United Nations Considers Middle East Unrest

Monday, September 24, 2012

A vehicle sits smoldering in flames after being set on fire inside the American consulate compound in Benghazi late on September 11, 2012. (Getty)

The United Nations General Assembly convenes here in New York just as a set of disturbing developments have emerged in the Middle East. Will these reverse some of the hopeful trends we have seen in the region over the past two years?

Jeremy Bowen, Middle East editor for the BBC and author of "The Arab Uprisings," says it's disappointing that the United Nations seems so impotent when it comes to huge problems like Syria. "It's sad, I think, after relative optimism in recent years at times about what the U.N. can do, to see it going back to almost like the time of the Cold War, when it got paralyzed."

Part of the problem, Bowen acknowledges, is that the U.N. is only as strong as the will of its members. Given the events of the last two weeks in the Middle East, some countries might be hesitant to intervene in Syria, for fear that the situation could become worse. In the United States, for example, there is a feeling that we helped Libya get their freedom, and this violence is our thanks. But in Libya, the vast majority of people do not see it that way. "They don't think that the West, or the United States, gave them their freedom," Bowen says."They think they took their own freedom, and their freedom is something they want to do with as they like."

Furthermore, Bowen thinks that many Western countries were unrealistic to expect the problems of these nations to be resolved overnight by the Arab Spring. "People were always mistaken if they thought that the fall of the Arab dictators would turn these places overnight into Sweden," he says.  

He also makes the point that, now that these countries are democracies, their leaders must listen to their constituencies. All too often, as in Egypt, this means bending toward anti-American sentiments. "We in the West have a bit of a credibility problem in the Middle East," Bowen says. "And that is because, for many, many years, we sustained the dictators. They were very useful friends for us."

In the wake of the violence sparked by the now infamous video insulting Islam, Bowen thinks an international convention on blasphemy would be an excellent use of the United Nations. But, as he points out, the U.N. has struggled for years to come to an agreement on how to define "terrorism," so such an amorphous term as blasphemy would presumably pose an even greater struggle. In the meantime, the disaster in Syria looms much larger than the fallout from the film in Libya, Egypt, and even Pakistan.


Jeremy Bowen

Produced by:

Maggie Penman

Comments [7]

Sarah from New York City

When people say to me that NPR is biased against Israel I often poo-pooh the sentiment...This piece, however, was really offensive.

Entirely ignoring the years of venomous hate speech directed by the leadership of Iran towards Israel makes Israel look like a lunatic state. I assume that when the president of Iran says over and over again that Israel should be wiped off the map, that Israel is a cancer that must be gotten rid of that Israel must be destroyed...that he actually means what he says.

When these statements are also followed up with a build up of nuclear capability, it isn't all that surprising that Israel takes the threats seriously. We, all of us living in the post 9/11 era have learned that when Jihadi lunatics say they want to kill you ..they not only mean it..they also follow through on their word.

Sep. 24 2012 06:40 PM


I could not agree more...the comments on Israel were so naive and ignorant. I know many Arabs in Israel, in fact am a Jew and was raised by a Palestinian nanny and no other country is MORE democratic. Arabs in Israel are in parliament, and write for several newspapers in Israel whether pro or against Israel-they are free to do both without fearing for their lives. wake up.

Sep. 24 2012 04:08 PM
DJ Heinze

First of all, a response to Sarah. Do not ever expect Israel or Jews to be judged by the same standards as used for others. Those of us who are older and wiser know that. However, "applause" to you for speaking out against it. Also, in my lifetime, I have never known of one
Arab League Conference that has ended with the nations agreeing. Even before 1948. Regarding the UN, it is obvious that the organization is
powerless to settle continuing violence and genocides all over the world.
And regarding the Middle East, it is naive to believe that they can have the kind of domocracy that we enjoy in the US. Certainly not in the near future, although I certainly wish they could.

Sep. 24 2012 03:59 PM

Hockenberry wants an international standard for blasphemy - that doesn't effect free speech. Exactly how does that work? Because as the comment by Charles points out, The Takeaway is supported by "The Book of Mormon" which by even the loosest standard would be considered blasphemy against Mormons. Pretty sure all the Piss Christ and Elephant Dung Virgin Marys we have hanging in museums would also be blasphemy.

What better way to encourage mob rule. Kill an Ambassador, control world wide speech. How about the fourth estate actually stand up for free speech - something they use to proclaim to be strong supporters of. All media should be encouraged to run disparaging Mohammed images each and every time someone is killed in the name of Islam. Then the message would spread if you do not want to see Mohammed insulted - behave appropriately. The exact opposite of the message of encouragement we are currently sending. When our President and Secretary are giving groveling apologies while the media discuss the best way to curb our freedoms. Guess the famous phrase "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" no longer applies to large swaths of our country.

Sep. 24 2012 11:41 AM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

The conversation made me think you were talking about teenagers who are looking for their autonomy and not want to listen to their parents. Maybe that is how the situation should be treated.

Sep. 24 2012 11:05 AM

I find your characterization of Israel's response to hostile neighbors as un-demoncratic and "disappointing" to be both unfair and untrue. Would any other democratic nation not "button down the hatches" in the face of war and hostility across the border? What has America's response been to our Mexican borders? Why are we holding Israel to a different standard, and in the face of existential threats that we do not expressly face here in America? Israel is a democratic and egalitarian nation, but also one that must be militaristic- not by choice but by necessity. I find that Israel is often poorly represented and denigrated on your show. Please try to find balance in your coverage.

Sep. 24 2012 10:23 AM

You can't make this stuff up.

Listening to The Takeaway's podcast, we are told that WNYC is supported by "The Book of Mormon"; a 21st century broadway play from the producers of South Park.

I am not kidding.

I'm wondering whether there has been a YouTube trailer from "The Book of Mormon" and whether it has caused riots in Salt Lake City.

Sep. 24 2012 10:02 AM

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