Fringe Voices Do Not Speak For All



The killing of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, along with three other Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, plus other protests at U.S. embassies across the Arab world, have caused concerns for the future of the Arab Spring movement and U.S.-Arab relations. This shocked many, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who asked: “How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?” The violence that occurred at a time when people were more optimistic about the future of democracy in the Middle East raised another question: How can we account for the rise of fringe groups that create turmoil in the Middle East?

The fall of decades-old dictatorships explains both the emergence of radical groups and the emergence of peaceful groups in the Arab countries. Arab dictators maintained stability in their countries for a long time through tight suppression of any kind of opposition to the government. Their rule was stable authoritarianism. With the removal of the tight government controls after the revolutions, the previously suppressed groups found a fertile ground to mobilize. The U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003, by removing Saddam Hussein from power, allowed competing domestic groups to blossom and compete in both violent and non-violent ways. Similarly, the Arab revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria have allowed a variety of suppressed groups to become visible. Peaceful groups embraced peaceful means of mobilization, while the radicals chose violent means.

Radicals are small in numbers compared with the rest of the population but they can be influential due to the lack of established political institutions. The Arab states need time to establish stable, and hopefully democratic, political systems to fill the vacuum left by the fall of stable authoritarians. In times of transformation and turmoil, it is easy for the radicals to gain ground. They provide easy answers to difficult questions. 

Was the Obama administration wrong in supporting democratic uprisings that unleashed suppressed groups and stimulated instability in the Arab world? Absolutely not. The U.S. was right to support the democratic demands of the people in the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Similarly, it was wrong to ignore democratic demands in Bahrain. If you clean a house that has been ignored for several years, it is normal that there will be a mess under the carpets. But the solution is not to cover the mess with the carpet again; it is to clean and clean with patience until all is well. Otherwise the mess will increase and cleaning will become even more difficult. The real challenge for the U.S. is to continue supporting democratic demands, people and institutions, even in the face of of new difficulties. A U.S. retreat from supporting democratic transformations will not bring back pro-American authoritarian rulers who maintained stability for so long. In the lack of strong international support for democratic transition, radicals will gain ground against peaceful and democratic forces.

People in both the United States and the Muslim world should not let the fringes speak for all. The group that made the disgusting film that denigrates the Prophet of Islam, and those behind the brutal killing of four people at the American Consulate in Benghazi, do not represent most Americans and most Muslims. Treating them as representatives of Americans and Muslims and developing policies only in response to the radicals will undermine the interests of the majority. The true representatives should speak up to isolate the noise makers.

The early responses from the U.S. and the Muslim world are optimistic. Many religious scholars and politicians from the Muslim world condemned the brutal killings in Libya and many politicians and intellectuals in the U.S. stated their disapproval of the nasty film. We should not let the extremists win.

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