The US retreat from the Islamic world - which will be accelerated by the tragic events in Libya - will result in more, not less, anti-Americanism
The murder of United States diplomats in Libya as an alleged reaction to a YouTube posting brings into focus serious differences in culture and values with many societies in the Muslim world. Acknowledging this fact is an essential step in tackling the gaps in the value of human life and religious symbols. In 2004, jihadists led by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi designed a strategy in response to American actions in Iraq, aimed at mobilising the Iraqi Sunni minority against the new order. T
heir plan was to commit repeated atrocities against the Shiite community. This, they believed, would trigger anti-Sunni retaliatory attacks, which would confirm the sectarian schism and provoke militancy among Sunnis in their ranks. Realising this as a badly disguised effort to ignite a devastating civil war, Grand Ayatullah 'Ali al-Sistani - the foremost Shiite cleric in Iraq - insisted vehemently that Shiite Iraqis refrain from retribution. And indeed, despite successive gruesome massacres, Shiite militias observed a high level of restraint; calls for revenge were muted. But what Zarqawi failed to achieve through killing countless Shiite Iraqis occurred dramatically when Jihadists destroyed one Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra.
The moral authority of Sistani was ignored, and Shiite militias unfurled their lethal power on tens of thousands of Sunni Iraqis. Iraq then plunged into one of the darkest periods of its recent history. It seems that in Iraq and other predominantly Muslim cultures, human life is negotiable while religious symbols are not. The record is stark. Satirical cartoons in Denmark depicting the Prophet Muhammad unleashed a global campaign of protests, with many protestors and bystanders paying with their lives. An irreverent film in the Netherlands critical of Islam leads to assassination and continuing death threats. An empty threat to "burn the Qur'an" from a previously unknown Florida Christian clergyman leads to violent protests - with deaths in remote Afghanistan. And this week the production of a sophomoric online film shedding unflattering light on the Prophet Muhammad has triggered the murderous events that claimed the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi.
Despite the polite public pronouncements on the issue by those who opt to downplay it - it is evident that this trait in many Muslim settings is in direct contradiction with the core values of freedom of expression, proportionality and reasonable response that are central elements of the political, social and intellectual foundation of western societies. Reconciling this fundamental opposition cannot occur by stifling free speech, however mischievous or frivolous. And it is of little consolation that these excessive reactions are 'perpetrated by a small band of fanatics', as if often claimed. The disruptive power of these 'fanatics' and the inability of their societies to restrain and punish them put the lie to the notion that these issues are tangential.
While the assassination of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues will undoubtedly affect policy at multiple levels going forward, it will not derail the steady pursuit of US interests through diplomacy. In Stevens, Libya has lost a staunch advocate for its progress and prosperity. The reaction of the Libyan authorities and civil society, beyond boilerplate condemnation, will be an important component in the restoration of western trust in this young polity - which Stevens and his colleague had laboured to build and reinforce.
The US public is likely to harden its belief of an insurmountable civilisational gap between the west and Islam. The more reductionist expressions of this belief are to be lamented in advance. But intellectual honesty demands we acknowledge the gap. We must acknowledge what is real: an essential difference in values between cultures that accept or condone homicidal reactions to unwanted words and images, and cultures in which no affront to symbols ever justifies murder. But we must also acknowledge that this civilisational divide is not so much a border between the western and Islamic worlds as it is a fissure running deep within Muslim-majority societies and cultures.
This should be an internal debate within these societies, and within the religious and intellectual framework of Islam. Efforts to deny that Islam is an integral part of the American experience is as futile as denying that the US is economically, socially and politically part of the Islamic world. Yet America's retreat from the Islamic world, which will be accelerated by the tragic events in Libya, will result in more, not less, anti-Americanism. Without a doubt, our interlocutors will eventually have to face a moment of moral and intellectual reckoning. This is less likely to occur if the US is absent and its efforts should be directed toward accelerating that moment. Conventional public diplomacy, while necessary, needs to become more muscular and to embrace a larger toolbox. The line between American engagement in these tumultuous regions and walking away is a thin one. Public opinion will track events like those in Libya and demand more of the latter, but that would be a mistake.
Hassan Mneimneh is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank, which first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Take series A cultural divide and an imperative of engagement