One of the iron laws of Middle East politics for the last half-century has been that extremists go all the way and moderates tend to just go away. That is what made last week's march in Benghazi, Libya, so unusual. This time, the moderates did not just go away. They got together and stormed the headquarters of the Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia, whose members are suspected of carrying out the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the death of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
It is not clear whether this trend can spread or be sustained. But having decried the voices of intolerance that so often intimidate everyone in that region, I find it heartening to see Libyans carrying signs like "We want justice for Chris" and "No more al-Qaida" -- and demanding that armed militias disband. This coincides with some brutally honest articles in the Arab/Muslim press -- in response to rioting triggered by the idiotic YouTube video insulting the Prophet Muhammad -- that are not the usual "What is wrong with America?" but, rather, "What is wrong with us, and how do we fix it?"
On Monday, the Middle East Media Research Institute, which tracks the Arab/Muslim press, translated a searing critique written by Imad al-Din Hussein, a columnist for Al Shorouk, Cairo's best daily newspaper: "We curse the West day and night, and criticize its moral disintegration and shamelessness, while relying on it for everything. ... We import, mostly from the West, cars, trains, planes ... refrigerators, and washing machines. ... We are a nation that contributes nothing to human civilization in the current era. ... We have become a burden on other nations. ... Had we truly implemented the essence of the directives of Islam and all religions, we would have been at the forefront of the nations. The world will respect us when we return to being people who take part in human civilization instead of being parasites who are spread out over the map of the advanced world, feeding off its production and later attacking it from morning until night. ... The West is not an oasis of idealism. It also contains exploitation in many areas. But at least it is not sunk in delusions, trivialities and external appearances, as we are. ... Therefore, supporting Islam and the prophet of the Muslims should be done through work, production, values and culture, not by storming embassies and murdering diplomats."
Muhammad Taqi, a liberal Pakistani columnist, writing in the Lahore-based Daily Times on Sept. 20, argued that "there is absolutely no excuse for violence and indeed murder most foul, as committed in Benghazi. Fighting hate with hate is sure to beget more hate. The way out is drowning the odious voices with voices of sanity, not curbing free speech and calls for murder."
The Egyptian comedian, Bassem Youssef, wrote in Al Shorouk on Sept. 23: "We demand that the world respect our feelings, yet we do not respect the feelings of others. We scream blue murder when they outlaw the nijab in some European country or prevent [Muslims] from building minarets in another [European] country -- even though these countries continue to allow freedom of religion, as manifest in the building of mosques and in the preaching that takes place in their courtyards. Yet, in our countries, we do not allow others to publicly preach their beliefs. Maybe we should examine ourselves before criticizing others."
Whenever I was asked during the Iraq war, "How will you know when we've won?" I gave the same answer: When Salman Rushdie can give a lecture in Baghdad; when there is real freedom of speech in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world.
We need a respectful dialogue between Islam and the West, but, even more, we need a respectful dialogue between Muslims and Muslims. What matters is not what Arab/Muslim political parties and groupings tell us they stand for. What matters is what they tell themselves about what they stand for and what excesses they will not tolerate.
This internal debate had long been stifled by Arab autocrats whose regimes traditionally suppressed extremist Islamist parties but never really permitted their ideas to be countered with free speech -- with independent, modernist, progressive interpretations of Islam or by truly legitimate, secular political parties and institutions.
Are we seeing the start of that now with the emergence of free spaces and legitimate parties in the Arab world?
Thomas L. Friedman is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.