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Protests in Libya sparked an order to disband the country’s rogue militias, one of which may be linked to the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. And protests in Pakistan over an anti-Islamic video led to a bounty on the head of the American filmmaker. With the Libyan and Pakistani presidents both in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, the world is watching their moves to diffuse tensions at home.
- Frederic Wehrey Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
- Arif Rafiq Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute; Columnist for The Express Tribune in Pakistan
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast a novel, maybe the first in English ever, about growing up under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, but first, the death of one American and a video by another are sparking protests across the Muslim world and forcing the presidents of Libya and Pakistan to respond.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFollowing the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, thousands of Libyans spilled on to the streets to protest on Friday. The target of their fury was a heavily-armed militia that some believe are responsible.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn response, Libya's new president gave all the country's unsanctioned militias 48 hours to disband. At the same time, an anti-Islamic video enraged protestors in Pakistan who also filled the streets on Friday. A Pakistani cabinet minister has offered a bounty for the death of the American who made the film, saying he'll pay the reward himself.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAgainst this backdrop, the presidents of Libya and Pakistan are both in New York today to attend the United Nations General Assembly while observers wonder how they'll diffuse the tensions at home. Joining us in studio to talk about this is Arif Rafiq. He is a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a columnist for The Express Tribune newspaper in Pakistan. Arif Rafiq, thank you for joining us.
MR. ARIF RAFIQThank you for having me on.
NNAMDIAlso joining us from the studio of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here in Washington is Frederic Wehrey. He is senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Frederic Wehrey, thank you for joining us.
MR. FREDERIC WEHREYThanks, great to be here.
NNAMDIGentlemen, President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly this morning and deplored the video called "The Innocence of Muslims" that's angered so many people around the world. Let's listen to what he said about it.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAI've made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well. For as the city outside these walls makes clear, we are a country that has welcomed people of every race and every faith.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAWe are home to Muslims who worship across our country. We not only respect the freedom of religion, we have laws that protect individuals from being harmed because of how they look or what they believe. We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAI know there are some who ask, why don't we just ban such a video? And the answer is enshrined in our laws. Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.
NNAMDIPresident Obama addressing the U.N. General Assembly this morning. Arif Rafiq, in Pakistan, the minister of the railways has offered a $100,000 for the death of the person behind this video that roiled the Muslim world. Does the bounty reflect public opinion in Pakistan?
RAFIQIt does reflect public opinion to some extent. It reflects the political climate in Pakistan because the minister actually comes from the Awami National Party, which is one of the most secular parties in Pakistan. And the minister himself actually owns some cinemas in Peshawar where many of the protests took place and these cinemas actually broadcast soft pornographic films so he's not exactly a religious man and he doesn't come from a religious party.
RAFIQBut what he is trying to do is placate a rising nationalistic and religious sentiment inside Pakistan and his party and he, as railway minister, has failed to -- and it's, you know, a challenge and the challenges of governing Pakistan. The railways are bleeding billions of dollars a year and so this is an attempt by a Pakistani politician to change the discourse away from looking at Pakistan's internal challenges and trying to leverage anti-American sentiment for political gain.
NNAMDIIf, as they say, all politics is local Pakistani politicians using the video and the public's distain for it to further their own political ambitions and those of their parties, outside of the minister of railways, is anybody else doing that, and if so, how?
RAFIQYes, you know, there are dozens of political parties inside Pakistan and many of the political parties that are currently not inside parliament are the ones that led the major protests. So these include the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the Jamaat-e-Islami and these groups don't have members in parliament and they're looking -- they're positioning themselves for the next elections, which could take place within the next four to six months.
RAFIQAnd what they'd like to do, as the minister that we have just been talking about, attempted to do, is leverage this anti-American sentiment, particularly in the areas that border Afghanistan and that's where there was a disproportionate number of protests in that area. You know, even in the tribal areas, there were a significant number of protests and public assembly there is quite limited.
RAFIQSo, yeah, as you had said, all politics is local and anti-Americanism is definitely a strong commodity in Pakistani politics.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, if you have comments or questions about this issue or about what's going on in Libya, you can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com Do Pakistanis understand that the video was not made or endorsed by the American government?
NNAMDIYou seem to be suggesting that it's not in the interests of their politicians, at least right now, to tell them that.
RAFIQSome Pakistanis don't understand that. Most, I would say, have not even watched the video. So there is a general lack of awareness of the actual context of the video and the content itself. But I think, you know, the tendency for Pakistani politicians, particularly from the religious right, is to promote a narrative of us versus them, a clash of civilizations and that's exactly what a leading Pakistani Islamist politician did yesterday on television.
RAFIQAnd there was a major Pakistani talk show that discussed these riots and these protests and it was an attempt by the host to conduct some sort of internal reflection. And what he had done was lump this video together with the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Iraq and so-called clash of civilizations and so the video itself has been instrumentalized by political forces that rely on divisiveness and rely on a dichotomy of Islam versus the West for political gain.
NNAMDIArif Rafiq is a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He's a columnist for The Express Tribune newspaper in Pakistan. He joins us in studio. Frederic Wehrey is senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He joins us from studios at that organization in Washington. Frederic let's turn to Libya. How are Libyans reacting to the attack that killed American Ambassador Stevens earlier this month?
WEHREYOverwhelmingly with revulsion, shame and outrage, and I think, in many ways Libya, is the polar opposite of what was just described. I mean, the majority of Libyans are opposed to this sort of extremist Islamic ideology that motivated these attacks.
WEHREYThey're still very grateful to America for its help in toppling Gaddafi and we saw really over the weekend that they were taking matters into their own hands and staging protests against this Islamic militia that conducted the attack.
NNAMDIThirty thousand protestors in Benghazi reportedly stormed the headquarters of that militia group that they believe was responsible for Ambassador Stevens' death and they demanded an end to the militias. Explain who these militias are and what they do, Frederic.
WEHREYWell, the militias have really stepped into the security vacuum that arose after the collapse of Gaddafi and the national army melted away. And these militias, there are about 200 of them across the country. These are the revolutionary fighting units that fought against Gaddafi and they're organized according to town or tribe. And they've been really running the show.
WEHREYThey are guarding installations. They are running things in the towns. And the provisional government in Libya was really forced to rely upon these militias because it lacked its own police and national army so it gave them a degree of autonomy. And this was really sort of a devil's bargain. It worked for a while.
WEHREYBut some of these groups, as we've seen, have had their own agendas. They act like mafia organizations. Some of them have very radical Islamist orientations and Libyans really for the past six months have been saying enough is enough. These militias are running around and this was really the last straw and they took matters into their own hands.
NNAMDIOn Sunday, Libya's president gave the militias 48 hours to disband. Will they and what happens if they don't?
WEHREYI think we're seeing signs that some of them are, in fact, de-mobilizing and disbanding and I would assume that there's a lot of back door, very careful negotiations that are underway. The government knows that it doesn't have the manpower and the fire power to take on these militias.
WEHREYI mean, the national army and the police are still very weak. But some of these militias have gotten used to having their autonomy. They've become a law unto themselves. They've gotten into criminal enterprises and I would suspect that some of them may resist disarmament and incorporation.
NNAMDIYou were in Libya in July. You visited with several of these militias, right?
WEHREYI did, yes.
NNAMDICan you tell us a little bit about what you may have learned about how they tend to be motivated internally?
WEHREYWell, they are really sort of feeding off of the prestige and status that they gained during the revolution. I mean, if you look at the roster of membership of these militias, these are young men who, before the revolution, were unemployed or students or day laborers and suddenly they're really hometown heroes and they've been given a salary. They're given status. They've been given a weapon.
WEHREYAnd it's very difficult to convince them to give that all up and go back to menial labor and similarly with their commanders. I mean, their commanders have accrued enormous political power that stems from the end of a gun. And so how do you convince these people to go back into their daily lives?
WEHREYThe solution really is to get the economy going, provide jobs for these young men, provide scholarships, to really convince them that, you know, yes, you did your duty during the revolution, but now the war is over and you need to join the legitimate army and the police or find a job or go back to school.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. We'll start with Rheo in Prince George's County, Md. Rheo, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RHEOKojo, it's a welcome pleasure to join. My conversation is very short. It's a comment for the guests. My question is just as it concerns to this and as a liberal, I'll say it up front. How can we as a country consider and keep on continuing to deal with countries like Pakistan?
RHEOI know you can't just totally be in isolation, an isolationist nation. That's not smart. But how can we condone it when you have their appointed officials making open bounties on people for their freedom of speech? I think that's a shame. And if some our appointed representatives made open bounties like that, we'd call for their heads, let alone ask for their position.
NNAMDIThank you very much. One of the reasons we have somebody like Arif Rafiq in studio is so we can understand the internal dynamic that leads to a situation like that. Care to respond to our caller?
RAFIQWell, the minister's perspective or the bounty that he called does not reflect the perspective of the Pakistani government. The government condemned him and it should actually remove him from office. But that minister is part -- is a member of an important coalition party and so local politics will govern the decision-making of that government.
RAFIQNow the Pakistani president is in New York today.
NNAMDII was about to say he's scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly this afternoon. He met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday in New York. What's he likely to say in his speech? What indication do you have about what he's trying to accomplish at the U.N. this week?
RAFIQWell, he'll likely call on the United Nations to enact legislation that will ban speech against religion, hate speech against religious groups and that is definitely a contentious issue in the United Nations because there are many post-religious societies that are part of the United Nations community, particularly in Europe, and the perspectives on free speech are markedly different across the world.
RAFIQSo in the United States, the perspective is vastly different from that, let's say in Saudi Arabia, and so bridging those gaps will be very difficult and I think ultimately the proposal is a non-starter. It won't be really go forward. But in the end he's placating the sentiments of a critical mass inside Pakistan as his country heads towards elections.
NNAMDIYou use the term post-religious societies. What do you mean by that?
RAFIQWell, you know, especially in Northern Europe, many of these different countries inside Europe are quite developed and the levels of religiosity are quite low. Atheism or at least agnosticism are quite high. And that's, you know, one, a big contrast to much of the Muslim world, but also to the United States where most Americans believe in God and profess an affiliation with organized religion.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Rheo, but here's what Michael in Gaithersburg has to say. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHi. I just thought that the president's comments were rather humorous considering for one, the HHS mandate where it's pretty much attacking the Catholic Church, its unbelief. And then I didn't see him say anything about like the Da Vinci Code or any other anti-Christian film. So I was just curious why there's prejudice one thing over another. I mean, do Catholics have to start committing murder before they're noticed? I mean, we don't want that.
NNAMDIWell, I'm not sure I understand. You're saying that the president's remarks before the United Nations' General Assembly were inappropriate in saying that the U.S. government, while on the one hand not subscribing to the anti-Muslim video, on the other hand has a constitution that guarantees freedom of expression and somehow you found that that was not appropriate?
MICHAELWell, he says that the film is -- we condemn that film. I don't see him condemning any other film that was anti-Christian or -- I mean, if it would have been anti-Jewish I'm sure we would never allow that. The Catholic Church wouldn't allow that. But I don't see him coming out in support of any Christian organization almost ever. So it's just kind of -- it's lopsided that he tends to be...
NNAMDII don't know if Frederic Wehrey or Arif Rafiq has an appropriate response to your point, but I frankly don't see the relevance of it.
RAFIQWell, the president did speak out against actions of violence against Coptic Christians and the persecution of that group inside Egypt. And so I do think that he did try to talk about religious persecution and hate in more general terms and not simply single out this one video. What he tried to offer is a perspective that one respects freedom of speech, but also encourages societies, and not necessarily governments, but societies to become more tolerant of the differences within. And so he spoke to acts of hate against Muslims as well as Christians, Hindus and others.
NNAMDIAnd I think what we find ourselves in is in the middle of a very combative election season where critics of one candidate or the other find reasons to criticize them regardless of what they happens to be doing. Frederic, Libya's new president Mohammed Yusef el-Magariaf, I think, also met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York yesterday and pledged to expedite the investigation of Ambassador Steven's death and bring the perpetrators to justice. What do we know about who is responsible?
WEHREYIt's all very murky and we find conflicting accounts from both sides. We know that there was, in fact, the presence of this Islamist brigade the Ansar al-Sharia. They were at the site, at the scene of the assault. It's unclear the connection of this brigade with more formal Al Qaida elements. It's also unclear the degree to which it was premeditated. So speculation abounds and we're just going to have to let this investigation run its course.
NNAMDIOn to Troy in Rockville, Md. Troy, your turn. Go ahead, please.
TROYYes. First of all, I'm a big fan of The Express Tribune. I read it almost every day online. My question is, in reading the paper it seems it's not just the average man on the street in Pakistan that has the issues with intolerance when it comes to religion. But it's the lawyers and intellectuals. I mean, you know, the persecution of (word?), the persecution and killing of Shiites. It doesn't seem to be limited just to the uneducated. It's almost as if the highest level, the intelligencia is also infected with this growing intolerance. I was wondering what the columnist thinks about that and how that problem can be addressed.
RAFIQYes, intolerance and specifically religious intolerance is quite pervasive in Pakistan. The government itself is responsible for that to some extent. On passports, for example, and identification cards one must put the religious affiliation on that -- on those items. And most Pakistanis -- over 70 percent of Pakistanis support that measure.
RAFIQBut going beyond these, you know, basic elements of religious identification or discrimination, what we do see is a growing intolerance and acts of violence towards religious minority groups, particularly the amities which are seen by some Muslims as a heretical sect. Also acts of hate and violence against Shiite Muslims. Hundreds have been killed this year. And those acts are spreading into Pakistan's urban areas. And it's -- you know, it's a disease that began to fester in the late 1970s and 1980s in Pakistan. And now it is threatening to consume the country from within.
NNAMDIArif Rafiq is a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He's columnist for The Express Tribune Newspaper in Pakistan. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIOh, and by the way, thank you for your phone call. Frederic Wehrey is senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Frederic Wehrey, thank you for joining us.
WEHREYThanks very much.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, a novel about growing up under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I think it's the first novel in English on that topic. We'll talk with the author. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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