The Middle East showed incredible promise during the Arab Spring, but a hard winter’s on the horizon.
At the height of Libya’s 2011 civil war, the city of Benghazi represented a new beginning for the West in the Middle East. As forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi began an assault on Libya’s last revolutionary stronghold, NATO intervened with overwhelming coordination and firepower. The city of some 650,000 was spared, Gaddafi’s army broken and routed. While Westerners cleared the skies, Libyan rebels advanced out of Benghazi to capture Tripoli and end the war. A year later, America is besieged in the city it once saved. Benghazi may again represent a new beginning, far more sobering than the last; the beginning of the end for the Arab Spring.
There’s a critical distinction to be drawn here. First there’s the Arab Spring as the West tells it, a revolutionary wave for greater political and civil liberties premised on democratic idealism. Then there’s the Arab Spring as it increasingly appears, a regional movement against particularly offensive dictators. It’s only the first view that’s frustrated by more recent events in the Middle East; the latter remains perfectly compatible. Foreigners were eager to link the Arab protests to an appreciation of Western civil society, a theory which seems increasingly naive.
That said, the revolutionary Middle East remains committed to democracy and, to an extent, greater freedoms of expression. Those freedoms, however, end with Islam. Many Westerners voiced their disappointment when Islamist parties surged to power following revolution. Given the strength of Christian parties in the West, that by itself means little. But the context necessarily changes when a poorly-produced, low-budget film slandering the Prophet Muhammad can inspire an entire region to barbarism overnight.
It goes without saying that the attacks on Western embassies represent a radical portion of the Muslim world—unfortunately, that portion may be growing. Overall Muslim support for terrorism has dropped significantly since 9/11, but a recent Pew Center poll finds it’s again on the rise. For now they remain a minority, albeit a highly-visible and increasingly prominent one. While revolutionaries have no obligation to pattern their new societies after the West, radicalization has never served any country well. Republican France collapsed under Robespierre and even China has grown moderate in its success. There’s a reason most governments choose parliaments and presidencies over Chairmen and caliphs.
Whatever happens, Arabs must recognize the paths before them. Al-Qaeda dealt a devastating blow in 2001, but the United States remains by far the world’s dominant military power. A mere fraction of NATO’s strength was sufficient to decimate Gaddafi’s armed forces and secure a rebel victory in the Libyan civil war. Should the Middle East choose to make an enemy of the West, there’s no escaping how outmatched they’ll be. Emboldened would-be terrorists should keep in mind that America’s stumbles in Afghanistan represent the exception, not the rule.
With any luck, it’ll never come to that. A springtime Gallup poll found that 95% of Libyans wanted to see independent militias disarmed to prevent exactly the kind of attack that took place in Benghazi. Three-fourths of them supported NATO intervention and ranked American and European governments in high esteem. A second Pew study concluded that a majority of Muslims view extremist elements unfavorably, and it’s important to note that Islamist factions are not inherently violent or tyrannical.
None of this changes the sad reality that four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in a disgraceful attack on a U.S. embassy. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Libyan government considered Stevens a “dear friend” and “real hero” helping to rebuild their country. Nor should Westerners ignore Arab efforts to defend their consulates, often sustaining heavy injuries in the process. Most important, though, may be the worldwide vigils of Muslims carrying American flags, photographs of Ambassador Stevens, and promises that Arabs and the West can coexist.
Between the early Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, and modern day dictatorships, the Middle East’s exposure to liberal governance has been sporadic and ongoing. Some nations will follow the secular model as Turkey has to great success. Others may turn toward the familiarity of theocracy, justifying sharia with extremist majorities. No NATO airstrike or foreign aid package will sway that debate; the decision must be borne by each nation alone, as must the consequences.
While Benghazi burns, the men behind the film responsible say they’ve made their point. They wanted to show the world that “Islam is a cancer” and its followers “pre-programmed” to kill. Rioters have played the part perfectly, reminding foreigners of radical Islam’s atrocities over the past decade. The Arab Spring offered hope that old wounds could at last be healed. It’s still possible, but not until Muslims can make peace with the First Amendment. If they can’t, there may be a long, hard winter in store for the Middle East.