One of the iron laws of Middle East politics for the last half-century has been that extremists go all the way and moderates tend to just go away. That is what made the march in Benghazi, Libya, so unusual on Sept. 21. This time, the moderates did not just go away. They got together and stormed the headquarters of the Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia, whose members are suspected of carrying out the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the death of four Americans, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens.
It is not clear whether this trend can spread or be sustained. However, having decried the voices of intolerance that so often intimidate everyone in that region, I find it heartening to see Libyans carrying signs like “We want justice for Chris” and “No more al-Qaeda” — and demanding that armed militias disband. This coincides with some brutally honest articles in the Arab/Muslim press — in response to rioting triggered by the idiotic YouTube video insulting the Prophet Mohammed — that are not the usual “What is wrong with America?” but, rather, “What is wrong with us, and how do we fix it?”
On Monday last week, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which tracks the Arab/Muslim press, translated a searing critique written by Imad al-Din Hussein, a columnist for al Shorouk, Cairo’s best daily newspaper:
“We curse the West day and night, and criticize its [moral] disintegration and shamelessness, while relying on it for everything … We import, mostly from the West, cars, trains, planes ... refrigerators and washing machines … We are a nation that contributes nothing to human civilization in the current era … We have become a burden on [other] nations … Had we truly implemented the essence of the directives of Islam and all [other] religions, we would have been at the forefront of the nations. The world will respect us when we return to being people who take part in human civilization, instead of [being] parasites who are spread out over the map of the advanced world, feeding off its production and later attacking it from morning until night … The West is not an oasis of idealism. It also contains exploitation in many areas. But at least it is not sunk in delusions, trivialities and external appearances, as we are ... Therefore, supporting Islam and the prophet of the Muslims should be done through work, production, values and culture, not by storming embassies and murdering diplomats.”
Mohammad Taqi, a liberal Pakistani columnist, writing in the Lahore-based Daily Times on Sept. 20, argued that “there is absolutely no excuse for violence and indeed murder most foul, as committed in Benghazi. Fighting hate with hate is sure to beget more hate. The way out is drowning the odious voices with voices of sanity, not curbing free speech and calls for murder.”
Khaled al-Hroub, a professor at Cambridge University, writing in Jordan’s al Dustour newspaper on Sept. 17, translated by MEMRI, argued that the most “frightening aspect of what we see today in the streets of Arab and Islamic cities is the disaster of extremism that is flooding our societies and cultures, as well as our behavior … This [represents] a total atrophy of thought among wide sectors [of society], as a result of the culture of religious zealotry that was imposed on people for over 50 years, and which brought forth what we witness” today.
The Egyptian comedian, Bassem Youssef, wrote in al Shorouk, translated by MEMRI, on Sept. 23: “We demand that the world respect our feelings, yet we do not respect the feelings of others. We scream blue murder when they outlaw the niqab in some European country or prevent [Muslims] from building minarets in another [European] country — even though these countries continue to allow freedom of religion, as manifest in the building of mosques and in the preaching [activity] that takes place in their courtyards. Yet, in our countries, we do not allow others to publicly preach their beliefs. Maybe we should examine ourselves before [criticizing] others.”
Whenever I was asked during the Iraq war, “How will you know when we’ve won?” I gave the same answer: When Salman Rushdie can give a lecture in Baghdad; when there is real freedom of speech in the heart of the Arab/Muslim world. There is no question that we need a respectful dialogue between Islam and the West, but, even more, we need a respectful dialogue between Muslims and Muslims. What matters is not what Arab/Muslim political parties and groupings tell us they stand for. What matters is what they tell themselves, in their own languages, about what they stand for and what excesses they will not tolerate.
This internal debate had long been stifled by Arab autocrats whose regimes traditionally suppressed extremist Islamist parties, but never really permitted their ideas to be countered with free speech — with independent, modernist, progressive interpretations of Islam or by truly legitimate, secular political parties and institutions. Are we seeing the start of that now with the emergence of free spaces and legitimate parties in the Arab world? Again, too early to say, but this moderate backlash to the extremist backlash is worth hailing — and watching.