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