In his historic speech in Cairo, President Barack Obama extended an open hand instead of the traditional clenched fist to the Muslim world. The majority of people the world over saw this as a hopeful gesture signaling a new possibility for peace in the region.
Predictably, though, there were also loud and angry voices denouncing Obama's words in the Arab world, Israel and the United States. Spokesmen for al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas viewed Obama's words as yet another trick by the Americans to further their imperialistic goals. Conservative Israelis read Obama's gestures as a betrayal by a longtime ally. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other American right-wing extremists construed Obama's overtures toward cooperation as a shameful apology from the leader of a country that is constitutionally incapable of doing wrong — unless, apparently, the nation is led by a liberal.
The rage and disdain shared by these critical voices rang out loud and clear, garnering a great deal of attention throughout the world. Isn't it ironic that Obama's speech brought these groups, who usually seem so intent on destroying each other, together to present a unified front against the hope for peace in the Middle East?
Given the intensity of the passions expressed by these cynical factions, it's easy to forget that they represent the minority opinion in each of their nations. Public opinion surveys throughout the Islamic world, in Israel and in the United States consistently show that the vast majority of people in all three regions favor better relations among each other and disapprove of terrorism, war and the violent tactics that have dominated the last several decades of the region's history. A recent poll by One Voice, a nonpartisan organization focused on grassroots "conflict resolution" between Israelis and Palestinians, showed that the majority of both Palestinians and Israelis desire a two-state solution to the conflict between their peoples and view this as the best hope for a better life for themselves and their children.
Gallup Poll surveys conducted in 10 major Muslim majority countries found that the vast majority of Muslims oppose terrorist violence. The 7 percent of respondents who thought that the 9/11 strikes were completely justified — the angry minority — felt that America wants to dominate the Islamic world and that Americans disrespect Islam. Yes, there are many grievances between competing groups and solving them will not be easy. But most people on all sides believe that the violence that has plagued the region must stop.
Despite their disagreement with the majority of people in their countries, the angry minority continues to rage against efforts toward reconciliation. Despite their disconnect with the people they claim to represent, they continue to view themselves as heroically leading their constituents in what writer and religion scholar Reza Aslan recently referred to a "cosmic war" of good vs. evil, driven by the conviction that their gods demand the killing to continue.
Although they do NOT represent the majority of Muslims, Israelis or Americans, the angry minority has been able to derail the wishes of the majority for peace. Must this tragic pattern of minority rule continue?
Angry minorities gain their power by virtue of the intensity of the hatred they spew and, perhaps more importantly, the violence they promote. Loud and angry voices are hard to ignore. Whether through the threat of terrorist attacks or military might, they intimidate the majorities on all sides and stifle their efforts toward peace. But the time has come to stop letting the wishes of the many be thwarted by the hatred of the few whose only vision for peace requires the subjugation or annihilation of the other side.
Of course, this is far easier said than done. But a first step toward reducing the power of angry minorities might be to realize that their rage is a problem that the peace-loving majorities in all nations share. Just as they are the minority within our own nation, so too are they the minority in most of the world. Our recent research has shown that one way of reducing support for violence in the Middle East is for people to realize that they are all human beings who share fundamental needs and values, and that many of the problems that threaten them threaten all of humankind. For example, one of our recent series of studies showed that drawing attention to the shared threat of global climate change decreased support for violent solutions, even among Israeli Arabs during the height of Israel's incursion into Gaza earlier this year.
Perhaps if people in all nations realized how much power the angry few are wielding, they would come together and summon the courage to pursue peace over the protests of those who falsely claim to represent their wishes. The cynicism and hatred of the angry minority must stop undermining the hope for peace that most of us share.
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