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After Chris Stevens: The Importance of Insider Criticisms from the Arab-Muslim World

September 27, 2012
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After the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens, Libyans in Benghazi express concern. Photo credit: Mohammad Hannon/AP from The Guardian (http://bit.ly/VKNsJG).

In his latest column for the NY Times, Thomas Friedman highlights how moderate pundits from the Muslim world have written some very harsh, self-critical op-eds in key Middle Eastern media outlets following the assassination of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans. These types of critical pieces are probably more prevalent than Westerners are led to believe and Friedman does us all a favour when he uses his NY Times platform to shine a spotlight on the range of views that exist across the Arab world.

To be clear, official condemnation of the Stevens murder has been universal:

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its officials, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the Egyptian prime minister, officials in Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya, and even Salafi elements all called to avoid violence and harming embassies and diplomats, claiming that it is contrary to Islam; some even issued fatwas forbidding it.The violence was also condemned by the head of the International Union of Muslims Scholars (IUMS), Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, as well as by the leaders of the Gulf states and the Mufti of Saudi Arabia.

But there is more. The murders and the offending YouTube video that spurred the attacks has led to some provocative pieces being published. Translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), some of these passages are worth quoting at length:

Al-Hayat columnist Hassan Haidar: The most dangerous thing is that the extremists, exploiting the Arab spring revolutions, are trying to impose themselves as the force that shapes the new regimes in their countries. They are prepared to take up arms and [act] violently to strengthen their position, while threatening not only ‘infidel foreigners,’ but also moderate Muslim citizens and Christian minorities. The fear is that their extremism and rejection of the other will cause a majority of the people [in their countries] to regret the change they supported.

Throughout the past decade, Muslims have made tremendous efforts to cleanse Islam of the terrorist image that some tried to pin on it after Al-Qaeda’s crimes in 2001. It is the responsibility of the new regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia to change the terrifying image [of Muslims] created by the behavior of extremists; to stop those trying to spread acts of extremism and intimidation before they get worse; and to prove that they belong to the tolerant middle way of Islam.”

And the harshest words of all come from Imad Al-Din Hussein in Al-Shurouq in a prominent Cairo daily:

We curse the West day and night, and criticize its [moral] disintegration and shamelessness, while relying on it for everything – from sewing needles to rockets. It is both funny and sad that we call to boycott Western goods, as though we could punish it while still relying on it. We import, mostly from the West, cars, trains, planes… refrigerators, and washing machines… We import most of what we eat… as well as all kinds of technology and weapons… Even our curricula are partially imported. And we steal ideas [from Western] movies and [artistic] works. We are a nation that contributes nothing to human civilization in the current era. We import the culture of the West, which we call infidel and curse from morning until night. We have become a burden on [other] nations…

The world will respect us when we return to be people who take part in human civilization, instead of [being] parasites who are spread out over the map of the advanced world, feeding off its production and later attacking it from morning until night. Only when we eat what we sow [ourselves], drive [vehicles] that we produce, and consume what we make – [only] then will we be [independent] of the world… When we become civilized and obey true Islam, then everyone will respect us…

The West is not an oasis of idealism. It also contains exploitation in many areas. But at least it is not sunk in delusions [and preoccupied with] trivialities and external appearances, as we are… Therefore, supporting Islam and the prophet of the Muslims should be done through work, production, values, and culture, not by storming embassies and murdering diplomats…”

As a Westerner, what is interesting about these criticisms is that these are Muslim voices. Imagine for a second that the piece written by Imad Al-Din Hussein (at the very end) had been written by Canadian or a Brit or a German. Unthinkable, right? It’s impossible to imagine because these types of criticisms could never ever be uttered in public by a Westerner without being branded a racist bigot. Some criticisms (valid or not) can only be legitimately put forward by members of that community. This insider effect is critical to how any piece of criticism is absorbed. It’s not just what is said, but who says it.

This observation is rooted in the social psychology literature which shows that the most influential political voices are actually “turncoats”- those who switched over from the other side. Former critics are best poised to convince those from the “other” side. For example, think back to Greg Smith’s scathing critique of Goldman Sachs in his public letter of resignation. Or consider Bill Cosby’s rant about the breakdown of African-American society. It’s not just the message, but the messenger, that matters.

Cass Suntein discusses these ideas in greater depth here, relating them to the polarization between Republicans and Democrats in US politics.

In short, insider criticisms can’t be dismissed as easily because:

People are most likely to find a source credible if they closely identify with it or begin in essential agreement with it. In such cases, their reaction is not, “how predictable and uninformative that someone like that would think something so evil and foolish,” but instead, “if someone like that disagrees with me, maybe I had better rethink.”

There is an important policy implication here for thinking about the relationship between the West and the Arab-Muslim world. Friedman is right: The West should be pushing for greater freedom of expression. Clearly, there is value in this freedom for its own sake. But the West also needs to create a public space that will allow more critical insiders to speak up from the Muslim world itself. Without these moderate voices, we should expect to see US-Muslim relations become more and more polarized.

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