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October 4, 2012

Muslim protests could have a silver lining

As the violent anti-American protests in the Muslim world subside, those in the region and in the United States are wondering whether the upheaval will have a permanent effect.

Although by no means inevitable, these events could have a silver lining. If they spur leaders in North Africa to reassess their economic and security policies — or if they prod America to lean toward rather than away from North Africa — the region could end up being better off than it was before it erupted on Sept. 11, 2012.

There is always the possibility that the protests and violence, which were triggered in part by outrage over the video "The Innocence of Muslims," will soon be forgotten. The violence surrounding the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper in 2006 were shocking, too, but few would argue they were a turning point. Those protests, however, occurred under the old status quo of the Arab world, a very different context from the volatile, uncertain and in some ways more hopeful situation that has unfolded in the past 18 months.

One way in which the recent upheaval might have a lasting effect is on how freedom of speech is (or isn't) respected in the new Middle East. Last week we witnessed a serious exchange of views on the subject among world leaders at the United Nations. President Barack Obama sought to explain to the world why Americans hold so dear the right to state even the harshest of opinions; the presidents of Egypt and Yemen presented very different views on the limits of expression.

In the past, such contrasts might have simply underscored the significant cultural differences between the Arab world and the U.S. This time, the conversation roughly coincides with efforts to write new constitutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. It is possible that the internal debates surrounding civil liberties in those countries will have greater sophistication after a real-world test of society's limits. Unfortunately, it is also likely that advocates of more "Western" notions of free speech will be hampered by association with the offensive video.

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