Cup-of-tea diplomacy


In the spring of 2008, I was invited to give a briefing on human rights to a Bush-appointed US ambassador scheduled to be posted to the Middle East. But the ambassador had little interest in talking about human rights.

“What I want to know is this,” he said. “Is Islam the problem here? Is Islam retarding progress—economically, socially, politically?”

I tried to steer the meeting back to human rights but the ambassador kept persisting. “I mean you’re a Muslim…so do you think Islam is standing in the way?”

I had participated in enough of these discussions to know that in agreeing to meet, both us were checking off boxes: He could say he was listening to the concerns of a human rights advocate; I was able to say I relayed the concerns of my employer, Amnesty International, to a US ambassador.

Most of the ambassadors I met were like this: They thought it neither important nor virtuous to understand—let alone to love—the people of the Middle East. The role of the ambassador, they reminded me, was not to listen to people’s ideals and hopes but rather to convey to people America’s ideals and hopes for them.

When I learned of the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens last week, I mourned the sad irony that a US diplomat who wore his love for the Middle East and North Africa on his sleeve would be killed serving the very people who inspired him.

In a YouTube video posted soon after his murder, Ambassador Stevens is seen standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, the cherry blossoms in full bloom behind him, introducing himself to the Libyan people.

“As-salaam alaikum,” he begins using the traditional Islamic greeting that means “Peace be upon you.” He looks happy, giddy almost.

“Growing up in California, I didn’t know much about the Arab world,” he says. “Then after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I traveled to North Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer.” He taught for two years in the mountains of Morocco and “grew to love this part of the world.”

Colleagues and friends who knew him spoke about his passion for listening. French writer Bernard-Henri Levy admired his “great capacity to listen and his strategy to speak last.” Elizabeth Dibble, his colleague at the State Department, spoke about Stevens’ unique diplomatic style.

“It takes a lot of tea,” she said. “You don’t rush into talking points, you develop a relationship and a personal connection, and a series of connections becomes a network.”

In a moving tribute published on CNN’s website, his friend Judith Drotar spoke about Steven’s remarkable judicious restraint. “What really made Chris exceptional to me, however, was his ability to distance himself,” she writes. “Not the aloof kind of distancing that you might expect from someone in his position, but the kind where one puts emotion and ego aside in order to truly listen, to understand, and then to find a way to build bridges.”

But in the aftermath of Stevens’ death, we are tearing down those very bridges that he worked so hard to build.

The cover of this week’s Newsweek features a close up photo of two bearded, turban clad Muslim men, clutching an Egyptian flag, shouting to the camera under a headline that reads, “Muslim Rage: How I survived it and how we can end it.”

In the article, Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes, “In the age of globalization and mass immigration, such intolerance has crossed borders and become the defining characteristic of Islam.”

Stevens would be ashamed. He worked his whole life to add nuance to our understanding of the Middle East and North Africa. To suggest that one film—or the religion of Islam—alone caused the violence that swept across 16 countries is as incomplete as suggesting that the LA riots of 1992 were sparked only by the Rodney King verdict.

But it’s easy to blame the protests that erupted in 16 Muslim majority countries as a reaction to a film. It is more difficult to examine the policies of our government that have sparked this resentment.

A week before Stevens died, the US fired two drone strikes 80 miles southeast of Sanaa, Yemen. One hit an Al Qaeda operative; the other missed its target, hitting a commuter mini-bus. Fourteen were killed, including three women and a child.

Mansoor al-Maweri was nearby when the attack happened.  “You want us to stay quiet while our wives and brothers are being killed for no reason,” he said. “This attack is the real terrorism." Hundreds of angry people took to the street. Few cameras were there to beam these protests to television sets in America.

It is attacks like this, as well as the film, that sparked the current outcry. The tragedy is that Stevens would have understood this perhaps more than any other diplomat. Sometimes the explanations are painful; sometimes we do not know what is happening; and sometimes the best course of action for the United States is to pour a cup of tea and listen.

Zahir Janmohamed recently completed a fellowship at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and is writing a book about Juhapura, the largest ghetto of Muslims in India


Abulhassan Banisadr, him and the rest of the liberal sorta secular Iranians got played by the Ayatolla and his flunkies while making these idiotic strained logic rants. The commonalities between the the Iranian dupes in 1979 and this are amazing.

The well meaning sorta secularists got played by the religious nut cases in Iran. The new breed of sorta secular and leftish Muslim apologists are little different, they will be the new casualties of the revolution.

What sparked the riots is a bunch of idiots wanted to riot because they are religious idiots. Only on the American left are nutty Christians who are mostly peaceful screamed about, while nutty Muslims are given a pass. Even more odd is that the crazed left calls the right wing Jesus freaks the "American Taliban."

This article was stupid. There were dozens of student ass kissers of the Ayatolla and hsi rioters, and all hey got was a bullet for their good works.

Posted by matlock on Sep. 19, 2012 @ 7:10 pm

Why is that? You don't any more than I do. In your article, you preach ppl to not rush to judgement yet that is exactly what you do. On NPR there was an interview with a leader of the one of the largest very-Islamic groups in Libya and it's obvious their motivations are beyond any mistaken drone strike and are not much different from the typical hardline Saudi cleric.

If you don't have any particular reason to state what your saying then save everybody the noise from your keybd for that's all it is. If you have the results of an interview, a survey, a personnel experience, etc, by all means let's hear it.

But these useless and probably erroneous speculations are just that - useless, and possibly harmful if you're spreading views not based on reality.

The reality - which you don't acknowledge - is that they're are powerful forces in Libya aigned with Al Qaeda - either in spirit or in actuality - which they are freely admit as their flying AQ's flag shows - who would have killed the American diplomat if no drone had never mistakenly killed innocents.

If you got facts to present, present them. Save us from useless and probably erroneous speculations about the motivations of ppl you presumably know little about on a firsthand basis.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 20, 2012 @ 8:05 am

It's remarkable that a religion that demands deference to the point of submission accords no respect whatsoever to the non-Islamist. But at least we can rest assured that Islam is a religion of peace (and the occasional beheading).

Posted by Ruth Bladder Ginsu on Sep. 20, 2012 @ 9:20 am

The notion that the US is somehow responsible for raging mobs of fanatics in the Middle East is ridiculous. Rationalizing the behavior of the very people who killed Ambassador Stevens is simply perverse. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has personal experience of contemporary Islam---genital mutilation and death threats. She has found refuge in the US, the Great Satan! This rabid behavior goes way back. President Washington and President Jefferson had to deal with it in the 18th Century.

Posted by Rob Anderson on Sep. 20, 2012 @ 11:02 am

Hirsi Ali is on the payroll of the American Enterprise Institute. She reminds me of Ayn Rand or many American sectarian leftists, in the sense that she is rebelling against the restrictive circumstances of her upbringing and instead of finding a happy medium, lurching full thrust to the other side. I'll look elsewhere for good ideas than right wing think tans like the AEI or Heritage Foundation, thanks.

The conduct of the US and UK in the region have been reprehensible and criminal for most of the past century.

But that is no excuse for resorting to violence against people who are from the same country as someone who insulted one's imaginary friend.

The fact that there are underlying wrongs does not justify violence against something that is only wrong for a small sliver of indiviudals.

The take away conclusion from this incident is that most Muslims are not fundamentalist freaks and did nothing in response to the video, that there are both Muslims and Christians and Jews who would use this to stir the pot to advance their narrow agendas.

If only there were some way where we could reconfigure The Great Game so that the fundies of Islam, Judiasm and Christinaity could all be pitted against one another so that the death toll could be restricted to the freak show.

Posted by marcos on Sep. 20, 2012 @ 11:24 am

upset about The Last Temptation of Christ protested comically outside theatres.

Muslims extremists riot and kill, then American leftists publish moronic strained apologies about how we are all to blame. Oddly American leftists trend towards atheism, and oddly American leftists call American right wingers American Taliban.

American foreign policy has nothing to do with this. Fundy Muslims are prone to rioting, just as they are prone to all sorts of insane antics.

It's amazing, in the 80's the only people mentioning how crazy these backwards religious idiots were was the American left. Read most any leftish examination of Reagan policy on Afghanistan and you will see Chumskyites complaining about how the US was dealing with religious nut cases. The first place one could read about female genital mutilation was the Nation, the fist place one could read about the Taliban was on the American left. Now the American left and their idiocy are apologists for the ignorant and intolerant Muslim's.

The Bay Guardian leftists are perfect examples of Orwells observations that he made obvious in his novel 1984.

Posted by matlock on Sep. 20, 2012 @ 5:49 pm