The Agents of Outrage

The deadly attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts in Egypt and Libya raise the question, Did the Arab Spring make the Middle East more dangerous?

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The terrorists struck twice: one set of grenades forced consulate staff to flee the main building while a second targeted the building to which they were evacuated. The attack did not appear spontaneous or amateurish. Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith and two others were killed. The ambassador was declared dead from smoke inhalation.

If Muslims responded violently to every online insult to their faith, there would be riots in Cairo and Benghazi every day of the year. The Internet is full of malefactors who constantly say, write or broadcast appalling things about Islam. (And there are plenty of Muslim Web nuts who vilify other belief systems.) It is the outrage machine, manned by people like Bacile, Jones and Abdallah, who push matters into anger overdrive. They know the outcome of their efforts will be violence and subversion. These men are enabled by media — mainstream and fringe alike — that give them air to bloviate and a political culture that makes little effort to take away their oxygen.

Before the Arab Spring, this chain of events would likely have been stopped early. Dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Gaddafi either blocked Internet access to prevent their people from seeing inflammatory material (among other things) or used their security agencies to crack down on protests long before they could reach critical mass.

(MORE: Egypt, Libya: Fundamentalisms Unleash Havoc)

But democratically elected governments don’t have recourse to such draconian methods. Still unused to power, they are unsure how to deal with angry demonstrations, especially when they are mounted by powerful religious or political groups. The tendency has been to look the other way and hope the demonstrators run out of steam.

It doesn’t always work. The Salafists in Libya were emboldened by the failure of the government in Tripoli to crack down on them when they recently desecrated Sufi shrines. The Minister of the Interior (he has since resigned) said he didn’t want to risk the lives of his security forces in order to apprehend the culprits. “The Libyan authorities have been irresponsibly lazy in confronting this threat,” says Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “They have a choice to make. Are they going to be a country connected to the outside world, or are they going to allow a small number of people in their midst to make that impossible?”

At least Libya’s President Mohamed el-Magariaf swiftly apologized to all Americans for the attack on the consulate and promised to hunt down those responsible: 24 hours after the attack on the embassy in Cairo, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy had not issued a similar statement. When he finally did, he seemed less concerned with what had happened at the embassy and more with the affront to the Prophet, which he condemned “in the strongest terms.” The Muslim Brotherhood, on its Twitter feed, condemned the Benghazi attack but made no mention of the one in Cairo.

The Egyptian government’s almost insouciant response, hardly in keeping with the country’s status as the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, will rankle both President Obama and his domestic critics. In the hours after the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, Republicans piled on the President, questioning the wisdom of his outreach to Islamist political forces like the Brotherhood. Even political allies were moved to wonder whether Egypt could really be a reliable friend.

(MORE: Romney Criticized for Political Turn After Ambassador’s Killing)

Morsy’s silence has been interpreted by Egyptian analysts as a reluctance to prod the Salafists, whose help he may need to get anything done in parliament. But other political figures were equally pusillanimous. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent liberal secular leader, tweeted, “Humanity can only live in harmony when sacred beliefs and the prophets are respected.” That kind of timidity empowers not only the Salafists but also instigators like Abdallah and his American counterparts.

For an understanding of what can happen when the industry of outrage is allowed to function without check, look at Pakistan, where hatemongers continually stoke anger not only against faraway foreigners but just as frequently — and with more deadly results — against their own people. Minorities like the Ahmadiyya sect are an easy target for extremist TV hosts like Aamir Liaquat Hussain, a former Minister of Religious Affairs. On his show broadcast by Geo TV in 2008, guest scholars declared the Ahmadiyyas “deserving to be murdered for blasphemy.” Soon after, two members of the sect were killed. Hussain was forced to apologize and leave Geo but has since returned to the station.

(PHOTOS: Protesters Scale U.S. Embassy Walls, Tear Down American Flag)

Other Pakistani provocateurs target the Shi‘ite community, which makes up 10% to 20% of the population. Militant groups with links to political parties as well as the country’s all-powerful military are frequently behind violent attacks against Shi‘ites. Criticism of such groups is often denounced by extremist preachers as blasphemy, which is punishable by death under Pakistani law.

When Salman Taseer, the governor of the country’s largest province and an outspoken critic of the blasphemy law, was killed by his bodyguard last year, the murderer was declared a hero by many. Munir Ahmed Shakir, the influential imam of Karachi’s giant Sultan Mosque, is just one of many who have pronounced as “non-Muslims” all those seeking to amend the blasphemy laws.

The new normal in Egypt and Libya is not as perilous as in Pakistan. Not yet. But as the fledgling democracies of the Middle East struggle to cope with the genies unleashed by the Arab Spring, you can count on the industry of outrage to work overtime to drag the Middle East in that direction.

— With reporting by Ashraf Khalil/Cairo, Jahanzeb Aslam/Islamabad, Aryn Baker/Beirut, Vivienne Walt/Paris and Massimo Calabresi, Mark Thompson, Elizabeth Dias and Jay Newton-Small/Washington

MORE: Libya: The Killing of the U.S. Ambassador Highlights the Country’s Post-Gaddafi Struggles

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