…Violence here in Rakhine State — where clashes have left at least 167 people dead and 100,000 people homeless, most of them Muslims — has set off an exodus that some human rights groups condemn as ethnic cleansing. It is a measure of the deep intolerance that pervades the state, a strip of land along the Bay of Bengal in western Myanmar, that Buddhist religious leaders like Mr. Nyarna, who is the head of an association of young monks, are participating in the campaign to oust Muslims from the country, which only recently began a transition to democracy from authoritarian rule.
After a series of deadly rampages and arson attacks over the past five months, Buddhists are calling for Muslims who cannot prove three generations of legal residence — a large part of the nearly one million Muslims from the state — to be put into camps and sent to any country willing to take them. Hatred between Muslims and Buddhists that was kept in check during five decades of military rule has been virtually unrestrained in recent months.
Even the country’s leading liberal voice and defender of the downtrodden, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been circumspect in her comments about the violence. President Obama made the issue a priority during his visit to the country this month — the first by a sitting American president — and Muslim nations as diverse as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have expressed alarm.
“I don’t think that we consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy,” President Obama said, on September 12, of the tangled relationship with the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. “They’re a new government that is trying to find its way,” and there would be some “rocky times” ahead.
The day before, crowds had scaled the wall of the American embassy in Cairo, burning the Stars-and-Stripes, in protest against the video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that had triggered protests in twenty Muslim nations. No diplomats were killed in Egypt, as they were next door in Benghazi. But an American president obsessed with his election campaign, sure that the foreign world could be held at bay, was reminded of the hazards of imperial power in a fractured Islamic world ever ready for an anti-American riot.
Photo credit: EEAS
“That depends on your definition of ally,” the newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told The New York Times, days later, on the eve of a visit to the United Nations General Assembly meeting. The Americans had been unhappy with the tepid response of Morsi to the riots. He had been passionate about the video, deeply offended by it, but had been slow to condemn the protests. “We took our time,” he said, “but in the end acted decisively.”
He put the Americans on notice, giving them a preview of the difficulties of dealing with a “democratic” government unlikely to show American authorities excessive deference. The “soft Islamists” had come to power, and Washington had to adjust to life after the autocrats.
The harvest of the A
WHEN Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many in the Middle East and beyond rejoiced. The new president promised to help negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and to reach out to Iran’s intransigent regime. An early, rousing speech in Cairo persuaded many ordinary Muslims that a new chapter in relations between America and the volatile region had begun.
This was sorely needed. Since September 11th 2001, George Bush’s catch-all “war on terror” had led to two conflicts in Muslim nations—Afghanistan and Iraq—which brought misery, mistrust and a hefty bill for America’s ailing economy. A rising Turkey checked America’s power in the region, and Iran’s Shia leadership had spread its tentacles into Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime. The Arab-Israeli peace process was on ice.
But now, nearly four years on and as American elections loom, Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics, is critical of Mr Obama’s timidity in the region. Mr Gerges reckons that the American president’s preference for pragmatism has left him open to attacks from all sides. The left, pointing to increased drone strikes and America’s threat to veto a Palestinian bid for statehood, accuses Mr Obama of antagonism towards the Arab world. The right wails that he is too soft on enemy states and has diminished America’s ability to shape the region’s affairs.
Some of this is unfair. By the standards of Washington, DC, which has long viewed the Middle East as a bulwark against Russian influence, Mr Obama’s record has not been too bad. Iraq is no beacon of democracy, but America’s army is no longer stuck in a quagmire there. American troops are gradually leaving Afghanistan too; a further 23,000 exit this year, and all combat troops will depart by 2014. And the region’s oil still flows into the market.
More than a year after the first stirrings of the Arab Spring, there continues to be a strong desire for democracy in Arab and other predominantly Muslim nations. Solid majorities in Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan believe democracy is the best form of government, as do a plurality of Pakistanis.
Indeed, these publics do not just support the general notion of democracy - they also embrace specific features of a democratic system, such as competitive elections and free speech.
A substantial number in key Muslim countries want a large role for Islam in political life. However, there are significant differences over the degree to which the legal system should be based on Islam.
The United States is not seen as promoting democracy in the Middle East. In newly democratic Tunisia, only about three-in-ten believe the American response to the political upheaval in their country has had a positive impact.
Despite the tumult and uncertainty of the last year, views about democracy are mostly unchanged since 2011, although support has declined somewhat in Jordan. Enthusiasm for democracy tends to be generally less intense in Jordan and in Pakistan. It is consistently strong in Lebanon and Turkey.
While democratic rights and institutions are popular, they are clearly not the only priorities in the six Muslim majority nations surveyed. In particular, the economy is a top concern. And if they had to choose, most Jordanians, Tunisians and Pakistanis would rather have a strong economy than a good democracy. Turks and Lebanese, on the other hand, would prefer democracy. Egyptians are divided.