Never the Twain Shall Meet

It's time the United States adopted a live-and-let-live approach to the Middle East.

Both Republican and Democratic administrations often have promoted the notion that the United States has the right and the obligation to disseminate its values worldwide.

In the context of promoting these values, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has placed the cause of protecting Internet freedom on the top of the U.S. foreign-policy agenda. Hence during a conference at the Hague last year, Clinton stated that Washington needed to take “a stand for freedom of expression on the Internet, especially on behalf of cyber dissidents and bloggers” and support those in the Middle East and elsewhere “who are blocked from accessing entire categories of Internet content.”

Today, there is an irony in the fact that much of the anti-American violence in Arab countries has been driven the same kind of “Internet content”—in this case, the trailer of an anti-Muslim film posted on YouTube, reflecting the American tradition of freedom of expression, including the Internet freedom that Secretary Clinton has called upon the leaders of Egypt and Libya to respect.

Muslim demonstrators are accusing Americans of not respecting their religious tradition by permitting the dissemination of a film that mocks the Prophet Muhammad. Perhaps if the Egyptian and Libyan governments had blocked their citizens “from accessing entire categories of Internet content,” the U.S. embassies in those countries may have not been attacked.

The American wishful thinking—and it enjoyed clear bipartisan support—was that democratization and liberalization in the Arab World, either through U.S.-led “regime change” in Iraq or by welcoming a popular uprising in Egypt, would turn the peoples in these countries into born-again Westerners. After all, Ahmed Chalabi was a graduate of MIT, and many of the protesters on Tahrir Square had a lot of friends on Facebook.

In reality, free and democratic elections brought to power leaders who are not “just like us” and who represent peoples who don’t share our dreams. And when this reality bites, in the form of attacks on U.S. embassies, the loudest responses are unrealistic. Some Republicans and conservatives want to fight a war of civilizations, while Democrats and liberals call for diplomatic-missionary work of the kind pursued by democracy-promoting NGOs.

But instead of worrying about a clash of civilizations or fantasizing about their convergence through a process of U.S.-led cultural globalization, we need to consider another option: a live-and-let-live arrangement under which national cultures evolve on their own, reflecting their unique histories, values and time horizons.

Hence, freedom of expression shouldn't be considered a universal value. In fact, even Western societies embrace different approaches to the principle, with Britain and Germany, for example, applying restrictions on the publication of certain offensive material, while in the United States the First Amendment imposes almost no restrictions.

So it's not surprising that other standards of free speech are being applied in Muslim societies that are adopting Islamist political agendas. They may be inconsistent with Western secular values but are supported by the majority of citizens and mandated by the kind of free and democratic elections promoted by Western leaders.

But pursuing a live-and-let-live approach involves reciprocity. Such an approach assumes that if Americans tone down their crusading impulses in their relationship with the Muslim world, Muslim leaders and publics will accept that Americans regard freedom of expression as a core national and cultural value and that the U.S. government must respect that principle, even if that involves the posting online of a lot of disgusting stuff, which includes hate-speech aimed at Catholics, Mormons, Jews and, yes, even Muslims.

At a time when the rules of engagement between the Unites States and the new Islamist governments in the Middle East are evolving, President Obama and other public figures should make it clear that Americans are not going to modify their liberal traditions in response to outside pressure—and that, at the same time, they also don't have any intentions of imposing those traditions on others.

Whether the turmoil in the Middle East will bring about a liberal and secular spring or an authoritarian and theocratic winter—or will be a long period of unstable political weather—should be left to the people of the Middle East to decide at their own pace. They will have to live eventually with the outcome in the same way that Americans live with theirs.

A principle of separate but equal should not apply to the management of the relationship between citizens of a national community, but it may be relevant to the way our fragmented international system works. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling: East is East, and West and West, and, hey, sometimes the twains don’t have to meet. Contrary to the fantasies concocted by the prophets of globalization, good cultural fences could make for good global neighbors.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.

Image: Phillip Maiwald