What if the U.S. Had Invested in Promoting Religious Tolerance as Much as It Did in Military Aid?

Riots from Marrakech to Bangladesh have forced the United States to rejig its relationship with the Muslim world.

The protests in over 20 countries certainly have not added clarity to the United States' complex relations with the Arab world, rife as they are with mutual misunderstandings. Nor have they increased the Obama administrations's willingness to intervene actively in Syria. Wasn't it in Egypt and Libya that the U.S. finally sided with the revolution - only to have its diplomatic missions attacked? Or, are the attacks simply an expression of the frustration of radical Islamists over the fact that they didn't get a larger share of the political pie?

Should the U.S. cut its aid, or increase its support of fledgling democracies and the promotion of tolerance, so that each caricature or low-quality movie mocking Islam won't end up with another bloody protest? Or maybe that same educational work needs to be done in the U.S. itself, where a Virginia mosque was vandalized this week with obscene graffiti in response to protests half a world away, and the controversial Koran burning pastor Terry Jones received another phone call from General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, trying to convince him to backpedal on his support for the "Innocence of Muslims" movie that sparked protests.

Contrary to statements by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's campaign, "American weakness" is not the cause of the current troubles in the Middle East, and to the utter disappointment of the conservatives, Romney once again failed to offer an alternative to the current administration's policy - not in terms of the "red line" on Iran, and not even on Egypt. In fact, he said he wants to get closer to Egypt so they'll understand it's better to be an ally of the U.S. (Violent protests could easily become Obama's "September surprise," tilting the polls in Romney's favor - hadn't his rival been Mitt Romney, whose campaign continues to amass self-inflicted wounds ).

It's also probably not realistic to expect that Muslim societies will rush to respond to Thomas Friedman's Tuesday column in the New York Times, calling on them to stop accusing the West of disrespect for their religion and for government and media to start condemning hate speech in their own society. But in a globalized world, impatient Western societies do not have the luxury of ignoring Muslim rage - or of expecting changes to happen overnight.

If the U.S. over the past 30 years had invested the same amount of funds to promote religious tolerance in the Middle East as it did for military assistance, "Innocence of Muslims" might have evoked no more violence than Monty Python's "Life of Brian" (although it would certainly have fewer fans ). Would it be as welcome by the Arab governments as the weapons? Not sure, but by now all players, including the remaining autocratic regimes in the Middle East, should have realized other approaches do not really work.

Despite American openness to strategic reorientation in Asia, the U.S. is nowhere near abandoning the Middle East - the region too volatile and too rich in oil to fail. These two very different societies are stuck together for a long ride that might become slightly less bumpy with more robust investment in interfaith dialogue and tolerance-promotion programs. "Innocence of Muslims" is online, as radical Muslim clerics anti-American rants. Who is there to provide an alternative? This week, Moscow kicked out the USAID program, probably fearing foreign support for its NGO's might further erode popular support for the authoritarian government. It's a pity Russian orphans, environmental activists and those supporting transparent elections won't get these funds - but hey, there is a good use for them: promoting mutual tolerance between the US and the Middle East.

Who cares about Syrian refugees?

The visit of Jordan's Minister of Planning and International Cooperation in Washington coincided with an outburst of anti-American rage in the Middle East, the killing of four US diplomats in Libya, and yet another rift between the Israeli Prime Minister and the U.S. president over Iran's "red line." The result: Dr. Jafar Hassan's plea for additional financial support of Jordan's efforts to absorb the influx of Syrian refugees, whose numbers in the Hashemite kingdom have reached 200,000, was largely ignored by the American press.

"In 2011, the influx of refugees to Jordan began: there were 30,000 in summer 2011, the number tripled by this spring then doubled again by August 2012," Minister Hassan said during a meeting with journalists in Washington. "Today we have close to 200,000 Syrians in Jordan who fled following the outbreak of violence - around four percent of the Jordanian population, with three fourths of these refugees living in our cities and towns, especially in areas where there is already high unemployment and poverty; it puts tremendous pressure on host communities in terms of education and health care services, tremendous pressure on the water infrastructure."

The growing numbers of refugees crossing the border have spurred the Jordanian government to come up with another solution, the Zaatari refugee camp, which was opened in July. Primitive conditions in the camp forced hundreds of refugees to brave their way back to whatever is left of their homes in Syria - and, as the Jordanian minister notes, winter hasn't even arrived yet.

"We didn't want camps to begin with," he says. "We hope this camp will not remain for long. They've been put in tents, we are talking about the winter season coming, we are trying to put them in caravans, but so far we have, in pledges to provide caravans for refugees, only about 20 percent of the needs."

There is tremendous sympathy for the plight of Syrians in the country, he says. More than half a million Jordanian citizens are married to Syrians. But there is a limit to the good will: with unemployment in Jordan over 12 percent, there are few opportunities to provide jobs for the new refugees.

"We have to act urgently to preserve the good will, and to accommodate Syrians in the most dignified manner possible. It can't last forever. We have hosted 400,000 Iraqis since the war in 2003; most of them remained in the country because they feel they are better off economically in Jordan. But now Jordan is facing one of its worst fiscal crises in decades. We lost more than 4 billion dollars over 18 months because of the interruption of Egyptian gas; the government had to borrow this money to provide electricity - we pay 18 percent of GDP just to cover the energy bill. We lack the resources to provide for additional - or even current - numbers of Syrians in the country. The refugee camp capacity is 80,000 people. We thought it would take a while to reach that number, but we expect it to reach capacity within 30-40 days. This has put us in a race against time, and we'll have to start building a second camp."

So far, Dr. Hassan says, the borders are being kept open for refugees. "But our national security interest dictates our options at the end of the day."

Jordan's ability to continue absorbing refugees depends on the willingness of the international community, stingy because of the economic crisis, to keep up the donations. Several weeks ago Jordan appealed to six UN agencies that had spelled out precise needs for the Syrian refugees for 2012 - 2013, totaling 700 million dollars, half of it for Syrians living in local communities, and half for the Zaatari camp. So far, the financial support Jordan has received through agencies and NGO support "does not exceed 10 percent of the actual needs," though the US administration has shown "tremendous understanding of what Jordan is facing,", the minister says, adding that Israel - Jordan's and Syria's neighbor - is not part of the discussions on refugees.

The end of the conflict in Syria that has left at least 20,000 dead so far, is not in sight, and government officials are careful to stick to the talking points. "His Majesty (King Abdullah ) was clear on Jordan's position regarding Syria: there should be an inclusive, peaceful political transition. UN Security Council and the Arab League set for us the parameters through which we are hoping to get out of this very bad crisis," minister Hassan concludes.

Egyptian protesters burn the U.S. flag in a demonstration against a film deemed offensive to Islam