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Americans must engage more – not less – with Muslims in the Middle East

The forces unleashed by the Arab awakening are in a sorting-out period in which the most extreme voices are getting the most media play. But they are not the majority. Rather than condemn the region or the Muslim faith, Americans should champion the voices of reason amidst the mayhem. 

COMMENTARY: Stephen Walt analyzes the many complex and vitally important issues underlying US-Middle East policy as part of the American Conversation Essentials series.
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I can hardly believe that just last month I was inside the US Embassy in Tunis, talking to local Tunisians about greater understanding between the Middle East and the West. How ironic that just a few days ago, this same place was overrun by protesters who torched cars, smashed windows, and pulled down and burned the American flag, replacing it with the symbolic black Islamic flag.

The flag is preferred by the Salafists, Islamic puritans now trying to wield muscle in a more open, post-Arab spring world. And its color is appropriate for the type of thinking the group’s philosophy embodies – intolerance, fundamentalism, and repression of women, minorities, and moderates. After years of experience in the Middle East, I'm not scared by "Islam"; it's extremism that scares me – whether it’s there under the specter of angry Salafists burning flags and employing violence, or here in the United States, in its subtler forms of insulting films, hateful mass emails, or media invective that ignorantly demean a global population of 1.6 billion for the acts of a few.

What we risk missing amidst the feeding frenzy of extremism on both sides is the incredible opportunity unfolding right now in the Middle East – a chemicalization process of transformation unleashed by the Arab awakening, which began just up the street from the embassy in downtown Tunis. While the temptation may be to condemn or abandon an entire region and its people, now is the time to engage even more in the region, not less, if we want to support their development, freedom, democracy, and religious moderation.

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