Are the attacks in Egypt a culture clash?
This week there have been terrible attacks on our embassy in Cairo and a consulate in Libya. These attacks were brutal and riotous. Have you ever been a part of riot? When riots happen they start from protests about injustice or conflicting virtue. It starts from some catalyst. In Benghazi it was a gunshot. When I was in Quebec this year a simple protest could have turned into a riot when one of the protesters rushed at the police line, and one of my students waiting in a doorway shouted an insult at the crowd. Fortunately this did not happen. But the diplomats in Benghazi were not as lucky. If both parties took a closer look at the elements of the conflict that created the protest there is always hope that the protest will stop escalating and settle into diversion.
In order for this to happen both sides must have a good understanding of each others point of view. In the case of the student protest in Quebec the conflict was about college tuition hikes and a voice in government. Which was more important to the students? When the Parliament ruled their strike illegal things heated up very significantly, and my students and I got out of town. I think one of the things diplomats need to know is when to leave town. More importantly both parties must strive to have a better understanding of what is at the root of the conflict. In the case of the Anti-Muslim video that caused so much offense some helpful questions could settle an injustice by pointing out the conflicting virtues. When I was Egypt in 2007 I had the privilege of visiting a private school. While we were there I took the time to draw out one of the social studies teachers on their curriculum. He was very upset when he showed me copies of the new text books he was required to use by the government. They were history books. They started with the pyramids and then quickly fast forwarded to Nasser. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and told me he can no longer teach about the enlightenment. I would argue that if students do not have the opportunity to study the enlightenment then they will never understand the western mind. He seemed to agree with me. At least in Egypt I noticed there were significant differences by what was meant by freedom of speech inside and outside of the country.
While I was in Egypt I also had the opportunity to meet with a Coptic Christian women who was desperate to leave the country. At one time the Christians in Egypt were treated very favorably, and held key positions of power. The status of the Coptic Christians in Egypt was deteriorating with each passing year. This was still when Hosni Mubarak was still in power. With the Arab Spring I am sure that their position is even less favorable. Remembering what you used to have, and resenting it being taken from you has a way of turning into revenge. Perhaps there was enough revenge that in the ideals of the Coptics the offensive video was justified. America saw the creation of the video as an expression of freedom of speech. The Muslim world saw the video as a direct attack on their God. Since God gives us eternal life, then any action even death is justified to correct this injustice. In the eyes of the Coptic Christians it could be revenge. Since they used to have power, and now no longer do, then have been persecuted and would like lash out to inflict pain on the people who have offended them.
Is this a culture clash? I think it is more of about special interests protecting their interests. This conflict was not about freedom of speech. It was about misunderstanding speech. What are the elements common to all parties? They are all offended. America is offended because they have been unfairly attacked with causalities. Islam is offended because their prophet was attacked and their God blasphemed. The Coptic Christians are seeking revenge for being demoted from the Egyptian upper class. America must attempt to walk in the shoes of those in the Arab world. We understand revenge. We understand disrespect and offense. We even have a limited understanding of what blasphemy is. The temptation to react instead of respond further escalates the conflict. Instead of a culture clash we should try to respond to the core of the conflict. To the Arab people we must respond to the perceived blasphemy by demonstrating our desire to protect religious expression. One way to do this is to take action to restrict our own media. Because our country believes in freedom of expression we can not go after the people behind the video. Instead we can show how we regulate expression by showing the Arab people how we prohibit this expression in certain settings. We should do everything in our power to create a timeline without offense to reduce the possibility of more violence.
In the end game the Arab people must understand our value system as we attempt to understand theirs. We must take the initiative to demonstrate this by regulating our self expression and then reach out to explain our value system to the blind spots in Arab understanding. We can do this the same way that they were offended by sending them videos in Arabic that explain our desire to protect religious expression guaranteed in the first amendment of our constitution. The root of the conflict is misunderstanding. We must strive to be understood.