Shifting sands in Middle East
Updated: 2012-09-18 08:09
By He Wenping (China Daily)
Despite US facilitating regime changes, widespread anger shows it needs to change its policies toward Arab countries
On the surface, the latest wave of anti-US rage in the Middle East, which left Chris Stevens, the United States' ambassador to Libya, and three other embassy staff members dead, was triggered by a controversial US-made film deemed offensive to Islam.
However, the longstanding animosity toward the United States in the Middle East has at least four causes that Washington needs to address.
First, although the seven-month revolution in Libya was concluded with the killing of former leader Muammar Gadhafi, democracy has failed to flourish. Ever since the collapse of Gadhafi's regime, the interim government has been struggling, and so far failing, to rein in the armed militias that emerged from the civil war, most of which refuse to disarm or join the outgunned national army or police force.
Gadhafi once said that should he be gone, Libya would sink into chaos and people would be lost and confused. One year after the revolutionary triumph, Libya is still facing complex challenges including corruption, the pervasive use of arms and a weak economy, and these to a certain extent justify his prediction.
Second, North African countries such as Libya and Egypt have been through political and social reforms. As a result, radical Islamic groups that have gained popular support by safeguarding religious purity are becoming increasingly influential in opposing the US' pro-Israel diplomatic policies. Islamist groups were suppressed by the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Gadhafi regime in Libya. However, after these regimes collapsed, Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood soon emerged as a leading political force. Anti-US and anti-US-backed-Israel groups seem politically justifiable in Arab countries, as people there believe that the former dictatorial regimes worked too closely with Washington to defend their own interests, and now they no longer want to subject themselves to the US' command.
Anti-US sentiment has long existed among people in Arab countries. Political forces that have risen to power on the back of such sentiments are more than willing to keep catering to anti-US public opinion and thus consolidate the foundations of their rule. The Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, called for peaceful protests over the US film outside all the main mosques in Egypt, despite pressure from Washington after the US diplomats were killed. While Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi has condemned the film as an attack on Islam and requested the Egyptian embassy in the US to take legal measures against the filmmakers.
Third, the US has obviously not prepared for the changes in these countries, and its inherent sense of cultural superiority and its lack of tolerance for other religions are deep-rooted causes for widespread hostility toward the US.
Islamic civilization enjoys a time-honored history, with a global Muslim population of 1.5 billion, and the Vatican announced in March 2008 that Islam had overtaken Roman Catholicism as the biggest single religious denomination in the world. However, Islam is often misinterpreted by the West and viewed as an extreme religion, especially since the Sept 11, 2001 al-Qaida attacks on the US.
US political scientist Samuel P. Huntington proposed the clash of civilizations theory and pointed out that the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict would be cultural. Unfortunately, the West has failed to heed Huntington's words, and instead chooses to provoke Muslims by mocking Islam.
Muslims' anger over perceived Western insults to Islam has exploded more than once. For instance, The Satanic Verses, a novel by the British author Salman Rushdie, was accused of insulting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad and outraged Muslims. The Western world especially the US must learn to respect other civilizations, cultures and religions.
Fourth, the US should reflect on its policy toward the Middle East. Last year US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the rebels in Libya for "taking back their country". After the US ambassador was killed, Clinton could not help asking: "How can this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city (Benghazi) we helped save from destruction?" Indeed, Stevens worked closely with the Libyan rebels to overthrow the Gadhafi regime and remained a key figure pushing forward the "Arab Spring". As a commentary from the US' Foreign Policy pointed out: "It is a tragic irony that the US diplomat who had done so much to free Benghazi from grip of a dictator that it despised would die at the hands of that city's residents only months later, in a spasm of religion-fueled hatred."
Anti-US protests have swept across the countries that have been through the Arab Spring and have spread to countries such as Iraq that the US believed had entered a period of stabilization after democratic transition. The US is now paying a bloody price for facilitating the so-called democratic transitions in the Middle East. In response the US will be even more cautious in developing its relations with the Islamic regimes in the Middle East and will seek to enhance its cooperation with moderate Islamist groups in a bid to crush the radical Islamic forces.
The author is director of the African Studies Section of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
(China Daily 09/18/2012 page8)