It was hard to track down the identities of those who made it. A Sam Bacile claimed authorship, said that he was an Israeli American and added that 100Jewish businessmen had backed the venture. This alone made it rankle even more — offending Muslims and implicating Jews at the same time. (In the meantime, no records could be found of Bacile, and the precise origins of the video remain murky.)
It is never hard to assemble a crowd of young protesters in the teeming cities of the Muslim world. American embassies and consulates are magnets for the disgruntled. It is inside those fortresses, the gullible believe, that rulers are made and unmade. Yet these same diplomatic outposts dispense coveted visas and a way out to the possibilities of the Western world. The young men who turned up at the U.S. Embassies this week came out of this deadly mix of attraction to American power and resentment of it. The attack in Benghazi, Libya, that took the lives of four American diplomats, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, appeared to be premeditated and unconnected to the film protests.
The ambivalence toward modernity that torments Muslims is unlikely to abate. The temptations of the West have alienated a younger generation from its elders. Men and women insist that they revere the faith as they seek to break out of its restrictions. Freedom of speech, granting license and protection to the irreverent, is cherished, protected and canonical in the Western tradition. Now Muslims who quarrel with offensive art are using their newfound freedoms to lash out against it.
These cultural contradictions do not lend themselves to the touch of outsiders. President George W. Bush believed that America’s proximity to Arab dictatorships had begotten us the jihadists’ enmity. His military campaign in Iraq became an attempt to reform that country and beyond. But Arabs rejected his interventionism and dismissed his “freedom agenda” as a cover for an unpopular war and for domination.
President Obama has taken a different approach. He was sure that his biography — the years he spent in Indonesia and his sympathy for the aspirations of Muslim lands — would help repair relations between America and the Islamic world. But he’s been caught in the middle, conciliating the rulers while making grand promises to ordinary people. The revolt of the Iranian opposition in the summer of 2009 exposed the flaws of his approach. Then the Arab Spring played havoc with American policy. Since then, the Obama administration has not been able to decide whether it defends the status quo or the young people hell-bent on toppling the old order.
Cultural freedom is never absolute, of course, and the Western tradition itself, from the Athenians to the present, struggles mightily with the line between freedom and order. In the Muslim world, that struggle is more fierce and lasting, and it will show itself in far more than burnt flags and overrun embassies.
Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is the author of “The Syrian Rebellion” and “Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey.”
Read more from Outlook:
Why the 2012 election won’t change U.S. Middle East policy
Mitt Romney isn’t out to make the world swoon
Five myths about the Arab Spring
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