A Fine Edge

Since I send my plants off to their winter's nap in refreshed beds, I have had some slow time this month -- while working step-by-step along the bed lines -- to reflect on the ragged edges of the free speech -v- blasphemy clash left in the wake of the demonstrations of the last few weeks across the Muslim world. Slicing away bits of lawn with my Dutch step-on half-moon edger is more an exercise in humility than control.  With every step, I confront the reality that there is a lot going on out there. It is work to claw the soil apart from the cloven turf clumps, liberate the plump worms to live another day, haul the debris off to the compost pile and hollow the trough between beds and lawn. 

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Experience in diplomacy as well as gardening has left me humble before the "just enough" reality of what can be achieved with the time and tools at our disposal in worlds with dynamics of their own. So I read, Governor Romney's VMI critique of President Obama's Middle East policy management with the seasoned eyes and body knowledge of one who has toiled in the trenches. The sharp line of Romney's attack is based on a simplified view of contending forces in the Middle East and our ability to influence outcomes. Recognizing messy complexity does not suggest we sit on our hands and let the weeds take over. But, it does argue for a bit more humility and respect for the job to be done.

For example, there were ragged factual bits about the "Innocence of Muslims" incident to be be cleared up by American public diplomacy over the last few weeks too. As Mary Jeffers wrote in a fine post on Take Five, the charged politics of the situation demonstrates, 

... that dense thickets of factual misinformation currently impede mutual understanding on this issue of media-government relationships, and it suggests that more work on clearing away such thickets is needed before debates about principles can take place in a productively open field.

In that regard, quick action public affairs efforts like Secretary Clinton's September 13, 2012 statement have been useful:


Clearing up the facts by issuing official statements on social media platforms or engaging opinion multipliers abroad however essential, would not have been sufficient to erase motivated bias on the part of Arab audiences processing that information if the Obama administration had not earlier been able to mitigate, in the words of Middle East expert Marc Lynch,

a seamless narrative of a war on Islam which makes sense to ordinary people. 

Dislodging an entrenched narrative by attacking its factual underpinnings is rarely an effective strategy at home or abroad. It is worth noting, for example, that in the United States, a stunning 17% of registered voters (30% of Republicans) believe that President Obama is a Muslim according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life's July 2012 poll. So, even with four years controlling the powers of the presidency, President Obama has not been able to clean up factual misperceptions about his birth and faith among American voters.

How then could it be any easier to weed out falsehoods rooting in foreign soil where we have less leverage and when polls have consistently shown that in the Islamic sphere the underlying attitude toward the United States is negative? With negative favorability ratings of the United States slipping further this year in several strategically important Muslim dominant countries like Pakistan and Jordan according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, it is easy for political agents to gain ground by manipulating information about the United States.

While Lynch contends that Obama Administration support for the democratic transitions underway across much of the Middle East and North Africa, combined with withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, have weakened the narrative's purchase, the "war on Islam" narrative appears to be alive and well in Pakistan as events suggest. Steve Tatham consequently criticizes the Pakistan ad buy:

 is it really credible that a few words from the US President are going to appease an enraged mob? A mob galvanised by trusted messengers in the Mosques and communities from which the rioters are drawn.  

Perhaps not if the people are simply idle magma whose hot flow is so easily directed by handlers.  But as Tatham also noted and Marc Lynch insists, a very different political environment now appears to exist in the post Arab Spring world where, for example,

 tens of thousands came out in Benghazi in an inspiring rally against militias and against the attack on the U.S. consulate.

We can hope that Lynch is correct that the once powerful "clash of civilizations" frame no longer appears to have traction when wielded by extremists attempting to advance their own ideological visions in some particular national political cauldrons. Now that many Arab publics are empowered to determine their own political destinies, individuals process political action and rhetoric of those who seek to influence them by the logic of their local political environments. They have agency.

Still, within all of these varied environments individual freedoms are being negotiated within a context in which Islam continues to be central to the moral matrix of society.  The American public,  according to a poll released October 8increasingly sees a shift in Arab uprisings from ordinary people seeking freedom to Islamist parties seeking power.  French sociologist Olivier Roy (2012) writing in the Journal of Democracy explains that

What is at stake is the reformulation of religion’s place in the public sphere.

Roy insists that those of us in the political liberal West must recognize that secularization and democratization are not advancing hand in hand in the Arab world, as we might have expected based on our own history. Instead, religious norms are being recast as values and contested as democracy evolves. These struggles are playing out differently in the various states of the Middle East and North Africa because of their own particular histories and contexts.   

This does not mean, that taken as a whole, there are not profound differences in the value priorities held by political Islam and our own political liberalism. Yale comparative political scientist Andrew F. March (2010) writes in a dense but illuminating article on "Speech and the Sacred," 

The deepest incommensurability, rather, is between the belief that even painful speech about sacred matters may be a legitimate form of self-expression and social commentary and the contrary belief that certain sacred objects are more valuable than individual self-expression.

Evidence of these values differences were seen clearly September's UNGA speeches. Moving to assert Egyptian leadership of the "Arab world within the wider Islamic sphere," newly elected President Morsi suggested that the global public square should accommodate Islamic religious sensibilities by limiting freedom of expression even in Western liberal democracies. He argued for privileging the sacred, 

"The obscenities recently released as part of an organized campaign against Islamic sanctities is unacceptable and requires a firm stand. We have a responsibility in this international gathering to study how we can protect the world from instability and hatred."

President Obama, arguing for the prevention of harm, similarly condemed the "crude and disgusting" video but stressed the virtues of individual free speech and religious tolerance in a pluralistic world :

I know that not all countries in this body share this understanding of the protection of free speech. Yet in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how we respond. And on this we must agree: there is no speech that justifies mindless violence.

That a debate on whether either free speech or the sacred have priority rises to the level of contesting presidential rhetoric in our premiere international forum in 2012 demonstrates the domestic political power of the competing values at play as well as the potential intractability of the moral and political difficulties of reconciling them in the global context. 

Governor Romney wants to "win new friends who share our values in the Middle East."  Yet, if we were only to work with the secularists who "share our values" as presidential candidate Romney argues at VMI, we might find ourselves without working relationships with those who rise to power through the ranks of Islamist political parties in this strategically important region. The world as it is, is not the world those inexperienced in foreign policy might imagine. Public diplomacy evaluates audience mindsets as they are and tries to understand, inform and influence them.  

For those largely secular Muslims who struggle to relegate religion to the private realm within their own national democratic transitions, a new appreciation of the facts of our position on religious tolerance and free speech might improve their perception of the U.S. as it strengthens their hand. Tunisian secularists, for example, are contesting a draft law that the Islamist Ennahdha group introduced in the National Constituent Assembly on August 1, 2012. The bill would criminalize "offenses against sacred values." Given the politics within Tunisia, secularists might welcome our defense of both religious tolerance and freedom of expression because that could enhance their contention that pious observance of Islam by individuals does not require, and is not served by, state coercion. 

Paradoxically, reformist  members of the Muslim Brotherhood, like Egyptian President Morsi might also welcome American clarifications because their contention that democracy and Islam are compatible is under challenge from the radical Salafis who organized the protests in Cairo. By cleaning up the ragged bits and creating a clear line on the principles of free speech and religious tolerance, the United States afforded Morsi the opportunity to challenge the liberal principles the U.S. champions and assert Egyptian moral authority within the Islamic sphere at home and abroad. Weakening the most radical Islamists --  those who want to kill us --  in their contest for power with those reformers who are more open to reconciling the centrality of Islam with democracy and good governance surely is an American interest worthy of sustained diplomatic engagement. 

The result of our diplomatic efforts may not cleave the clear lines between friends and foes our Republican candidate for president imagines; but, sometimes, a deft wedge is the most effective play on an ultra fast green. 

H: red borders

Hidcote Manor


Except where otherwise noted, all original work produced by Donna Oglesby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License