Crisis Averted; Challenges Remain

The crisis created by the film "The Innocence of Muslims" that many feared might spin out of control, seems to be subsiding across the Arab World. The appeal by extremists to escalate the situation appears to have given way to more stable and thoughtful leadership.

Washington acted wisely by not pouring gasoline on the raging flames of unrest. The Administration declined to be provoked by careless partisan attackers into escalating their rhetorical response or engaging in a show of force. Instead, the President dispatched a small force of Marines where they were needed to enhance Embassy protection and spoke firmly and privately to Arab leaders making it clear that swift and decisive action had to be taken to stem the unrest and apprehend those who murdered American personnel and violated U.S. Embassy grounds.

Arab leaders in most countries also refused to be goaded by the extremists (both those who had made the offensive video and those who preyed on alienated and angry youth seeking to exploit the situation for political advantage). In Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, responsible political and religious leaders took steps to restore calm.

But while the crisis was averted, we are not yet "out of the woods". If anything, the violent riots and the reactions that followed not only unearthed minefields but also revealed deep problems in understanding between America and the Arab and Muslim Worlds.

Most Americans still do not know much about Islam and know even less about the Arab World. And because the U.S. is as deeply engaged as it is in the region, our ignorance remains an enormous liability.

A case in point: on last Monday morning, Joe Scarborough, a sometimes thoughtful conservative-leaning television host gave the following explanation for the unrest, "you know why they hate us? I talked to intelligence people all weekend. They hate us because of their religion, they hate us because of their culture, and they hate us because of peer pressure…Think about all the savagery–”the unrestrained savagery we have seen across the Middle East and the Arab World because of a crude film…if you scratch the surface, and if you gave every street vendor to prime minister a chance to throw a rock at the U.S. Embassy, they would".

Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, building on this supposed ingrained hostility that exists in "Arab culture" and Islam, proposed that America’s only policy option is to be feared. He argued, as neo-conservatives would, that the reason for the riots was because President Obama had "apologized for America". This "displayed weakness", in effect, giving a green light to the rabble to attack the U.S.

The objectification of all Arabs as a depersonalized mass of seething hatred that can only be controlled by resolve and force is as dumb and dangerous as it is racist. It is also, of course, dead wrong.

As our polling makes clear, America’s favorable ratings are, in fact, low across the region because of U.S. policies and not because of Arab religion or culture. Our polls also establish that Arabs like American culture and people and respect American values and accomplishments–”but, because of U.S. policies, Arabs are convinced that we don’t like or respect them.

And Arabs, from "the street vendor to the prime minister" are not of one mind. Despite widespread upset with how America treats them, most Arabs were not demonstrating in front of the Embassy or even supportive of these actions. In fact, I will bet Joe Scarborough that on the night when the demonstrations occurred, most Arabs were home eating a meal with their families or watching old movies on their television (a favorite pastime). And that night as they went to bed, most Arabs were not "hating America". Instead they were worried about their jobs, concerned about their children, and wondering whether they could pay bills at the end of the month.

Just as it would be wrong for some Arabs to generalize that all Americans are opposed to Islam because some Americans were mobilized against the Park 51 project to build an Islamic Community Center in lower Manhattan; it is equally wrong for Scarborough and company to generalize that those who breached our Embassy compound or those who murdered Chris Stevens represent all Arabs and Muslims.

But if the need to know Arabs, as they really are, and not as bigots or ideologues imagine them to be, remains a serious challenge for Americans, Arabs, too, must be challenged to better understand America and Americans.

I was in the Arab World when the crisis first began. Since returning, I have met with a number of visiting Arab delegations and followed the unfolding story in the Arab media. Myths and misunderstandings abound.

Questions I was asked included: "Why wasn’t the film-maker arrested?" "What do you mean you don’t have a law against insulting religion? Don’t you have a law banning anti-Semitism and denial of the Holocaust?" "Obama is responsible for this, shouldn’t he apologize?". And more of the same–”all displaying a real ignorance of the U.S. Constitution and of American law and culture.

Of course, if the U.S. did have such a law and was not enforcing it, anger might be justified. But there is no law, nor can there be one. The President condemned the offensive film, but made it clear that the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. And no law can be passed to abridge that freedom, no matter how badly it is abused. Some European countries may have a ban on "Holocaust denial". The U.S. does not. Anti-Semitism is also not prohibited by law in the U.S. In the end, the defense against racist or bigoted speech is in the court of public opinion–”not in a court of law. While Jews, African Americans, and others have been able to effectively mobilize public opinion making it unacceptable to use bigoted language against their groups, Arabs and Muslims are still new at this effort. Progress has been made. Though still plagued by bias, there is a significant and growing body of supporters who will speak out against offensive anti-Arab and anti-Muslim speech. And they do, on a regular basis.

The U.S. does have laws against "hate crimes" that punish acts of violence or threats of violence that involve bias. And law enforcement agencies have been quite effective in punishing individuals who commit such crimes against Arabs and Muslims.

I get ugly hate mail every day–”this is repugnant, but not a crime. But when they include a threat, then it is against the law. Since 9/11, the Department of Justice and the FBI have apprehended, convicted, and imprisoned three individuals who threatened my life because I am an Arab American advocate.

Our polling of American public opinion makes clear the challenges Arabs and Muslims still face in the U.S. Opinion is not monolithic. There are majorities of Democrats, young people, and other minority communities very supportive of our communities. But there are other groups that still need to be educated or shamed into silence. There is work to be done. Work, I would add, that is only made more difficult by the scenes of rioters, et. al.–”that only serve to feed the racist stereotypes of the "imagined Arabs".

So here we are, two weeks after the explosion. Because of some good work done, a deeper crisis was averted. But real dangers remain. New governments in the Arab World face the challenge of growing their economies and creating jobs and opportunities for a burgeoning youth population. They must also establish effective governance, free of corruption, that can provide services and create confidence. Here in the U.S. we must bury the neo-conservative fantasies that caused so much damage in the past and find ways to constructively and respectfully engage the Arab World and its people. And both of us, Arabs and Americans alike, must acknowledge how little we know of each other and take the necessary steps to increase mutual understanding.