As people across the world remember the victims of 9/11, we have been served a reminder that the grim forces that brought it about are far from spent. Wednesday’s assassination of the American ambassador to Libya, amidst the storming of the country’s missions in Benghazi and Cairo, is all the more tragic because of its predictability. For months now, Libya has been witnessing an ever-escalating spiral of violence — spearheaded by jihadist groups hostile to the U.S. Egypt, for its part, has seen serious conflict in the Sinai. In both countries, jihadists have sought, with some success, to use violence and extremism to discredit their establishmentarian Islamist rivals, and overwhelm secular liberal forces. The protesters who attacked the U.S. missions in Cairo and Benghazi — some of them armed — were expressing anger against a film that abused Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Produced by Israeli-American Sam Bacile, and promoted by Florida-based neo-fundamentalist Christian Terry Jones, the film had remained obscure until Tuesday, when jihadists saw in it an opportunity to mobilise support. In recent decades, the world has become depressingly familiar with religion-inspired fascists using violence to hijack the political agenda, feeding off each other’s deranged propaganda. In themselves, these forces have limited legitimacy. But lawless, ungoverned states have given them the resources, weapons and bases needed for a renaissance.
It has long been clear that the realities of the ‘new Middle East’ the West claimed to have midwifed during the so-called Arab Spring don’t quite match the hype. A resurgent jihadist movement, capitalising on the collapse of authoritarian states, has inflicted ever-worsening violence from Libya and Mali, to Somalia, Syria and Yemen. It is true that the regimes swept aside by public anger — and, in the case of Libya, U.S. and European bombs — were despotisms, with a contempt for freedoms and rights that their, at best, equivocal secularism did not mitigate. In country after country, though, it is becoming abundantly clear that evicting despots does not, in itself, give rise to either democracy or progress. Even in places where electoral democracy has made progress, like Egypt and Tunisia, extremist movements have inflicted real damage to cultural and gender freedoms. The assassinated American envoy helped establish U.S. presence in rebel-held Benghazi in the war that swept away Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. With presidential and Congressional elections around the corner, it will be tempting for U.S. politicians to respond to his killing with shows of machismo. In fact, a little introspection might prove more productive.