Q&A: What the Mideast protests reveal
The scene near the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Thursday.
September 14th, 2012
09:10 AM ET

Q&A: What the Mideast protests reveal

As outrage over a video that characterizes the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizing buffoon spread across Muslim countries, details emerged about the killings of a U.S. ambassador and three others this week at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

So, what's next? Fareed Zakaria weighs in on extremism and freedom of speech, why a President Obama apology would be absurd and the future of the U.S.-Egypt relationship in this edited conversation:

Q: Russia's Vladimir Putin is quoted as warning that the Arab world could descend into "chaos." Is that fear is overblown?

ZAKARIA: I think it is overblown. I think what you have here is one of these periodic crises that take place.

You will remember there have been these around the Koran burning and around the Danish cartoons, and they're all signs of a fundamental problem within Arab societies, a fundamental lack of tolerance and an extremism.

More: Peter Bergen on the amplification of trend

But they have never really descended in that form because, just remember, you're talking about a few hundred people, here and there.

There may be a few places where it's worse and remember the crucial difference in the place like Libya is that the government is entirely on the side of the United States. It's trying to battle these extremists.

So, what you're dealing with is a certain degree of extremism in these societies and weak governance in many of these countries. That's different from a kind of grand revolution.

More: Ex-jihadist on why extremists don't speak for Libya

Q: Not downplaying the deaths and the violence, but do you think too much is being made of this when you listen to people yelling on the streets saying President Obama should apologize to the world and to the Muslim world for this?

ZAKARIA: Here's how I put it. I think clearly we live in a world in which the images can go viral. Protests can go viral. These things become global very quickly and a kind of feeding frenzy develops, both on the ground and in the media.

I think that that has to be separated from the real issue, and the real issue is a level of extremism in some Arab and Muslim societies that is worrisome. But let's not exaggerate it. Let's not also turn this into a problem of all of Egypt or all of Libya when we're dealing with some isolated groups that have been jockeying for power in various ways.

And, as for President Obama needing to apologize, I think it's absurd. It's ludicrous. I think what we are all waiting to hear is a proper apology from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, who is the one figure in all of this that has been most disappointing.

The Egyptian government has not provided the protection the United States needs. It has not reacted to the violence in the way that it should, let alone the fact that Egypt gets a lot of aid from the United States [$2 billion a year] ...

More: David Rothkopf on the fragility of U.S. relations in Mideast

It's very different from Libya. The Libyan government is actively on our side trying to ferret out these extremists, catch them, capture them, kill them.

In the Egyptian case, one has to ask, are they actually encouraging a certain degree of extremism?

Q: When we hear demonstrators make comments about the president apologizing and this is an insult to Muslims the world over - what aren't they understanding about the U.S. and what isn't the U.S. understanding about them? Many in the U.S. think it's absurd that a terrible, small movie that no one had seen has caused such violence.

ZAKARIA: Well, I think it's fair to say that there is a kind of extremism and a lack of kind of an understanding of freedom of speech and opinion.

More: Ed Husain: Arab Spring nations 'don't get dissent'

The person who made this movie is crude, is bigoted and is a buffoon, but in the United States of America, we do not shut down or jail people who are crude and vulgar and bigoted.

They have to do something that harms people physically. People's freedom of speech, even to say offensive things, is protected. They don't get that to a certain extent, particularly relating to religious issues.

Remember Salman Rushdie, the novelist? He went through this whole period of a fatwa and things like that, precisely because people could not understand that he was exercising his freedom of speech to write a book that was regarded by many Muslims as offensive.

What we don't understand about them, I think, is that this does affect a kind of core sense of their dignity and it affects their sense of whether or not we respect them.

But I think at the end of the day, the West is in the right here. The United States is in the right. It is entirely inappropriate under any circumstances to use violence as a response to freedom of speech.

The way you counter bad speech is with good speech. Let them make a great movie about Prophet Mohammed. That's the way you do it, not by killing people, not by burning people.

Q: We talked about the amount of money in U.S. aid to Egypt. Obama is going to ask Congress to forgive about a billion dollars in debt that Egypt owes Washington. Do you think that these anti-American protesters are even aware of that?

ZAKARIA: I think they're very ill-informed. I think they know very little, but I think that the government of Egypt knows this. I would hope that we're having serious conversations with the government of Egypt and making clear to them that unless their attitude is much more cooperative and much more responsible, it will be very difficult to forgive any of Egypt's debt and, going forward, it would mean a very different relationship.

Egypt is going to have to come to terms with its own internal dimensions. There is a contest between the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood that is in power, and even more radical and extreme groups, which is why the president is clearly trying to curry favor with some of these groups by not condemning the violence more strongly.

But Morsy will have to choose. Does he want to be president of Egypt or does he want to be an Islamic leader of the rabble, of the mob?

And his relationship and the country's relationship with the United States will depend on that, and, more broadly, the ability of these countries to chart a moderate, mainstream, modern course is going to be powerfully affected by these kinds of choices. This is what they have to decide.

What do you think? How will these events change the U.S. relationship with Egypt? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Free speech vs. hate speech
Shining a light on Muslim sensitivities around Prophet Mohammed
Will Egypt's leaders calm or fan the crisis?
The big unanswered questions
6 things to know about Libya attack
Reaction from Arab leaders and what it might mean

Topics: Egypt • Libya

soundoff (1,807 Responses)
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    September 18, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  3. trulyyours4v

    "" I think, is that this does affect a kind of core sense of their dignity and it affects their sense of whether or not we respect them""".??????. I hope he's not stolen this opinion from someone else!!!!!..First and Foremost Dignity Belongs 2 the Creator and Those who follow His Guidance Uprightly....No..2..When America has not discovered and when Europe in the Shade of Dark pages....Islam Shed it's light on via it's Greatest Scholars like Ibn Banna and some more who helped immensely to the field of Science and Social order...3.We MUSLIMS never ever CARE about Our LIVES in terms of DEFENDING A TRUE RELIGION ON EARTH..4.I'm asking a simple Question,if We all wiped out of this Universe,who will save you from the HELL FIRE??? Did you Ever Ponder the Verse of the Glorious Qur-Aan on the Chapter 67..verse..28.Do it please..It's Real Blessing and More Sustenance till We (Muslims) alive on Earth,if Not you gonna witness only Destruction everywhere...Keep your RESPECT with yourselves....We Never need of Fake things whatever they are....May Good Sense Prevail everywhere.....

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  5. mrramon2004

    I wonder when we will understand that religions are not God, and we are a big family called humanity. In this life and the next, Stay in the light.

    September 18, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Reply
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    September 19, 2012 at 5:06 am | Reply
  8. Ibn Warraq

    All the people calling this movie a provocation should also call it a lie (that it depicts events that did not occur), but they are not doing that,because they can't.All the events shown in the film are also written in the six verified and widely accepted books of hadith (Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sanan Abu Dawood, Sanan Ibn Majah,etc) as well as Sirat Rasul allah written by Ibn Ishaq (the earliest muslim biographer of the prophet of islam) as well as the Quran.
    The people protesting against the production of this film should first protest against the writers of the above muslim holy books, burn the books during their public protests and then re-write all these books keeping in mind 21st century human values, then they won't have to protest against the making of any film on this topic.

    September 19, 2012 at 11:45 am | Reply
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    America is the bless-ed for the world and those who good people who can hardly wait to get to our shores, they just have this inexplicable, inutterable feeling of Thank God!..Freedom is the name of the game with a lot of checkmates along the way but there is no other place on the planet like The United States of America. I do not appreciate "global intellectuals" telling me to watch out, watch my mouth, no matter how fair we try to be, this time we are dealing with a fanatical following of people who can't, are not able to, not willing to see beyond a maniacal enthusiasm for an unforgiving faith...no wonder we are becoming Islamaphobes..who wants what these people want if you are thinking right?

    September 20, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
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    Long term solution against Islamic violence & irrationality is a MASSIVE CONVERSION OF MUSLIMS TO CHRISTIANITY, preferably to any Middle Eastern Christian Church which share the same language, culture and traditions as Muslims but NOT their SATANIC Islamic faith.

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    I can offer a fast resolved for all of the violence due to anti-Muslim video. Deport the guy back to Egypt and put a huge sticky note on his forehead saying he was the one who created the video.
    Another note, it’s just proof how religion brain wash the deprived an desperate, I think it was the Dali Lama was saying religion should be removed from our society. I think he should awarded the Nobel peace prized for that comment.

    September 23, 2012 at 11:31 am | Reply
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    Relgion = cowards and afraid to face the truth your life is pointless and will end soon .

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  20. Zuhair Qadir

    I don't know anything about you, and you don't know anything about me. Right now, I'm just an ordinary Pakistani citizen and for a few moments I'd like you to please forget what you've been listening and seeing on the news about the violent protests against the anti-Islam film and listen to what I have to say.

    I am a Muslim, a Pakistani Muslim, and I denounce and distance myself from all forms of recent violence you've seen in the name of 'protecting the honor of the Prophet (PBUH)', because what these rioters are doing is anything but protecting his honor. The religion that these self-proclaimed 'saviors of Islam' are forcing on the world is anything but Islam. Because Islam in its purest form, and the Islam that I know and practice teaches me nothing but peace. It teaches me to remain calm in all conflicts. It teaches me to address the people of the scripture in the nicest manner. I'd like you to know that these misguided individuals don't represent the majority of us Muslims. I'd like you to know that they've hijacked my religion. I want you to know that taking someone's life, hurting them in any way or destroying public and private property is strictly forbidden in my religion. I want you to know and believe that what you're seeing on screens is not a show of Islam.

    But I'd also like you to know that our feelings have indeed been hurt by 'Innocence of Muslims'. They have been hurt because Prophet Muhammad means the same to us as Jesus and Mary mean to you. We hold him in the same level of high regard as you hold them. We're hurt because what he preached is nothing like what that creation of an ignorant mind portrays. My Prophet preached peace and mercy. Muhammad (PBUH) preached forgiveness and patience. He taught me to act sensibly in all situations, which is why I'm writing to you this very moment. I'll understand if you're having a hard time believing what I'm saying, so here's something that might manage to convince you. "And the people of the Rehman (Allah) are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they respond 'peace!'" (Quran, 25/63), "Repel evil with good, and he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend" (Quran, 41/34), and "And do not argue with the people of scripture except in the nicest manner" (Quran, 29/46), are all verses from our holy book, Quran. I know you might not have the resources to check these in the book for yourself, but you can always search them on the web and I guarantee you'll find plenty of links confirming that these phrases are indeed what Islam is all about: peace, mercy, love, patience.

    I want you to know that I completely reject the concept of blaming all of America for the work of one evil mind. I want you to know that my religion is much, much bigger than what certain images of violence lead you to believe. Not as a Muslim, but as a human being I request you to please condemn the film in whatever means you can, because it isn't freedom of expression, it's downright hate speech. I want you to help me protect the name and teachings of a person who preached nothing but love. I want you to not let it define my religion for you.

    If none of the above convinced you, I hope the fact that I approached a citizen of America, a common man, to get my point across instead of going out in the streets and burning your flag, will.

    Best Regards,
    An ordinary Muslim.

    September 23, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Reply
    • Nirm

      Grow up Muslim! We in America learn as children to deal with hurt feelings in the proper way like civilized human beings. So does most of the rest of non-Islamic World.
      If there is any changing, understanding, evolving, developing, progressing, educating, learning, reforming, moderating to be done it is the Muslims who have to do the most as they are the most lacking in all of them. So stop making excuses for your failure as a civilization and as human beings and face the truth and accept blame.
      Get lost!

      September 24, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
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