A Moment for Moderates

If pluralism and radical Islam have a future, stronger voices of tolerance are needed

Watching the protests and associated violence spreading across the Muslim world in recent days, I couldn’t help thinking, Where are you now, Wael Ghonim? Ghonim is, of course, the former marketing executive for Google who was catapulted onto the global stage in 2011 as one of the organizers of the opposition to Egypt’s dictatorship. He became the hopeful face of the Arab Spring—young, hip, modern and passionate in the cause of freedom.

Where is he, and the thousands like him, now that freedom is under assault in Egypt again? Over the past few weeks, mobs have gathered to demand the death of a filmmaker—not really a filmmaker but a bigot who made a crude Internet video satirizing the Prophet Muhammad. It provided a pretext that radical Islamists in Egypt pounced on to advance their cause. But whatever the trumped-up origins of the protests, the question facing a number of newly minted democracies from Libya to Afghanistan is clear: With freedom challenged by the violence of mobs and the intolerance of masses, will anyone stand up to defend it?

The answer is a cautious and tentative yes. Ghonim, it turns out, has been present. He has been posting comments on his Facebook page denouncing the violence from Cairo, where he runs a nonprofit focused on education. Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei, former presidential candidates, have also spoken out, as have prominent clerics in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Tunisia’s President has deplored the violence. In Libya, the elected government has been outspoken in condemning the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others and denouncing the extremists responsible.

Over the past decade, I have often despaired about Muslim moderates, describing them as cowardly and defensive—too scared to speak out for their principles for fear that they will be branded bad Muslims. But in several countries where the protests took place, many have criticized the extremists and urged people to voice their opposition to the video in peaceful ways. This is new. Radical Islamists, rampaging mobs, drummed-up outrage, weak leaders and violence—these are familiar aspects of the modern Middle East. What is new is that there are some voices of sanity, and these voices are authentic. The moderates are quieter than the extremists, but that is true almost everywhere.

Think back over the past decade. The story seldom varies: a Westerner, or a handful of them, does something that attacks Islam (mishandles a Koran, attacks the Prophet). The episode is virtually unknown until radical Islamists publicize it to whip up frenzy, hatred and intolerance. Crowds gather outside U.S. embassies, and violence ensues. The regime disperses the crowds with tear gas and bullets. Order is restored, often by brute force, but the rage endures.

This time, however, many of the Arab regimes are no longer dictatorships, and their crowd-control methods are different. In Cairo, Tripoli and Tunis, governments are trying to navigate between listening to their people and guiding them.

Consider Egypt’s President, Mohamed Morsy, who initially condemned just the movie and only later, after President Obama called him, the violence as well. Morsy is a radical who has spouted nasty conspiracy theories about the U.S. He won the presidency narrowly, largely because Egypt’s secular and moderate vote split among several candidates. So he is pandering to his base while trying to act with some degree of responsibility as President. In other words, he’s behaving like an elected politician. And that is good news of sorts.

Both the symbolism and substance matter. When al-Qaeda urges violence—as it did—the man responding is increasingly neither a military dictator nor a tribal prince but an elected leader. In Egypt, he is the leader of the region’s most powerful Islamic political movement. The latter is likely to be far more persuasive in making Egyptians—and Muslims everywhere—understand that tolerance must become a core Islamic value in the modern world.

Complicating this picture is timing: these protests have come at a crucial moment in the Middle East. The Arab Spring of 2011 has been followed by economic collapse, political dysfunction and, in many places, the rise of political Islam. In hard times, it is easy to fan the flames of hatred and intolerance. But it is precisely in these hard times that modernity and freedom need to be promoted and defended. And they must be defended by those who have gained the most from democracy: the Islamic political parties. Freedom of speech has meant that members of Islamist parties in places like Egypt and Tunisia can finally express themselves without fear of being killed. Will they now offer those same protections to others?

Few in the Arab world are defending the kind of largely unalloyed freedom of speech with the vigor of those in the West. But it is important to remember that it took the West a long time to embrace broad freedom of expression, especially when it involved attacks on core religious beliefs and symbols. Blasphemy was severely punished even in Britain—thought to be the most liberal country in Europe—in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Even in the U.S., public tolerance for attacks on religion was low until recently. In their recent bookAmerican Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and David Campbell write, “In round numbers ... about two-thirds of [American] church–goers who came of age before 1945 rejected free expression for antireligious views, whereas about two-thirds of churchgoers who came of age after 1965 tolerate such views.” Egyptians are debating their new constitution, and many parties are advocating the adoption of blasphemy laws. If this is the path Egypt follows, it will be a blow to the country’s progress and a setback for the already-too-slow modernization of Islam. Muslim countries need more tolerance, not less.

As people watch the crowds and the violence, they must surely be thinking, Why is there so much anger in the Arab world? In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, many serious scholars and journalists, myself included, wrote extensively about the stagnation and repression in Arab countries that had produced bitterness over their failings, anger with the West and a search for a solution in Islam. The U.N.’s Arab Human Development Report documented the region’s backwardness. All those conditions—economic dysfunction, illiteracy, female subjugation—still exist. Indeed, some have gotten worse. But some conditions have improved in many Arab societies. There is greater openness, more freedom and some kind of fragile democracy.

That means that as Muslim societies begin to breathe, we are hearing a diversity of voices. Many are nasty, intolerant and bigoted. But others, like those of Libyans Mohamed el-Magariaf and Mahmoud Jibril, are moderate and modern. It’s not clear who will win. The Arab world could witness the rise of illiberal democracies—places where people vote but individual freedoms suffer—or democracy and liberty could slowly re–inforce each other.

And what about the U.S.? Did America cause this turmoil? The argument made by Mitt Romney and several other Republicans—that these protests are a consequence of Obama’s policies—utterly misses the point. Muslim anger has been building for decades and stems from deep internal causes. Does anyone think Ronald Reagan’s policies caused the death threats against Salman Rushdie? Some long-standing U.S. strategies do play into the grand Muslim narrative—for example, the decades-long support for Arab dictators and monarchs, policies toward the Palestinians and concern about oil supplies. But the frustrations being unleashed in the region today are a response to much deeper forces as the Arab Spring has opened up these cultures and people have discovered their own politics. Egyptians once had the freedom to denounce only the President of the United States. Now they can denounce their own President. This internal power struggle, not U.S. policy or White House rhetoric, is at the heart of the turmoil.

Every non-Western society is searching for a path to modernity that it can feel is in some way local, authentic and, in that sense, non-Western. It’s tough because the West invented modernity. As these societies search for their own paths, the U.S. and the rest of the West can and should help them build modern societies and better the lives of their people. But we should also recognize that above all this is their fight. It really is about them.

TIME MagazineFareed Zakaria