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

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Consider this: When I asked my Tunisian audience what percentage of the population would need to be mobilized to reach the tipping point required for massive social change, they responded unlike any other group I’ve talked with. Usually, groups guess 75 percent or higher, but the Tunisians suggested just 1 or 2 percent. They added: “We know that it doesn’t take a lot for transformation. We proved that here with the Arab spring, which ignited change for the whole region!”

Societal transformation can be messy and chaotic. The turmoil let loose in Tunisia in February 2011 and that echoed throughout the region seems similar to how an Iraqi Shiite cleric characterized the pandemonium in Baghdad to me: “Saddam Hussein was the radiator cap that kept all of these pressurized contents under wraps. Then you Americans came and removed the cap, and the contents exploded. Now we’re having to deal with the result.”

The difference, of course, is that the Arab awakening was self-initiated and broad-based. The people took it upon themselves to remove the radiator caps and thrust the entire region into the throes of a massive political and social upheaval. But surely this tumult must be better in the long run for the health of these societies than a stultifying oppression under the guise of stability.

The region has lagged markedly behind much of rest of the world in terms of economic development, political freedoms, and tolerance. This is due to a combination of factors: the legacy of colonialism; the curse of oil that has delayed broader industrialization, innovation, and development; an abundance of dictators (often supported by the West) who repressed civil liberties, civil society, and education; and the rigid practice of a dominant religion – a religion which has not yet fully experienced a reformation, similar to what Judaism and Christianity have undergone.

Given these circumstances and history, it should not be surprising to see the manifestations of these conditions showing up by way of terrorism (the weapon of the weak), violence, ignorance, “barbaric” practices of religion, oppression of women and minorities, and hyper-sensitivities to insults, such as the anti-Islam film. With no ability to vote, speak freely, or practice civil discourse, what other outlets of expression have there been?

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