Today I am an angry Arab Muslim woman — outraged, as a person of conscience, over the attacks on American embassies and the murder of a talented diplomat who represented me. After the 2005 cartoon riots, no one should be surprised by Muslim fanatics' irrational violence. Yet seeing history repeated — not as farce but as brutal tragedy — is a wake-up call. We must confront hard truths and take bold action against behavior that is completely unacceptable.
Let's be clear: a silly film on YouTube is simply an excuse. No American needs to apologize for the film's existence, and nobody — no matter how offended by the film — should make believe that it can in any way justify the assault on U.S. embassies. Neither the U.S. government nor the American people have anything to do with the film. We have been attacked because of the values we represent: free speech, free press and freedom of conscience.
But these are not per se American values; they are universal values. The embassy protests offer a stark reminder that the Middle East has adopted technological modernity without intellectual modernity. Yemeni rioters happily looted the Sana'a embassy of laser printers and other high-tech equipment. But while they enjoy these miracles of modernity, they fail to appreciate the intellectual values that enable modernity to thrive.
Free inquiry, experimentation, and questioning assumptions are values driving human progress. Yet some people who have long been denied the freedom to exercise such values are clearly threatened by them. The rioters stoked to murderous rage by an amateur web clip are scared of a world where human beings are first and foremost individuals who make independent choices. The idea that a person is free to dissent and even offend cannot be understood — and so it must be attacked.
What the rioters — or at least those who incited them — do understand is that free societies are in turn afraid of them. From the cartoon crisis, they learned that violence gets results. With the right intimidation, some of the most powerful leaders in the world can be made to grovel and abandon the core values of their country (of this, both Democrats and Republicans stand guilty). Such condescension degrades Muslims as savages unable to play by basic rules of decent conduct expected of everyone else.
Who has fueled these attacks on freedom? The cartoon riots were nakedly political, incited by both Islamists and secular dictators (recall the violent attack on the Danish embassy in Damascus). This time around is no different. Exactly one week before Sept. 11, the official website of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood proudly published a list of President Mohamed Morsi's accomplishments in his first two months. High on the list was, in plain Arabic, "ending U.S. hegemony." It is no accident that seven days later the Cairo embassy was stormed while Egypt's president remained silent. Like the Yemeni rioters with looted U.S. laser printers, Mr. Morsi solicits billions of dollars in American aid without modifying the Brotherhood's classic anti-American agenda.
Yet here Mr. Morsi actually has a lesson to share. A few weeks ago, he utilized a terror attack in the Sinai as an excuse to upend Egypt's political order, sacking top security officials and claiming new powers for himself. Time to apply the same standard of accountability to Mr. Morsi. The hundreds of criminals who attacked the U.S. embassies need to be arrested and sentenced to substantial jail terms. Top political officials who failed in their duties need to be sacked. And Mr. Morsi owes the American people nothing less than an abject apology. He and the Muslim Brotherhood must pay the price for tolerating such actions on their watch.
Western leaders should be ruthless in their demands because what is at stake here is much more than the lives of American diplomats. Millions of Muslims in the Middle East believe in human freedom and individuality. They are stuck living next to radical Islamists and living under Islamist leaders. The real message of the embassy attacks was domestic, a reminder to Muslim liberals that the modern values they believe in are unacceptable and will be violently repressed.
I speak as someone who has spent much of the last decade working on the ground in Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia to promote individual rights and empower a new generation of Muslim leaders committed to pluralism. The worst outcome of the embassy riots would be for the American people to throw up their hands in despair. Rather, we need to stand up stronger for universal values; hold Islamists accountable and demand real tolerance; and redouble our efforts to help Muslim liberals on the frontlines. Anything less, and the rioters will have won.
For Muslims, our Prophet deserves better defenders than these thugs. For Americans, our nation deserves better friends.
Zainab Al-Suwaij is executive director of the American Islamic Congress.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun