Four dead in Benghazi, the America embassy stormed in Cairo, and protests across the Islamic World. Those calling for a post-post-9/11 era will have to wait a little longer. Anonymous statements by U.S. officials on Tuesday claimed that the attack in Libya was considered a premeditated assault unrelated to the demonstrations that spread beyond the Arab world from Nigeria to Bangladesh. This watershed moment in regional relations arises from an unexpected place—an obscure short film of unclear origin that denigrates the prophet Mohamed.
A trailer for the video first appeared on YouTube in July. I warn you, though, it is very offensive—and I’m not just referring to its dark depiction of Islam’s prophet. With its plastic axes, fake Santa Claus beards, misplaced green screen backdrops, and irregularly dubbed lines, the trailer makes “On Harvard Time” look like a Spielberg production.
In Cairo, protesters inexplicably overcame the American Embassy’s security to enter the embassy’s grounds and tear apart its American flag. Many news outlets, perhaps with little other information to use, emphasized the protesters’ black flags with the Islamic statement of faith—a popular symbol among many radical political Islamists. Actually, the storming of the embassy is better explained by another prominent image from the demonstrations.
The graffiti splashed on the walls from which the American flag was torn said “A.C.A.B.” Unless you study post-World War II British leftist labor movements, you are probably unaware of the All Coppers Are Bastards acronym. I saw that acronym throughout Cairo, and it was often the only graffiti written in English. In Egypt and many other countries across the Islamic World, the state has lost, or is losing, its legitimacy. A.C.A.B. symbolizes a burgeoning phenomenon that could be referred to as a “protest culture.” I would suggest that Islamism is only the weaker expression of a broader anger against power in its domestic and foreign forms.
“Echoes of ’79?” asked a friend, referring to Iran’s 1979 Revolution. The short answer is a simple “no.” Most longer answers to this question emphasize the significant religious, social, and political distinctions between Iran and the Arab world. While acknowledging the validity of those distinctions, I would suggest that the aspirations and structure of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood of today strongly resemble those of Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries of ’79. That’s the bad news. The good news is that massive global economic and political developments of the last thirty years render those aspirations suicidal.
When it comes to the United States and much of the Arab world, the simple truth is that we need each other. Much has been made of the implications of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s trips to Saudi Arabia and China. However, for now at least, the Arab world still needs economic aid from the West in the form of annual military funds, myriad economic programs, and support within the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. As demographic, monetary, and institutional challenges multiply, the Arab world needs Western support more than ever. As most states in the region shift in unpredictable ways, America needs Arab allies more than ever. This mutual need demands a relationship based on respect.
America can begin to rebuild that respect by holding responsible those implicated in last week’s actions. America must uphold the international principle of the sanctity of foreign embassies and consulates. When Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Egypt suffered a series of protests in April, Saudi Arabia closed its embassy and recalled its envoy back to Riyadh. This move precipitated earnest Egyptian apologies and the President’s trip to Saudi Arabia immediately following his election. Today, relations between the two countries are very strong.
A nearly constant complaint one hears as an American in the Arab world is that America selectively chooses when to uphold its values. These events, which are fundamentally about the scope of individual liberty, are an opportunity to be consistent. Rather than emphasizing that “There is never any justification for violence of this kind,” as Hillary Clinton did, or trying to score political points like Mitt Romney, we need to articulate why a broad definition of freedom of expression makes our society stronger. We need to prove that our compulsion to defend the right to defame is more essential to our identity than our revulsion to that defamation.
Eric T. Justin ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.