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Does Middle East Unrest Go Beyond Film?



Nearly two years ago, mass demonstrations against autocrats in Arab countries captivated the world. The Arab Spring would bring democracy, and in many countries, a form of it has come. So, too, has the freedom of assembly and protests, something previous rulers could quash. No longer, and much of that anger is directed towards the United States. Here's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob.

RAZ: Our cover story today: the price of democracy in the Arab world. From Tahrir Square, to Yemen, to Gaza, Muslim demonstrators have taken to the streets this week, sometimes violently. The protests accrued an obscure film that demeans the Prophet Muhammad.

In Libya earlier this week, four U.S. officials were killed in one of those protests. And today, the State Department ordered nonessential personnel and family members of diplomats based in Khartoum and Tunis to evacuate.

In a moment, we'll take a closer look at what these protests say about the changes happening in the Arab Middle East. But first, the latest on the violence. And I'm joined by NPR's Leila Fadel in Benghazi, Libya.

And, Leila, what's the latest on the investigation into the killing of those four U.S. officials?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: I just spoke with the president of Libya who says that he believes this was a preplanned attack. That the pretext of this anti-Muslim film was used to orchestrate what he called a foreign plan by al-Qaida using Libyan tools to a group called Ansar al-Sharia or at least part of that group. He says he believes that al-Qaida took advantage of the security vacuum in Libya and was able to infiltrate through Mali and Chad.

That's what he told us today in what I would describe as a very woeful interview. He seemed extremely sad and - by the deaths of the Americans. He called Chris Stevens, Ambassador Chris Stevens, a close friend and a real tragedy for Libya and for the United States. He also said that an FBI investigative team that was expected today has not arrived, and so it's really unclear if they're coming at all.

RAZ: Have protests generally subsided in Libya and in Cairo where you were reporting from earlier in the week?

FADEL: Yes. I would describe Benghazi as a sort of somber place right now. Since Tuesday, they haven't seen really wide-scale protests. On Wednesday, they had protests against the film but also protests against what happened to the four Americans here and the attack on the consulate. In Egypt, they've had consistent clashes with demonstrators since Tuesday. And today, we see a much quieter day after the death of a demonstrator yesterday.

RAZ: Is there a sense, Leila, that much of this is now over?

FADEL: I don't think we know yet. I think that it's unclear if this will continue. We may have seen the worst of it, or we may have seen the start of it. But I think the governments involved want this to stop because it will endanger American diplomatic missions throughout the region and could endanger the relationship with Washington, which is a very important relationship for Libya's fledgling government as well as Egypt's fledgling government.

RAZ: That's NPR's Leila Fadel reporting from Benghazi in Libya. Leila, thank you.

FADEL: Thank you.

RAZ: The question many Middle East watchers are now asking is whether these protests are really about this film or about something much more complicated. For more, I'm joined by Rami Khouri with the American University of Beirut and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center. Hi, Rami. Welcome to the program.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you.

RAZ: Also joining the conversation is Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to you.


RAZ: Back in 2006, when fighting broke out between Israel and Lebanon, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice characterized it as the birth pangs of democracy. First to you, Steven Cook. The anti-American violence in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, the birth pangs of democracy?

COOK: Well, I don't know whether they are the birth pangs of democracy. It certainly could be. We do know that countries that are in transition tend to be unstable. The politics there are uncertain, and periodic spasms of violence could break out at any time. We also know that the uprisings throughout the region were about national dignity and self-empowerment. And I think the United States, by and large, represents an overarching power in the region that has been in the region in robust ways, to use a euphemism, over the course of the last decade.

But what we are seeing is not just a reaction to this film clip, this trailer, this movie, whatever it is you want to call it, but an expression of frustration and a desire to throw off what people see as a power that has not been in the region to be benevolent, even though Americans look at it (unintelligible) to this new reality.

RAZ: Rami Khouri, in reality now, any person in the world - anyone - with access with the Internet can easily set off a conflagration in parts of the Islamic world by simply insulting the Prophet Muhammad. That seems to me to be a very unstable state of affairs.

KHOURI: Well, it's a criminal act if you do that in the eyes of most Muslims. It's very insulting. You know, there's laws in the United States and in France and other places against, for instance, anti-Semitism or denying the Holocaust, which there should be.

RAZ: Well, in the United States, there are no such laws at all. You're free to do that...

KHOURI: Well, there - no, but there are limits to what people can do in terms of attacking other people. The law limits what you can...

RAZ: There are no limits to speech. Speech is protected in the United States. I mean, you can insult any religion or faith as vile as it may be, and that is protected.

KHOURI: Yeah. But if you incite people to violence, you're then - the law will stop you. And in Europe, you have many countries that have made clear limits against these things and rightly so. And therefore, yes, you can incite people to anger and violence, in many cases, if you insult their prophet and their religion, because the role of religion in the lives of most Muslims around the world who live mostly in nondemocratic countries, in poor countries with disparities, corruption, et cetera, abuse of power, the lives of most Muslims are such that religion is about the last major thing they have that gives them protection, gives them identity, gives them dignity and a sense of hope. And if you start to puncture that, you get this kind of reactions.

RAZ: Rami Khouri, I'm wondering, though, if there is a selective acceptance of what freedom of expression is. In Egypt and many of these countries, there are - there's plenty of anti-Jewish, anti-American propaganda. Egypt broadcast a whole television series in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Iran held a conference denying the Holocaust. As vile as those may be, to most Americans, those are - that's within their right to do that.

KHOURI: Well, this is the debate that has to happen, and there needs to be some kind of understanding, if possible, between these different cultures. It's very hard. It takes a long time to come to an understanding of what is permissible and what is not. But some of the terrible things that happened in the Arab world, Iran as you described, clearly shouldn't happen. They're unacceptable, morally, politically, ethically and in any way. They happen in the context of warfare, though.

I think there's a difference we have to understand. So the context sometimes makes a difference. But in the final analysis, these values are universal values. People should not insult other people with a desire to incite them to violence or to degrade them in such a devastating way in the area that is so central to their identities.

RAZ: Steven Cook, is there an argument to be made that in the United States, we need to take all of those things into account?

COOK: Well, I think it's clear that you cannot scream fire in a crowded movie theater. The question is whether the Muslim world writ large is a crowded movie theater. I do think that speech obviously needs to be protected. And clearly, this movie clip was intended to offend as many people as possible and elicit this kind of reaction from a very small minority in the Muslim world.

I think that going forward, it's going to be hard for the United States and the Muslim world to square these two very different world views, one in which there is virtually all speech is protected, except in those very specific circumstances, like yelling fire in a crowded movie theater, and a collective dignity. And, in fact, this is what we have witnessed in the Arab world over the course of the last 18 months. People striving to achieve the national dignity and self-empowerment that these uprisings have been about.

What makes this movie trailer so raw and so difficult for people to just pass off is something - gets to something that Romney said just before about people's identity. It hits at the very core of their identity. And what's happening in the Arab world right now as Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans and others are building new political systems and new more just societies, they're working out a lot of these identity issues. But at its core, the vast majority of people in this part of the world regard their religion as a core identity.

RAZ: Rami Khouri, Americans, as you know - you've studied here and spent a lot of times here - are impatient, and many Americans have asked what is happening in the Muslim world. President Obama has made overtures. He spoke in Cairo. He has tried to repair the relationship. How long will this take?

KHOURI: Look, we can't do very much. As you said, Guy, there's not a lot you can do right now. You're not going to shut down the Internet. You're not going to restrict free speech. But one of the things we can do is address more seriously those huge issues that have been with us - some of them for five or six decades - that create these political antagonisms between the many Arabs and Asians and Muslims and the United States government.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, for instance, the implementation of U.N. resolutions equitably across the region, the Iran nuclear issue. There's a massive sense across the Arab world that the United States is not playing fair on these issues, is tilted against the Arabs, and this is one of the reasons why you get these outbursts against the United States. So addressing those politically contentious issues more rationally and reasonably and resolving some of these conflicts would take away a lot of the anger and reduce that foundation that allows these outbursts to happen.

RAZ: That's Rami Khouri with the American University of Beirut, also a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center. He spoke to us from Boston. Rami, thanks.

KHOURI: Thank you.

RAZ: Thanks also to Steven Cook with the Council on Foreign Relations. He spoke to us from Chicago. Steven, thanks.

COOK: A great pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.