A crude, amateurish film trailer makes its way to the internet and 20+ Middle East countries experience anti-American demonstrations that range from peaceful to deadly. The American ambassador to Libya is killed and other Americans in these nations are probably very worried as these events unfold. I know demonstrations are much more common in Middle Eastern nations, but they are not always anti-American in sentiment and Americans don’t usually die.
We have to analyze America’s role in the Middle East in light of these emotional events. Why are some Egyptians, Libyans, and others feeling so hostile towards America? Are they all radical Muslims? We hear that Muslim prayer leaders often stir up anger during Friday prayer sessions. We hear that Muslims feel America is meddling in their revolutions and their politics. Does making a big deal of our sadness about 9/11 rile things up? We hear frustration because America is such a good friend of Israel. We hear that there are many people in these nations who are not angry at America and who realize that without American support and aid the sacrifices they have made in their recent revolutions may be in vain.
Some of these Middle Eastern governments are up for grabs. They may not have a clear picture of the leader they want. They do know they want more freedom, but whether or not they can shed years of authoritarian rule and live out the choices freedom requires on a daily basis remains to be seen. They want to choose their leaders in elections. They want rights. They want shared opportunities. However they may not have decided how much freedom they need and exactly what forms that freedom will take. They may have never experienced any of the things they desire. Groups within these nations may have been feuding for centuries. Assertive people, even ones who do not have their best interests at heart may be able to “scam” the people of these nations into choosing a leader who will take their hard-won freedom away.
Freedom is complicated. Total freedom is anarchy. Societies make a contract about how much and what kinds of freedom they will enjoy (allow) and usually one citizen’s freedom must not harm any other citizen or violate rights of any other citizen. This means that most freedom is relative and in order to be worth the paper it is written on must be zealously protected by all. In the case of these Middle Eastern nations who desire freedoms there may not have been any discussion about exactly what those freedoms will entail. They may not have hammered out the social contract that they need to back up freedom. Pressures from disparate groups may be so great that the very freedom to sit down and hash out the social contract may not be available. After all, these nations already know what happens if only one or two groups enjoy the freedoms withheld from the others. They know that the freedom they want must apply equally to all the members of their nation. Have there been any “constitutional conventions” to hammer out the social agreement? How can you hold an election for a leader until you have an outline for governance? Violence is not a right guaranteed in a free society because it would run counter to the survival of freedom. Most free societies hold violence as a taboo. More talking and less demonstrating is needed. We are living in interesting times, but also perilous ones. We can live with evolving nations, but not with violent nations. Violence turns growth to grief and is unacceptable among enlightened nations.
Erich Fromm wrote Fear of Freedom after the events of World War II in Germany. He theorized that freedom is so difficult that people who went to extraordinary lengths to win their freedom often gave it away to the first strong leader who came along. He suggested that if you want to hang on to freedom you must fight the fear that such freedom seems to engender. I believe you must also know what freedom/s you want to have and that this must be spelled out before these freedoms can be defended. Winning the revolution is obviously only the first step in forming a new government. It is scary and exciting. What will happen? Who will succeed and who will not? Can America and other nations help? Can we protect our interests and keep track of our enemies without interfering? Will a toast help? With the hope that it might, I will toast “to Freedom: win it, define it, keep it.”