Associated Press/Mohammad Hannon - Friday, Sept. 21, 2012
Amid the violence and protests in Muslim countries, the rage ostensibly in response to an anti-Muslim YouTube video, a silver lining has emerged. Interestingly, this silver lining has surfaced in the place where all the trouble began a few weeks ago: in Libya.
The trouble started when, on September 11, militants in Benghazi stormed the U.S. consulate and a safe house, resulting in the deaths of four Americans, including Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens and State Department official Sean Smith–an act of violence described by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a terrorist attack.
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end here. What happened next was an outpouring of anger and frustration directed at the militants, not Washington, and feelings of loss for Ambassador Stevens and significant sympathy for the U.S.
Immediately after Stevens’ death, the Libyan government offered repeated apologies for the killings. Prime minister Keib said the perpetrators were "a group of outlaws (who) must be brought to justice". Additionally, the Libyan government fired the Deputy Interior Minister and the Police Chief for Benghazi.
Even more significantly, Libyan citizens took to the streets, holding signs decrying the violence and expressing condolences for slain individuals. And surprisingly, these emotions were translated into concrete actions. Last Friday, as many as 30,000 Libyans in Benghazi held a mass protest against the uncontrolled and extremist militias that are rampant in the country, demanding that they disband. Within hours, thousands stormed the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah, the Islamic extremist group allegedly behind the 9/11/12 attacks. Reports state that
"They drove out the Ansar gunmen and set fire to cars in the compound — once a major base for Gadhafi's feared security forces — and then moved onto the base of a second Islamist militia, the Rafallah Sahati Brigade. Brigade fighters opened fire to keep the protesters at bay.
The state news agency said four protesters were killed and 70 injured in the overnight violence."
Importantly, this anti-militia fervor isn’t limited just to Benghazi. It has spread to Derna. As the AP nicely summarizes, this is a novel event:
The anti-militia fervor in Darna is notable because the city, in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast north of Benghazi, has long had a reputation as a stronghold for Islamic extremists. During the Gadhafi era, it was the hotbed of a deadly Islamist insurgency against his regime. A significant number of the Libyan jihadists who travelled to Afghanistan and Iraq during recent wars came from Darna. During the revolt against him last year, Gadhafi's regime warned that Darna would declare itself an Islamic Emirate and ally itself with al-Qaida.
Further, and this is crucial, the AP also points out why Libyans in Darna are so angry and willing to take a stand:
"The killing of the ambassador blew up the situation. It was disastrous," said Ayoub al-Shedwi, a young bearded Muslim preacher in Darna who says he has received multiple death threats because has spoken out against militias on a radio show he hosts. "We felt that the revolution is going in vain."
Activists and residents have held a sit-in for the past eight days outside Darna's Sahaba Mosque, calling on tribes to put an end to the "state of terrorism" created by the militias. At the city's main hotel, The Jewel of Darna, tribal figures, activists, local officials and lawmakers have been meeting in recent days to come up with a plan.
"Until when the tribes will remain silent," cried a bearded young man standing on a podium at one such meeting Thursday. "The militias don't recognize the state. The state is pampering them but this is not working anymore. You must act right now." Elders in traditional Libyan white robes stood up and shouted in support.
Almost immediately, rumors and conspiracy stories circulated that Gaddafi loyalists were behind the anti-militia activities in Benghazi and Darna. Maybe some did play a role. After all, spontaneous public action like mass protests, in a lawless and ungoverned country, offer ripe opportunities for all sorts of miscreants to join in and cause trouble. Even so, there’s not much doubt that many, perhaps most, of the participants in these events were sincere citizens disgusted with the ugly stranglehold that extremist militias have on their country.
In my view, the response of ordinary Libyans to the violence committed by extremist militants is a good sign. I am encouraged that Libyans are trying to take ownership of their society by confronting extremists and militants, driving them out of areas that they are located. Perhaps it’s the beginning of a greater recognition that the enemy isn’t abroad or foreign, as radical leaders and groups argue, but is within. As such, the Libyans present a good example to Muslims worldwide on how to combat extremism and militancy in their own countries.
Of course, there are success stories. For instance, Muslim countries such as Turkey and Indonesia have done an admirable job tackling terrorism, limiting the influence of extremists, keeping their societies unified, and embracing modernity while preserving their uniqueness. Both countries have also completely debunked the myth, embraced by radicals and ignoramuses in Muslim countries and in the West, that Islam and democracy cannot coexist.
But more needs to be done in countries with governments that are complicit with or support radicalism and terrorism, or are too weak to combat these issues. There a host of countries that fit this profile, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and so on. In these cases, we find extremists, including terrorist groups, operating, even thriving. Many commit violence, sure. But they also demonize the West, criticize and attempt to suppress Muslim moderates and liberals, and often dominate the national discourse, deflecting blame for their corrosive impact on society. In response, there has to be a groundswell of citizen action to overcome the problems created by radical and/or incompetent state institutions. This is the crux of the Libya example. Often, the people are on their own; it is up to them to staunch the flow of extremist words and deeds.
Let’s look at this logically.
1. In the cases I’m speaking about here, the state is useless, guilty sins of commission and/or omission. We should not expect these governments and attendant institutions to play a meaningful, productive role on issues related to extremism and terrorism.
2. Muslim countries cannot count on international institutions for much help. Nowadays, with Russia and China taking on obstructionist roles, the UN can't even agree on paper statements, let alone on taking action when it’s necessary. NATO, as another example, is also unreliable. NATO countries are typically reluctant to intervene in foreign countries. They are war weary from their Afghanistan experience. And to the extent that NATO considers any foreign interventions or military assistance, the target country usually has to be in a specific location: in Europe’s backyard.
3. Muslim countries cannot count on foreign groups and NGOs for much help either. They are important for humanitarian relief and crisis monitoring. but they are not going to thwart terrorist groups and activities. They just do not have the capabilities to do so.
4. They cannot count on foreign countries. At this point, both Russia and China are sidetracked with internal issues. Both are focused on economic development as well as political turmoil and uncertainty--protests and frustration in Russia, and leadership succession in China. Moreover, Russia and China don't have the capacity to project enough power to deal with Islamic terrorism outside of their borders. And lastly, both countries believe they have their own problems with Islamic terrorists. If either one starts to ramp up its anti-terror activities, it’s going to happen within their borders, not outside of them.
And as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq illustrate, there are limits to American power. While it can project its power worldwide and defeat armed opponents, the U.S. cannot rebuild and remake foreign countries on its own. The U.S. needs strong and effective local partners in these endeavors, something that is often hard to find in unstable and war-torn countries. Furthermore, given the state of America's economy and the continued economic problems it will likely face in the future, the U.S. will, in all likelihood, will be reducing its footprint around the world. Arguably, under President Obama, this process has already begun.
The punchline? While the U.S. will seek to maintain a leadership position on international terrorism, the tools and scope and reach of its anti-terror campaign will likely change. The result is that, over time, Washington will put a larger burden on its Muslim partners to carry out anti-terror activities.
So what does this all mean? Muslim societies have to be prepared to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to dealing with Islamic extremism and terrorism. And right now, it's not sufficient to silently protest. Nor is it enough to issue critical statements or to write critical opinion pieces. These things are a start, to be sure, but new efforts are desperately needed. In short, what is needed is for the moderates and reformers to take on a larger public role in directly confronting extremism and terrorism. This is going to require considerable time and effort and resources.
We know that Muslims in the Middle East/North are very familiar with the techniques of peaceful civil resistance. Just look at the Arab Spring, which sought to overthrow repressive governments and install in their place free and open democratic systems. Admirable and courageous, yes. But there ought to be a more overarching platform that deems anathema any source that aims to undermine if not squelch freedom, whether church or state or ideological radical or terrorist. Using this simple principle as a guide, maybe we would see more protests and rallies and Facebook and Twitter pages denouncing Islamic extremism and violence.