x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Lesson of the crisis: mutual misunderstanding runs deep

The challenges for Arabs in America are made more difficult by rioters who feed racist stereotypes

Many feared that the crisis created by the film The Innocence of Muslims might spin out of control across the Arab world, but it seems to be subsiding. The extremist appeal to escalate the situation appears to have given way to more thoughtful leadership.

Washington acted wisely by not pouring fuel on the flames of unrest. Barack Obama's administration declined to be provoked into escalating its rhetorical response or engaging in a show of force. Instead, the president dispatched a few marines to enhance embassy protection, and spoke firmly and privately to Arab leaders, calling for swift, decisive action to stem the unrest and catch the killers.

Most Arab leaders also refused to be goaded by the extremists (both those who had made the offensive video and those who preyed on alienated and angry youth seeking to exploit the situation for political advantage). In Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, responsible political and religious leaders took steps to restore calm.

But we are not yet "out of the woods". The riots and other reaction revealed deep problems in understanding between America and the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Few Americans know much about Islam, and know even less about the Arab world. And that ignorance remains an enormous liability.

A case in point: last Monday morning Joe Scarborough, a sometimes-thoughtful conservative-leaning television host, gave this explanation for the unrest:

"You know why they hate us? I talked to intelligence people all weekend. They hate us because of their religion, they hate us because of their culture, and they hate us because of peer pressure ... Think about all the savagery ... if you gave every street vendor to prime minister a chance to throw a rock at the US embassy, they would".

Paul Ryan, the Republican vice- presidential candidate, tried to build on this supposed ingrained hostility in "Arab culture", proposing that America's only option is to be feared. The riots arose because Mr Obama had "apologised for America". This "displayed weakness", encouraging the rabble.

The objectification of all Arabs as a depersonalised mass of seething hatred is dumb, dangerous, racist and of course dead wrong.

As polling makes clear, America is unpopular across the region because of US policies, not because of Arab religion or culture. Polls show that Arabs like American culture and people and respect American values and accomplishments. But Arabs are convinced that America and Americans don't like or respect them.

Arabs are not of one mind. Despite widespread upset with how America treats them, most Arabs were not demonstrating in front of US embassies and did not support the protests. In fact, on the night of the demonstrations most Arabs were not "hating America" but were worrying about their jobs, concerned about their children, and wondering if they could pay the bills at the end of the month.

The need to know Arabs as they really are remains a serious challenge for Americans. But Arabs, too, must know America better.

I was in the Arab world when the crisis began. Since returning to the US, I have with visiting Arabs and followed the story in the Arab media. Myths and misunderstandings abound.

Questions I was asked included: "Why wasn't the filmmaker arrested?" and "What do you mean you don't have a law against insulting religion? Don't you have a law banning anti-Semitism and denial of the Holocaust?" and "Obama is responsible for this, shouldn't he apologise?". This displays a real ignorance of the US constitution and of American law and culture.

Of course, if the US did have such a law and was not enforcing it, anger might be justified. But there is no law, nor can there be one. Mr Obama condemned the offensive film, but made it clear that the US constitution guarantees freedom of speech. And no law can be passed to abridge that freedom, no matter how badly it is abused.

Some European countries may have a ban on "Holocaust denial". The US does not. Anti-Semitism is also not prohibited by law in the US. In the end, the defence against racist or bigoted speech is in the court of public opinion - not in a court of law.

Jews, African-Americans and others have been able to mobilise public opinion so that it is now unacceptable to use bigoted language against their groups, but Arabs and Muslims are still new at this effort. Progress has been made. Though still plagued by bias, there is a significant and growing body of Americans who speak out against anti-Arab and anti-Muslim speech.

The US does have laws against "hate crimes" - acts of violence or threats of violence involving bias. Law enforcement agencies have been quite effective in punishing individuals who commit such crimes against Arabs and Muslims.

The ugly hate mail I get every day is repugnant, but not a crime. But if it includes a threat, it is against the law. Since September 11 2001, the Department of Justice and the FBI have arrested, convicted and jailed three individuals who threatened my life because I am an Arab-American advocate.

Our US polling shows the challenges Arabs and Muslims still face in the US. Opinion is not monolithic. There are majorities of Democrats, young people and other communities very supportive of Arabs and Muslims. But there are other groups that still need to be educated, or shamed into silence. There is work to be done, work that is only made more difficult by rioters who feed racist stereotypes.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa