Arab countries to build their own governments. But we are fooled if we think it’s going to be a moving, emotional “journey” that the United States can cheer the nations through. It’s going to be a long, bloody battle of changing a society that for centuries has never had freedom, and doesn’t know how to use it.
    The protests over the American film, for example, show that all that the people of Egypt have learned is that the answer to any problem, political, social or economical, is riot. Peace doesn’t even seem to be a goal for them at this point, and as a result we need to come to accept that every country on this green earth isn’t going to want democracy, and isn’t going to be able to handle it. If the Egyptian people vote in a religious extremist as their president, there comes a point that we are going to have to accept that and stop treating Egypt like a wayward child and more like a nation whose government we disapprove of.

    1. I think that the word “freedom” should be used lightly because to different cultures, it means different things, as shown through what Professor Adjami was saying. In the Middle East, the freedom of speech is “granting license and protection to the irreverent”. Where as Americans view it as the right to have an opinion and speak their mind (conscious and understanding of others) without suffering any consequences from the government. I agree with you Rachel in saying that it is going to take time and that it is not this notion of a ” moving, emotional journey.” But I again, I say that the word freedom should be used very lightly due to the fact that an Americans perspective of freedom can be so different from a Middle Eastern’s point of view.
      The Egyptian people as whole nor the many Muslim people in Egypt are not too be blamed for the protests against the American film. There is HUGE changes happening to their country and the idea of democracy is being introduced. Throughout history, their government has not had a separation of “church and state”. This concept is foreign to them. The Islamic fundamentalist group that attacked the embassy is to be blamed and not the many people of Egypt. The understanding of democracy is different to them as an American views it. The Egyptian people, and for that matter the nations in the Middle East, want their freedom, but freedom in their definition. Not the definition of the United States. An article in the new York Times yesterday talked about how this man from Egypt, his view of freedom: “the right of a community, whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, to be free from grave insult to its identity and values.” (the NY Times, Monday Sept. 18. Cover story; Cultural Divide Fuels Muslims Raging at Film)

      “Rioting” of the Egyptian people and how some of them feel: http://imgur.com/a/tlCyI

  2. Sadly, Rachel, I have to agree with you. I think that our endeavors are noble in trying to help struggling countries become democratic, however, we do have to face the reality that some people think differently due to their culture, leaders, etc. I don’t think we necessarily need to lose hope though. Change is always possible if all parties involved are willing to do what is needful in order for those changes to occur. It may take a very long time and there will undoubtedly be struggles along the way, but I think it is possible.


  3. Maybe there is still hope. The attack is totally unjustifiable, yet I feel it is too soon to think that this flare of riot is an evidence to lack of people’s maturity level to handle democracy. I believe the problematic video is disgusting and is deifinitely penetrating the very core aspect of their lives and culture. When such untolerable offense occurs, it is easy for the mass public to turn their anger towards the very country of origin of the video. And when the dissatisfaction toward the country is not directly addressed by their own government (Morsi is busy looking for a middle ground between keeping good relationship with US and soothing the angry public), all people can do is to take it to the streets. Riot is more of a result of people’s dissatisfaction due to failure of their government to reflect their views, not a result of their lack of wanting peace. Couldn’t it be that this rection, which seems to us as a premature democratic action, is a huge step of progress to those who never had freedom of expression properly for centuries? Wouldn’t the lively discussions and dialogues about democracy within a country live on and push the citizens to procure better citizenship in time?

    It is a journey, and indeed a really long and painful one. But that was how most of the recent democracies matured. U.S, uniquely, had a privilege to have its democracy founded upon a well established citizenship and philosophy, including concept of freedom. These other countries didn’t. It will definitely take much more time for them, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

  4. Great perspectives you guys have. One thing we need to understand is “If Islam’s rise was spectacular. It’s fall was swift and unsparing. The Islamic prowess With the sudden rise of the West, the Islamic world is under humiliation and disillusionment. A lot of Islamic fundamentalists suffer from inferiority complex.

    I found this article very interesting.


  5. Ankit Lohani makes a valid point in reference to the Washington Post article that Islamic fundamentalists seem to suffer from an inferiority complex. To us, the idea of resorting to violence to solve problems seems somewhat juvenile. Imagine, for a moment, if someone ridiculed the faith of many students here at BYU (read: Book of Mormon musical). Would we be vindicated in throwing Molotov cocktails at the theater in New York? Or perhaps tearing down the advertisements for the play and writing crude slogans in their place? Certainly not. Yet if we examine our own history we see that we have been tried in the proverbial ‘crucible of affliction’ and come out resilient and for the better. These dictatorships, though, through cruel policies, ideological stubbornness, and a stagnation of diplomatic progress have frozen some of their citizenry in a state of immature pre-pubescence. Hopefully, the U.S will react to the events occurring in the Middle East in a way that encourages a more mature dialogue to take place.


  6. I think its very important for us to remember that the years of government repression have distorted the way that many people in the Middle East perceive freedom of speech. As pointed out in the article below, freedom, to many is defined as “the right of a community, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, to be free from grave insult to its identity and values.” Many struggle to understand that the idea of freedom of speech is more a limit on the power of government. While there are most definitely many that do understand the principles of freedom of speech and expression, these riots showcase at least a group of people that have been under totalitarian style control for a long time and like many in the West, struggle to change their point of view.

  7. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444450004578002010241044712.html?KEYWORDS=Muslims+Mormons

    In every journey there is always a shorter route. Is it time for the US to actually do abroad those things which we hold so dear here at home.

    Stevens was a man that loved the Arab people, and wanted them to find democracy and peace. We can want that too, but we cannot help them unless we have a backbone, and stand up for what we believe.

  8. Many times freedom has as a synonym democracy and although these two words are not dependent on each other, we tend to expect a correlation between them. Regime transitions is a period of political transformation and this is the case of Egypt, although the Muslim brotherhood is trying to unify Egypt, democracy has not been completely implemented and it will take more time for this to happen. The United States has helped to this transition. A few days ago the Obama administration was nearing an agreement with Egypt’s government to relieve $1 billion of its debt as part of an American and also international assistance package. In addition, the administration is supporting a $4.8 billion loan between Egypt and the International Monetary Fund. Even though, the United States has helped Egypt to stabilize its economy and it is supporting Egypt’s transition, it will take time for the society to get used to a new political rule and a new form of government.


  9. I’m sure many of you have seen this article already, but it gives some interesting analysis of the protests in the middle east, and compares violent responses by Muslim extremist groups to a standard response to criticism by the LDS church. One video criticizing Muhammad has caused instability in many parts of the Middle East, while “The Book of Mormon” musical, which is similar in that it is filled with mockery, has been seen by our church as a way to share the gospel.

    1. I agree, Brandon, that the LDS Church response on the musical was both tasteful and effective. Unfortunately, I know a lot of people who didn’t burn a building or trash others property–but their language, tone, and rancor was similarly channeled within our culture (mostly via Facebook or in the foyer!)

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