As long as Palestinians are denied their right to an independent state, the world will continue to see violent outbursts of anger by Muslims such as the recent protests over the anti-Islam film

Two trends were visible in the rage in the Muslim world against America and other western countries over the anti-Islam film: the hostile, often violent, outbursts will continue; and, the degree of violence is inversely proportional to the state of democracy in a country.

There are enough extremists on both sides to keep the pot boiling. The supply of suicide bombers and militants on the Muslim side seems inexhaustible. On the other hand, the ranks of what the International Herald Tribune calls “the hatemongering fanatics in the United States” seem to be swelling.

Historical animosity

Thomas Friedman, in his column in the IHT of 21 September, argues that Arabs and Muslims, who hate the West for the anti-Muslim venom, do not say a word against anti-Christian and anti-Jewish propaganda spewed in their countries. He is right, but his argument is in the nature of scoring debating points; it is not going to solve anything. One wrong cannot justify another. While Friedman is not condoning Islam bashing, his argument could be used by the “fanatics” in his own country to create more antipathy between Islam and other monotheistic faiths. He also ignores the deep historical animosity between the followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism going back to the Middle Ages and crusades, and the disparaging way in which Islam and Prophet Mohammad were portrayed in the West. If the Jews could go back more than 2,000 years for their territorial claims, surely a relatively more recent history cannot become irrelevant.

An important plank in the agenda of the jihadis and extremists is the continued denial of justice to the Palestinian people. It is not self-evident that those who invoke the Palestinian cause for their anti-West rhetoric, hatred and violence do genuinely care about the fate of the Palestinian people. It is not clear if even the Arab governments truly worry about the Palestinian cause. Nevertheless, as long as the Palestinians are not enabled to establish their own independent state with east Jerusalem as its capital, it will remain a potent instrument for fomenting anti-West and anti-Israel sentiment.

For the Arabs and Muslims at large, the most conspicuous manifestation of America’s unjust policy is its perceived collaboration with Israel in denying the right of national self-determination to the Palestinian people, the very right which America and others invoked while creating the state of Israel. This sense of injustice combined with anti-Muslim actions by the Christian extremist fringe creates and will continue to create explosive situations periodically.

The present Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been consistent. He had opposed the Oslo accords when they were concluded in 1993. He has been relentless in creating “facts on the ground” in the form of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank to the extent that hardly any land, certainly any contiguous land, will be available for the future Palestinian state. It is understandable that he does not approve of Barack Obama who tried, unsuccessfully, to pressure him to stop settlement construction. No wonder, Mr. Netanyahu is working for Mr. Obama’s republican rival in the American presidential election.

Shaul Mofaz, the leader of the opposition in the Israeli Knesset, recently asked Prime Minister Netanyahu: Which administration are you trying to change? The one in Tehran or the one in Washington? Mr. Netanyahu no doubt realises that the more he tries to unseat Mr. Obama, the more support the latter will get from his people, including American Jews who realise, more and more, that American interests are not the same as the Jewish state’s. If Mr. Obama does win despite Mr. Netanyahu, he is likely to be more forceful, and hopefully more successful, in his second term in working for the solution of the Palestinian problem. Mr. Obama certainly cares about his legacy and the aam admi in Israel does not want his country to make an enemy of its most important ally and benefactor.

‘Ingratitude’

Mr. Obama for his part does not see his way clearly through the mess in the Middle East. His biggest challenge is Syria where President Assad is in no mood to oblige by resigning and where the rebels are simply unable to unseat him on their own. Mr. Obama also has new challenges caused by Innocence of Muslims, the extraordinarily scandalous anti-Islam film produced in California. It has rightly aroused the ire of Muslims everywhere just as the killing of the American ambassador in Benghazi has justifiably generated universal condemnation. What is somewhat incomprehensible is the reaction in America which is best summed up in Hillary Clinton’s reported remark: “How can this happen in a country which we helped liberate?” The Americans are genuinely baffled by this display of ingratitude, as they see it, of the Libyans, Egyptians and others, for the huge favour America has done to them by ushering in democracy in their countries.

In Libya, no doubt, Muammar Qadhafi would not have lost power and his life if the West had not intervened because there was hardly any genuine people’s revolution there. The spring in the ‘Arab Spring’ was present only in Tunisia and Egypt. In both these countries, outsiders made absolutely no contribution to it. Secondly, western intervention in Libya was not inspired solely, or even largely, by democratic impulses; the oil factor had an important role in the exercise since Qadhafi had stopped being generous in negotiations with oil companies. But even if the West was guided entirely by selfless motives, one does not expect gratitude in international relations.

The American dilemma in the Middle East is real. In view of recent events, should the U.S. disengage from the region? Should it withhold or suspend economic and military assistance to countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya for their ingratitude and inability or unwillingness to prevent attacks on American diplomatic missions? In other words, should America send a clear message to these countries that they need America more that America needs them? It is highly probable that America will avoid taking a clear-cut decision. It will loudly cheer anti-Ansar ul Sharia militia actions in Libya in justification of continued engagement in the region. Similarly, in Egypt, the Administration will adopt a pragmatic or realpolitik approach, given the strategic importance of Egypt in the region, especially the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. The Egyptians also will make sure in not pushing Washington to a breaking point since good relations with America are essential for many sound economic reasons. Pragmatism will prevail on both sides.

Violence and democracy

As for the relationship between violence and democracy, the reactions in various Islamic countries have clearly shown that the most hateful and violent response has come from non-democratic countries. India, which has about 170 million Muslims, witnessed the most peaceful and mature reaction to the film. This is a testimony to India’s genuinely pluralistic nature and to the integration of the Muslim community with the mainstream of our society, and we can be proud of this fact.

In South East Asian Muslim nations, where democracy prevails, the reaction has been largely subdued. Pakistan has witnessed the worst violence, testifying to the fragility of its democracy as well as the strong anti-America sentiment which goes beyond the offending film. In Egypt, the authorities were able to control the situation after the initial outburst; that Mohamed Morsi is an elected President had no doubt something to do with it.

Democracy allows for small eruptions, for the most part peaceful, to take place from time to time, but it manages to avoid major, violent outbursts. Democratic governments also do not need to tolerate or encourage violent demonstrations since they do not need to divert attention to external factors away from domestic dissatisfaction; there is enough scope and permissiveness for citizens to express their anger in peaceful ways.

(The author, a former Permanent Representative of India at the United Nations, is a commentator on international affairs.)

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