US Embassy Attacks in Libya and Cairo Are a New Kind of Terror

Glenn Beck must be deliriously happy. The attacks upon the American embassy in Cairo and murder of a U.S. diplomat in Libya seemingly make his warnings about the Barack Obama Middle East policy prescient. Indeed, Beck once warned us about “Obama’s Shocking Ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.”Yes, the attacks are an outrage. Yes, they remind some of the 1979 attacks on the American embassies in Pakistan and Iran. But no, this is not history repeating itself. With apologies to Mark Twain, in this case the history does not even rhyme.

A generation ago, aging autocrats ruled over a Middle East still mired in a musty and stale environment of the Cold War. The pan-Arab nationalism of Gamel Abdel-Nasser lay in ruins, as did the freedom and aspirations of Arabs across the region. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamist revolution offered an alternative path from the corrupt secular dictatorships that had placed the region in the political and economic deep freeze. To Western eyes, Khomeini represented a suddenly emergent Islamist movement. Instead of a novel undertaking, the Ayatollah was the culmination of an Islamist ideology that first appeared in 1920s Egypt, came of age in the 1960s, and reached American shores on 9/11.

Ironically, Osama bin Laden and bin Laden-ism had peaked in 1979—a generation before that horrible September morning. Instead of resonating with young Arabs, al Qaeda, bin Laden, and Islamism were and are anachronisms. A political dodo bird that somehow gasped and wheezed its way into the twenty-first century; the radical Islamists launched a revolutionary broadside against modernity but found no popular support. 

Instead of attracting followers from the heart of the Arab world, al Qaeda plucks its recruits from the rural poor of Central Asia and the Hobbesian state of nature that is the Horn of Africa. In the age of satellite television, YouTube, and Facebook, young Arabs watch Hollywood movies, learn English, and imbibe in Western pop culture much like any teenager in Europe. In addition, tens of thousands of Muslims study abroad at American universities. Here, they encounter Americans, eat hamburgers, watch the Kardashians, and smoke shisha at Hookah cafes that dot the college town landscape. 

The criminal trespass and murderous violence visited upon Americans in Egypt and Libya remind us that the Islamists possess a message and a (meager) following. Unlike 1979, they fail to offer a compelling vision. In 2012, the internet, television, and international travel have exposed millions of young Arabs to Western modernity. Drones, cruise missiles and special ops remain necessary in quelling Islamist militant. But the pen of One Direction, The Twilight Saga, and World Cup football are mightier than sword. 

Fear mongering might raise the number of GBTV subscribers but this is not Jimmy Carter’s Middle East.