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Don’t set the wrong example
– by Hans Dembowski
Protesters clashed with the police near the US embassy in Cairo on 13 September
Some Muslim militants were literally up in arms. The murder of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his staff in Benghazi was an awful crime. In Cairo, the US embassy was attacked. The German embassy in Sudan was torched. Such violence is totally unacceptable, as western governments from Washington to Berlin quickly pointed out. They were equally correct to emphasise that they oppose those who incite religious hate, but that, nonetheless, the freedom of speech is a fundamental human right.
It is bizarre that furious people in Arab countries seem to believe the US administration or even some kind of generalised “West” can be held responsible for every inappropriate statement or every tasteless video a citizen may come up with. That mind set dates back to before the Tahrir Square revolution and reveals a profound misunderstanding of democracy. Yes, the video is a shame, but no western state agency authorised it.
Western governments are obviously right to insist that Arab authorities must now not only protect embassies and consulates, but also prosecute murderers and other perpetrators of violence. That said, it is not at all obvious that the governments of countries in transition, such as Libya or Egypt, are in the position to fulfil all duties. They are struggling with a host of challenges.
Western governments that worry about the lives of their diplomatic staff have reason to consider beefing up security at embassies and reducing the number of officers there. But it would be totally inappropriate to take law enforcement into their own hands. Nothing has hurt the reputation of the USA in Pakistan and Afghanistan more in the past four years than the single-minded hunt for terrorists with little regard for legal principles. This mistake must not be repeated in Libya, where many people are aching for revenge after the civil war (see essay by Hadija Ramadan al-Amami on p. 372 f.). In such an explosive environment, NATO nations must not set the wrong example.
Instead, they should put more and more public pressure on Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have a track record of promoting fundamentalists in many countries (see comment next page). Their country is the centre of gravity for Sunni fanaticism, and unlike Iran, its Shia equivalent, it is a close ally of the USA.