Don't Set the Wrong Example

September saw an outburst of anger across much of the Muslim world in response to a propaganda video that made fun of the Prophet Mohammed. Cartoons that followed added fuel to the fire. So far, the reaction of Western governments has been appropriate. The US, however, must not now repeat past mistakes and start hunting terrorists in Libya. A commentary by Hans Dembowski

Some rabid Muslim militants were literally up in arms. The murder of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his staff in Benghazi was an awful crime. In Sudan, the German embassy was torched. By Saturday 22 September, at least 18 Pakistanis had been killed in riots in several cities.

Such violence is totally unacceptable, as Western governments from Washington to Berlin quickly pointed out. They were equally correct to emphasise that they oppose those who incite religious hate, but that freedom of speech is a fundamental human right.

It is bizarre that furious people in predominantly Muslim countries seem to believe that the US administration or even some kind of generalised "West" can be held responsible for every inappropriate statement or every tasteless video a citizen comes up with. This is a mindset that dates back to the era before the Tahrir Square revolution. It reveals a profound misunderstanding of democracy. Yes, the video is shameful, but no Western state agency authorized it. Cartoons may be ridiculous and stupid, but governments must not censor what magazines publish.

US President Barack Obama (right) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton making a statement about the death of US ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens (photo: Getty Images)
The US disregard for legal principles in its hunt for terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the failure to close Guantanamo Bay have damaged the Obama administration's reputation and credibility throughout the Muslim world and make America's promotion of the rule of law seem hypocritical to many


Volatile security situation

Western governments are right to insist that other nations' authorities must not only protect embassies and consulates, but also prosecute murderers and other perpetrators of violence. That said, it is not at all obvious that the governments of countries in transition, such as Libya or Egypt, are in a position to fulfil all these duties. Pakistan too is struggling with a host of challenges and cannot ensure the security of all its people.

Western governments that worry about the lives of their diplomatic staff have reason to consider beefing up security at embassies and reducing the number of officers there or even closing them. But it would be totally inappropriate to take law enforcement into their own hands.

Since US President Barack Obama was elected nearly four years ago, nothing has hurt the reputation of his country in Pakistan and Afghanistan more than the single-minded hunt for terrorists with little regard for legal principles. It cost him credibility that he did not close the detention centre in Guantanamo Bay as promised. But anonymous drone strikes that kill suspected terrorists as well as innocent bystanders result in grief and hatred. They also fly in the face of any pretence to the kind of rule of law Western governments normally promote.

This deadly policy must not be copied in Libya, where many people are aching for revenge after the civil war, as Hadija Ramadan al-Amami recently pointed out. In this explosive environment, NATO nations must not set the wrong example.

Former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (photo: AP Photo)
Throwback to the past: when questioned about the unstable situation in Iraq after the US took control of the capital, Donald Rumsfeld famously said "It's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."

​​No absolute security anywhere

Nonetheless, right-wing commentators in the US are putting the wrong kind of pressure on Obama. They are plain wrong to argue that the attack on Stevens was the result of "American weakness". They would do well to remember Donald Rumsfeld, who was US defence secretary when the Republican administration of President George W. Bush ordered the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Asked about instability and ongoing violence there, he cynically stated that "stuff happens". The truth is that there is no absolute security anywhere, and certainly not in countries that are only just emerging from civil strife or war.

What Western leaders should do, however, is put more and more public pressure on Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have a track record of promoting fundamentalists in many countries. Their country is the centre of gravity for Sunni fanaticism, and unlike Iran – its Shia equivalent – it is a close ally of the US.

According to Loay Mudoon: "The Saudis are actively interventionist. The regime's double aim is to contain Iran and at the same time prevent any kind of liberalization the people of Saudi Arabia might find attractive. In cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, the Saudis deployed troops to Bahrain to quell protests against that island's Sunni monarchy. The Saudis are similarly funding Sunni rebels in Syria. On the other hand, their support for Salafist reactionaries in Egypt is putting conservative pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Islamist ideology is more pragmatic."

Serious fundamentalist threat

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (photo: Reuters)
According to Hans Dembowski, Mitt Romney is "catering to Western ignorance" of the Muslim world and would do well to make a constructive contribution to the situation instead of just criticising Obama's foreign policy

​​In many Western countries, the public in general does not understand the divide between Sunnis and Shias. Ignorant people tend to believe that all Islamists are inspired by the "bad guys" in Tehran, and that the Gulf monarchies are on "our side". That is nonsense. Sunni fundamentalism is just as dangerous as the Shia variety. And when zealots on both sides compete for being the most offended by tasteless videos or cartoons, violence becomes ever more likely. Unfortunately, such escalation serves Saudi interests.

In a dangerous way, Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate in the US presidential elections, which take place in November, is now catering to Western ignorance. He accuses Obama of not actively assisting the rebel forces in Syria, but does not even mention that some of them are Sunni fanatics. It would be much more helpful if he expressed some constructive ideas on how Western governments might sway Riyadh towards supporting democratic values in view of the Arab spring.

Hans Dembowski

© 2012

Hans Dembowski is editor-in-chief of the monthly publication D+C Development and Cooperation.

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan