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A major contributor to Arab-Street anger aimed at American institutions and government rests in widespread perceptions of two-faced behavior. In the eyes of millions of Muslims what we say about our devotion to democratic principles and freedom runs counter to our long term support for corrupt dictator regimes.
Western nations appear to be more than a little befuddled by the awakening of Islam. Where, we seem to wonder, did so many militants and angry Mullahs come from? And why are peoples we hardly know, the uneducated, indentured and poor, suddenly so damned angry?
Why, we wonder, have people attacked and killed our best and brightest foreign service personnel? To some degree the reasons rest as much in understanding ourselves as in our limited understanding of the Arab street.
In the last few weeks we lost four great Americans in violence at our Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. One of them, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, loved the region he served and spoke fluent Arabic.
Not that it mattered for he and three other foreign service professionals were killed in a terrorist attack.
The attack, whomever ordered it, was not at all likely to be against Ambassador Stevens, but against the United States. Stevens was held in high esteem by a great many Libyans, by some reports he was loved for his support for a free Libya.
All of which raises a most indelicate question. If someone widely respected for being a friend of Libya could so easily lose his life — how ought other Americans evaluate the risks?
The underlying issues that drive street-mob anger at Western nations has little or nothing to do with the Internet, YouTube movie, or Florida pastors who threaten to burn the Qur’an. The Benghazi attack, whomever ordered it, was not likely to have been aimed specifically at Ambassador Stevens as against what is perceived as a monolithic, sometimes thoughtless, often evil-doing United States.
It makes no difference if the charges are bogus or devoid of credibility. What matters is that certain events, or their wrongful portrayal, have potential for igniting existing perceptions or beliefs — real or imagined.
While a wide range of issues are used to incite public discontent and demonstrations they’re rarely more more than pretexts meant to tap into long-held notions of American evil-doing.
One way of making sense of widespread unrest attributed to American influence or interference begins with deep-seated and reinforced perceptions in many nations that what America says and what ensues is proof of two-faced behavior.
What I hear from Muslim friends and co-workers is that what we say publicly about America’s devotion to democratic principles and freedom runs opposite to what the Arab Street has experienced in the last century.
The reality today is that the Arab Street believes that America speaks earnestly of freedom and democracy while openly supporting despotic regimes that came about, or prospered under the protection of American power.
Being a principled nation demands that we support the legitimate aspirations of oppressed peoples for freedom. Being a practical nation seeking to secure its position in a shifting and complex world often demands otherwise.
U.S. foreign policy has always been about extending and promoting our interests, values, and ideas. America has, and ought to continue, to exercise its foreign power to make ourselves secure and successful.
Our dealings with dictators has significantly benefited U.S. interests — even as it created contempt or hate by those whose lives were adversely impacted by the decisions we made and the policies we pursued.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring that turned asunder dictators in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt Muslims long kept silent by dictators are now able to vent. If we assume they do so due to, or in spite of what happened last month or last year we err. Memories of painful events long ago do not fade quickly.
Some of the pent-up wrath aimed at U.S. institutions is meant for former dictators or complicit military now gone. We, on the other hand, remain — and thought to be accountable.
Thus generations of Muslims feel oppressed or wronged by western nations who in their eyes were, and remain, enablers of dictators.
So we have sown, so shall we reap.