Embassies are burning; an ambassador is dead; elite Marine units are being deployed to protect envoys; tear gas canisters are falling like rain droplets on belligerent and vociferous mobs; chants of “Obama, Obama—we are all Osama” pierce an already raucous Friday afternoon; and yet, this eerily seems a beginning.
I welcome you to earth—where the early 21st century is in full progress.
Events of this past week have fueled passionate colloquies on the terms of our coexistence on an increasingly interdependent planet. The outrage and outburst in Muslim lands over a video produced in a Christian land, caricaturing the prophet Mohammed, have brought to fore deep and long-festering divides in our uneasy existence. Particular among these are those that ask what limitations should saddle our freedoms and what ought to be the role of the world’s biggest campaigner for freedom (the United States).
What started as protests against the blasphemy of Islam, soon mushroomed into exercises of discontent against the West as the scourge of failed policies that have kept these societies overly unequal, marginalized, and unstable. It is the reason we saw assaults on both the German and British embassies, though they had no dealings with the video in question.
What is also blatant is that extremists in these lands continue to use incidents like this as propaganda, tapping into a burgeoning and abundant resource of unemployed youth frustrated with life’s prospects. It doesn’t seem to matter that you can’t criminalize the sort of stupidity and harebrainedness for which the video producer is guilty. After all, the right [freedom of opinion and expression and the right to impart such ideas through any media] exercised by the producer is contained in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a document to which Muslim states like Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Iran are all signatories.
If we are to go down the road of having violent protests every time some nincompoop somewhere decides to mock Buddha, Jesus or the prophet Mohammed (as it seems we are), then we could be at this every day, every week, every month. The United States is made up of over 300 million citizens. In the age of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, how does one government, even if it wanted to, effectively filter what nonsense makes it outside its borders? In repressive and tight-knit China, videos and accounts of government excesses still make it to the worldwide web on a daily basis. It is understandable how citizens in former authoritarian states like Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen could think any opinion in public space is sanctioned by the state. For in those states, Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Ali Saleh tightly controlled what was said and what could be said.
Consequently, in the face of this mass unrest, some exasperated public officials and private citizens in the U.S. are calling for isolationist policies. “It is high time we revised this foreign policy,” a friend told me last week. “I have not seen the Chinese, Russian or Canadian embassies bombarded with protesters around the world. If they don’t want us there, we should let them be. We have more important stuff to take care of at home.”
This frustration is highly understandable. For over half a century now, the United States has bankrolled global security with the blood, tears, and taxes of its citizens. In a host of the world’s most disastrous chaos, economic or physical, brought about by man or nature, or the prevention of these; the U.S. has spearheaded remediation efforts. It has unique capabilities—for example, its annual defense budget dwarfs those of the next 20 countries combined.
Alas, down the road, it has bungled its way through some foreign policy initiatives; one as recent as 2003, for which Barack Obama won a Nobel Peace Prize less than 10 months into office for essentially being the anti-Bush. In so many instances, in key geographical locations, it has placed the values and freedoms for which it stands subpar to transient interests like politico-economic stability. It supported autocratic regimes like that of Mubarak in Egypt for almost 30 years, though it well knew this is the least stable form of government. And these governments, in turn, birthed and fed the calamitous unemployment levels we experience today in Muslim states like Yemen and Egypt.
Whether the U.S. likes it or not, it’s now engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of these millions of underprivileged, under-employed, and unemployed youth. The alternative is to leave them to the care of extremists, who, like this past week, will recruit them as standing armies to attack Western interests and personnel.
We know there can be no development in any of these states without security, which freedom needs to flourish. Who wants to build a shopping complex where sniper fire and suicide car bombings are being exchanged like money on an hourly basis? We also know Russia or China will not provide this security. They’ve shown little interest in affairs outside their own national sovereignty and interests. So, it behooves the U.S. It might be romantic to wish the U.S. take a back seat to global affairs, but who really wishes a world where our freedoms and liberties are at the mercy of thuggish Vladimir Putin of Russia or Hu Jintao of China? In such a utopian world, mothers will sink their teeth into their babies as a result of hopelessness and frustration.
Power in itself matters naught, except for what good it is used. Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom from torture and inhuman treatment; and so many others are not strictly Western ideals, they are yearnings of every soul, Muslim or Christian. To turn back on these values is to put our own freedoms, security, and world at risk. It would be naïve to think campaigners for human freedom can unilaterally disengage with no dire consequences. The ripples of those who actively plot to suppress freedom in the East will not stop in the East; they are bound to show up at our doorsteps, and what shall we then do, once we are no longer free?