The protests sweeping the Middle East in response to the anti-Islamic video “The Innocence of Muslims” are frightening to many in the West, as they should be. They demonstrate that there are still significant segments of the population in the Middle East and Muslim world who are willing to use violence as a tool of protest, and that values which we in the Western world take for granted, such as freedom of expression, are not fully understood or embraced in their societies. The killing of the American ambassador to Libya was a tragedy, as was the rest of the violence, slaughter, and disruption that these protests have brought with them. It’s understandable, then, why many in the West are suddenly disillusioned about the prospects of a peaceful and stable post-revolution Middle East, and why many more are arguing that the new democracies in the Middle East are going to be havens for radical Islam and other movements which are willing to carry out these violence-filled protests and assaults. This disillusionment and these fears, however, are short-sighted and fail to acknowledge the new realities brought about by democracy and the actual outlook of those in the Middle East.
The media in the West has been pelting viewers with images of violent Arabs protesting against the United States in the street, and as a result this has become the stereotype that most Americans think of when discussing the Arab and Muslim world. Of course, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The majority of Muslims in the Middle East are moderate, and they have been largely sitting out the protests and not contributing to the violence. The problem is, they constitute a silent majority, and unfortunately it is always the most vocal group which gets the most attention. Radical Islamists, who seek to use violence as a tool against the West and against our values, do exist in the Middle East, and they constitute the vocal minority. Reports coming in about the assault on the Libyan Embassy are saying that the attack was orchestrated by Al-Qaeda, a group which is known for its terroristic actions and which can hardly be associated with the average Arab. Meanwhile, more analyses on the protests are showing that they are being ‘manufactured’ by radical groups, such as the Salafists, who are using the video as opportunities to increase their influence and thereby grow in power. What is important to remember is that these groups do not constitute majority opinion in the Middle East. Rather, they are fringe actors who are using violence to gain notice and thus achieve political goals, and the unfortunate fact is that the Western news media is playing into their game. The more commentary coming out of Western news outlets that the Middle East is becoming radicalized, the less willing Americans become to support the Middle Eastern experiment in democracy. It is when West, which has largely bolstered these new democratic regimes and which are currently supporting their tenuous economies, pulls away its support that radical and fringe groups such as the Salafists can truly work their way into the system
There is hope, however. The fact is, the Middle East experiment in democracy is going surprisingly smoothly, and is much less radical than the news would have us believe. Libya, where the embassy was assaulted and the ambassador killed, has elected a secular, liberal party to lead parliament and draft the new constitution. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have embraced a moderate technocratic standpoint. We must consider that Egypt society contains a large Coptic Christian contingent, and the Brotherhood understands that it must not alienate them if it wishes to have legitimacy in parliament and in the presidency. Finally, Morsi, the Egyptian President, has been ruling more as a technocrat than as an Islamist, appointing many minority and opposition groups into positions of power in his government and stepping down from his position in the Brotherhood.
Finally, a reminder on how democracies work should be put out to the Western observers of the turmoil in the Middle East. These protests will undoubtedly disrupt relations between the West and the Arab world, and these disruptions will no doubt damage the economies of the new democratic states. Tunisia and Egypt rely heavily upon American aid, and tourism is a major contributor to their economies. These violent protests will definitely disrupt both. With the economies stagnating, voters in these new democracies will do what they now have power to do: vote out those who screwed them over, and vote in those who promise to do the opposite. The average Arab can see that radical elements caused and led these protests, and as a response it will be the radicals who suffer most in the voting booth. This is how democracy should work, and I am quite optimistic that it is how it will play out in the end. The West needs to not disavow the Arab experiments in democracy just yet, and they cannot stereotype the average Arab as a radical Islamist. Doing either is short-sighted, and frankly incorrect, and would severely undermine the promise the Middle East current holds.