There is a video online of young men hurling rocks at a KFC and Hardees in Lebanon. One of the stone-throwing teenagers wears a yellow shirt and white anklet socks. I wonder if he used to eat at the KFC or if he could not afford the prices. Everyone in the video is angry; everyone wants to be a hero.
These last two weeks, mobs of angry, mostly young men in North Africa and across the Muslim world have attacked symbols of America and the West. They crippled a school in Tunisia, stealing musical instruments and computers. In Pakistan, they set fire to movie theaters. Ostensibly, these criminal displays following the murder of American diplomats and assaults on Western embassies are a protest against an offensive American-made video. The reality is that they are a sad indicator of the mob mentality that lives at the margins of daily life in some parts of the Muslim world and of the long-term challenges faced by these countries and, by extension, the United States.
In places like Cairo and Karachi, there are just too many pillagers-in-waiting who are young, frustrated, and easily susceptible to instigation. Yesterday’s cartoons, today’s video, tomorrow’s tweet—there will never be a shortage of events that serve as fodder for the nihilists who, in the name of Islam, turn to these youth and provoke destruction of America and the West.
A show of force or even the opposite, the United States’ withdrawal, will not beat this dynamic. People like to say, “Hit the bully in the mouth.” The problem is that from the perspective of the mob, we are the bully and they are hitting us. We have supported their dictators for decades. If we hit them, it will be perceived as abusing them further. The opposite approach of shuttering embassies, denying visas, and closing businesses would be equally useless. That would be ceding America’s interests to the radical one percent. There is no appeasing people who bait teenagers into attacking embassies.
The way to diffuse this mob mentality is through long-term engagement in the form of strategic development programs in education, economic development, and political institution building; diplomatic overtures and dialogue with national and local leaders; and a greater number of people-to-people programs that bring together youth. As we pursue this approach, there are certain realities to consider.
First, the actions of hundreds or in some cases thousands cannot be considered representative of the more than 1.6 billion Muslims world-wide. For every person who throws a rock at an embassy or who sets fire to a movie theater, there are literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of people in that same country who would love to read in the embassy library or to watch a film.
Second, the governments in countries like Egypt and Pakistan lack the capacity for decisive and positive actions. These governments have spent decades fleecing their country’s resources and setting up corrupt enterprises that benefit their families and cronies, not investing in national systems that create opportunities for their citizens. As these governments now struggle under popular pressure, they cannot or will not fulfill a duty as basic as protecting foreign diplomats.
Third, the “Arab Spring” remains undefined in its nature and direction. It is not an inherently anti-American movement; young Egyptians and Tunisians protested for the freedom of speech and assembly and used American-made tools like Facebook and YouTube to advocate for their cause. These societies are staggeringly young—65 percent of the population in the Middle East is under the age of 30. It will take years to define and implement what these citizens want in places that have not had competitive political systems or democratic traditions. There will be opportunities to form partnerships with these young people, especially if we support freedoms that coincide with America’s founding principles.
Fourth, there is a new “power of one.” It used to be that it took a great leader, like Gandhi or Ataturk, to change the course of history. In 2012, every individual has the potential to instigate or impact. It took just 19 terrorists to change our world; the makers of this latest video achieved their goal. Each one of those individuals in the mob is a person with a choice. That Lebanese teenager in the yellow shirt throwing rocks at Hardees was not predestined to join that mob.
The situation the United States faces is not easy, but it is not as hopeless as it seems on TV. To destroy the appeal of the mob it will take an effort that focuses on building effective institutions in key countries that account for the needs of individual citizens. When those young men have as many job opportunities that lead to lives of dignity as they do opportunities to “join the mob” that lead to fleeting moments of imagined dignity, then it will not matter how many offensive videos turn up on YouTube. Until then, we need to resist the urge to respond in kind and instead take the steps to build, invest in, dialogue with, and support responsible local leaders.
Benjamin Orbach is the Director of the America’s Unofficial Ambassador initiative at Creative Learning, a Washington DC-based not-for-profit. The author of Live from Jordan (2007), he is writing his next book, America’s Unofficial Ambassadors.