The cascading riots that spread across the Middle East and North Africa took many experts and policymakers by surprise. The riots in Libya would probably have faded into history, but the recent election cycle put them under a microscope. Much of the attention to date has focused on the decisions about security resources in the days leading up the attack and the subsequent White House response. These are important issues, but we must move beyond the retrospective assessment and consider implications for Middle East policy going forward.
The events of the Arab Spring that began in late 2010 captured global attention as thousands of Muslims across the Middle East and North Africa took to the streets at great personal risk to condemn corrupt dictators and poor governance. The early days were exciting and hopeful. A rising generation of Muslims armed with courage and vision, aided by technology, brought major changes in countries like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.
Eighteen months later, the United States stood in disbelief as mobs stormed embassies and burned flags. As riots spread to 30 countries and political candidates struggled to respond or provide an explanation, many people found themselves asking how a movement that had started from such hopeful and empowering origins turned so hostile to the West so quickly.
The riots and unrest throughout the region began after the release of an anti-Islamic film that portrayed the Prophet Mohammad in a manner that infuriated the Muslim populace. To be sure, the film is in poor taste, but arguing that the film was the cause of the riots is a bit like saying that World War I was caused by the Black Hand’s assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Much like assassination, the film is a proximate event; the underlying cause is a far more complex shift in the larger geopolitical landscape.
The riots that spread like wildfire throughout the region did not occur in a vacuum, but at a point when the region is undergoing major political changes. These events have not just had an impact on the political regimes in power, but fundamentally changed the social, cultural and economic environment in which millions of people reside. Those changing conditions have set the stage for a redefinition of Islamism in the modern world, what one might consider a process of adaptive radiation.
Ecologists and evolutionary biologists use the term adaptive radiation to explain how different species come to distinguish themselves from the neighbors based on adaptation to local environmental conditions. Adaptations to new conditions radiate outwards, until the species encounters different environmental conditions that make them adapt once again. This is akin to the social evolutionary process that the world is watching play out now in real-time throughout the Middle East and North Africa as the old boundaries of Islamism are torn down and rebuilt.
The rationale behind the riots provides a window into this process. The standard narrative suggests that people decided to storm U.S. embassies in response to a film—a work made largely by one person who took advantage of the freedom of speech that Americans universally value. But polling evidence for the better part of decade suggests that Muslims in the region typically declare high approval for U.S. values, despite strong dislike of U.S. foreign policy.
In the 2008 World Values Survey, for example, 78 percent of Egyptians indicated that a democratic political system was very good and 73 percent indicated that respect for civil rights was an essential part of democracy. Another study conducted by the Pew Research Center in the same year showed that only 22 percent of Egyptians had a favorable view of the United States.
Research from the 2009 Pew Global Attitudes study in Pakistan reflects a similar trend. Only 16 percent of respondents in Pakistan had a favorable view of the United States and 20 percent had a favorable view of Americans. More specific questioning, however, shows that 65 percent are in favor of a free market, 79 percent favor trade with other countries (or economic globalization), 77 percent believe that news media like television and magazines are positive for country, and 79 percent are concerned about rise of Islamic Extremism. Pakistan, largely viewed as a hotbed of anti-Americanism, seems to balance between dislike for U.S. foreign policy while sharing some values critical to Americans.
The events over the last several weeks represent a fundamental shift from past attitudes, when the values of America were held in high regard. Those storming the embassies in response to the video are rallying against one of the most central values in American society, freedom of speech. Were prior theories of anti-Americanism wrong? Or is there is something else afoot? In either case, this u-turn may prove a tremendous stumbling block for societies that are trying to establish nascent democracies.
The rapid spread of the riots might hint at an ongoing real-time adaptation of political and social Islamism. Since the end of World War II, the Middle East has been dealing with a Western-imposed state structure that was never a natural fit. Islamic revivals in the 1950s and 1970s hinted at the power of Arab or Islamic nationalism, but it never came to fruition. Leaders frequently used Islamism as a political lever, but Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were often explicitly prohibited from the entering political realm.
It is difficult to discuss the role of Islamists or Islamism in regional politics without asking what these terms mean. And this is the crux of the problem. It is unclear what Islamism means against the backdrop of a newly formed political space.
Dangers of Oversimplification
In analyzing Middle Eastern politics, there is a tendency to focus on certain groups: al-Qaida and its supporters, Islamists, secular authoritarians and modernizers. The first two groups receive particular emphasis, because al-Qaida poses a direct threat to the United States; there also is a wide (though empirically contentious) perception that Islamists provide the breeding ground or recruiting pool for violent actors. But events throughout the region show that this construct was fundamentally flawed. Just as there is great disagreement and intergroup debate among members of the left and right in the U.S. political arena, Islamism exists on a spectrum that may be more variegated than initially meets the eye.
Across the region there are deep debates about the legitimacy of democracy, the best way to organize society, the relationship between religion and governance, the role of individual freedoms, the place of women in society, and the relationship between individual countries and the global system. That short list of existential debates yields many permutations and possible ideologies, creating space for tremendous variation and disagreement. While local incentives, power structures and interests play a role in guiding some of these existential issues, there are broader forces at work as well.
The hard fought and newly discovered political space that is opening up throughout the Middle East and North Africa is a fertile ground for new adaptations of political Islam. Some will evolve and old once dormant manifestations will spread. Students of Islamism have long understood many of these deep debates, but bringing them into focus requires a great deal of detailed analysis and fieldwork. One such manifestation is now in focus for all to see, but it will not be the last. Just as riots were spreading throughout the region, some Libyans were already expressing deep regret at the loss of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and acting against militants in Benghazi.
Foundation of Strategy: Micro vs. Macro
This process of adaptive radiation in political and social Islam confronts policymakers and analysts with a difficult conundrum. Two distinct weaknesses emerge: The first is a lack of expertise and specialization in the culture and internal affairs of each country. Military and political leaders have struggled to find individuals capable of decoding the complex internal politics of foreign societies. There are few people qualified to understand the evolving changes on the micro-level of political parties or religious sects.
At the outset of the Arab Spring, this detailed expertise was hailed as the best way of supporting efforts to help the democratization process in each country. Local knowledge and contacts were perceived as critical in sorting the complicated political mess, making it paramount to effective policymaking. This remains true, and the shortage of experts remains a problem. But a second shortcoming has grown increasingly apparent over the past several weeks.
The spread of the riots suggest that there are broader geopolitical dynamics in the region that cut across and perhaps subsume local political events. Riots in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere may be driven in part by local politics, but there is an overarching logic to the seismic shifts, one that requires a broader perspective. Emphasis on micro-level dynamics encourages tactical rather than strategic responses. Rather than devising new tactics, macro-level considerations should motivate a strategic approach to these events. The United States has been without a regional strategy for more than a decade and has struggled to articulate one since the Arab Spring. Recent events suggest that this perspective is badly needed.
While there is no single version of Islamism or Islamic government that is likely to emerge across the region, local factors alone will not be sufficient to understand the course of events as they unfold. Regional considerations—driven by ethnic divisions, military power, religious debates, economic conditions, technological tools and media coverage—will prove equally important in empowering certain visions for the future.
The importance of regional or macro-level concerns makes it dangerous to rely exclusively on country or micro-level expertise, though deep social, cultural, economic and political understanding of individual countries and the region remain important. Despite the need for this expertise, the incentive structure of American government does not place primacy on institutional investments in deep knowledge and cultural expertise. In an environment of adaptive radiation, it is time to move away from responding to all events at a country or tactical level. Only a broader strategic approach, based on a well-articulated notion of U.S. national interest and grounded in the pragmatic political realities of a region undergoing major change, will position the United States to address the turbulent events likely to unfold in the future.
Scott Helfstein is the director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
The views expressed in this report are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Combating Terrorism Center, U.S. Military Academy, Department of Defense or U.S. government.