Following the tragic death of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three members of his staff earlier this week, attacks against American embassies continued to spread in other states, with the latest such incident happening in Yemen. The motivation for these attacks is the now infamous low-quality cinematic production satirizing the prophet Muhammad; the backlash is reflective of the fact that Muslims are averse to the depiction of Allah or Muhammed in any way as an act equivalent to sacrilege.
Beyond the violence and tragedy of the attacks, what does this incident mean? Simply put, we are at the point where American foreign policy in the Middle East is experiencing a legitimacy crisis for one, and two, the time is nearing for Islam to have a serious conversation with itself about how it relates to the world and vice versa.
These are deep questions for which I don’t have the room in this article, beyond brief highlights. On the first count, America’s history of engaging the Mideast is coloured with success, failure and, sadly, a lot of death. The deaths of thousands of American soldiers became a grisly everyday norm for most of the last decade, but the murder of a diplomat is a new precedent. It has symbolic value for a people pushed to the limit. It is a message that says, “We don’t want you here anymore.” Despite official reactions condemning the attacks and apologizing, the message cannot be disguised. One has to ask, is letting American embassies be attacked in the first place evidence of lack of capacity to protect government buildings, or intentional sabotage that speaks subtle diplomacy in a very overt way?
The answer to that question is somewhere in the middle, but it is insignificant to the larger one: has Muslim patience with America expired? The Arab world automatically associates America with war, not peace and democracy, as the official propaganda would have us believe on this side of the world. I would venture a guess that the case is very nearly so, if not already so. The diplomatic ball is in Washington’s court, and while Stevens’ death will be chalked up as an unfortunate anomaly, its significance is purposeful, intentional, and loud.
The modus operandi of American foreign policy in the Mideast has to change, fundamentally. It cannot be solely about counter-terrorism and loyal client regimes. Now, it has to move on to real conversation.
The second aspect of this piece is about Islam’s engagement with the world. I am aware that I’m venturing into sensitive territory here, but it is time to talk openly about some things. For one, every time a picture of the Prophet appears anywhere, people die. The depiction of a Hindu god or Jesus Christ does not lead to such outcomes, so why Islam? Indicative here isn’t anything wrong with the religion, but rather, with its ability to communicate with the rest of the world. Saudi Arabia is perhaps the best example of what looks to me as a crisis within Islam – reconciling the tradition with the inevitability of increased global interaction, brought on by a globalized world with all its positive and negative consequences through a totalitarian society, whose elite is one of globetrotters, but whose women can’t even drive a car.
Such a standoff cannot continue to no end. It seems hypocritical. An old saying goes that you can’t run away from the world, because it eventually comes to you, and interacting with it is a no-choice option. That was the case when Islam was new and expanding and now, when it is confronted with the different societies on its borders. Incidents like this are going to happen again – the Danes were first in 2005, now this provocation, and it is a matter of time before it happens again. It is the human way and Islam must learn to internalize and adapt, but that requires an internal catharsis on its part first.
It's time for change. Now is our chance.