Understanding Arab anger

With all the protests and violence in Arab and Muslim countries generated by a despicable and demeaning film about Islam, here is a sobering prediction: There will be more such films and clips, they will be even more provocative, and they will generate even more violent reaction among Arabs and Muslims. And no matter who is behind them, many will see the hands of Israel and the United States.

Yet this is not time for panic but for steady and intensive diplomacy.

This is an easy prediction to make. In the era of the information revolution, any 12-year-old can produce a short film and post it online. There is no shortage of racists, bigots or individuals with sinister goals.

And consider this payoff of a relatively cheap product with minor efforts: disruption of regional and global priorities, affecting U.S. relations with Arab and Muslim countries, influencing internal dynamics in the Middle East and possibly even affecting the outcome of U.S. elections. It is too easy and too tempting, even for those with low personal stakes — and especially for those with higher stakes.

The Arab and Muslim reaction is predictable enough. The people who mobilize and act violently are by no means majorities, but the issues of Islam and the prophet Muhammad touch raw nerves across Arab and Muslim societies so that meaningful calls for calm will remain limited. Coming after a decade during which Muslims felt their religion and values under assault, the empowerment of the Arab uprisings will most likely only bring more people into the public square — and some with more than peaceful anger. Who will stop them?

Two factors work against effective prevention. The first is a lack of leadership that commands true moral authority. The Arab world has long lacked leadership respected by the Arab public. That was certainly the case before the Arab Spring uprisings, when the vacuum of leadership Arabs admired was glaringly obvious in public opinion polls.

For different reasons, this remains the case now. The Arab uprisings have been unique in part because they took place without charismatic leadership — or even the usual need to rely on political parties and social organizations. That made them authentic, grass-roots-based and reflective of deep public aspirations. Essentially, they were leaderless.

Meanwhile, those who have been democratically elected since, like Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, have not yet established their credentials and moral authority. There is no Nelson Mandela to set the tone, though many are trying.

The second is that the norm established by the course of the Arab revolutions has restrained the state's use of coercive means to stop demonstrators. Governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, with memories of hated regimes doing just that, are fearful of cultivating the same reputation when they are seeking to build their public legitimacy.

Even police and security forces, which suffered during the Arab revolutions for being instruments of the rulers against the people, have a built-in reluctance to intervene, particularly over an issue on which they deeply sympathize with the demonstrators.

So the norms established in the course of the mostly peaceful Arab revolutions have had the consequence of undermining the coercive power of the state — and thus the state itself.

It is striking that the anger and violence immediately targeted the United States, and the chants of demonstrators singled out Israel and America — before the facts about the film were known. Even after more information was revealed about those apparently behind the film, and when it should have been clear that Washington could not have had a hand in this sinister production, suspicion and conspiracy theories have endured.

At the core, pre-existing anger with Israel and the United States, and a sense that the two led an assault on Islam after the tragedy of Sept. 11, are hard to separate from the facts of any particular episode.

These perceptions were somewhat about U.S. discourse that focused on a clash of civilizations but mostly about U.S. led-wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and U.S.-supported Israeli wars in Lebanon and Gaza. That decade of war and destruction had more impact on the outlook of Arabs and Muslims toward the United States than anything said then and since.

In the short term, it is, of course, naive to think that through public relations, Washington will reverse a tide of suspicion built over decades — even as the United States continues to take the moral high ground against racism and provocation. The deepest sources of anger against America are harder to grapple with since they pertain to the presence of U.S. forces in the Middle East and to U.S. policy toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

But it is a mistake to conclude that nothing should be done — even beyond working with governments where common interests remain, as President Barack Obama has done with Mr. Morsi, to limit the damage and put in place preventive measures for the future.

Washington must separate the sources of Arab and Muslim anger from the sources of violence. There are continuing battles in each Arab country for its future. Extremists often rely on violence over deeply held religious beliefs to settle these internal battles. Arab rulers, still lacking in moral authority and not in full control, have an interest in preventing the disruption of their priorities and strategic choices — even as their capacities are limited.

The worst thing that Washington can do is panic, abandon common interests and allow arbitrary events — the likes of which are almost inevitable — to alter our strategic course. The current crisis has been sobering not only to Americans but also to Arab governments and many Arabs who don't want to see Arab revolutions hijacked.

This provides an opening for intense diplomacy, not its abandonment.

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center of The Brookings Institution. He is the author of "The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East." This article originally appeared in Politico.