March 17, 2011 | Scripps Howard News Service

Listening to Libyans

A friend, I’ll call him Mohamed, has been keeping in close touch with people inside Libya, and he’s been kind enough to send me updates. In a note last week, he quoted one of his brothers who told him that Muammar Qaddafi “is savagely waging a war against an entire nation … Years ago, a suicide bomber struck in a Pizzeria and the entire West was up in arms.   Libyans are being killed by the thousands with heavy and deadly weapons… and the West is silent.”

Mohamed then added that “to Libyans” it has “become obvious” why the US is not intervening: “It is about oil, paranoia and racism against Arabs and Muslims.”

I was chagrined and I expressed that to my friend. Americans have paid a high price in blood and treasure attempting to rescue Arabs and Muslims from tyrants – in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, to cite a few examples. These efforts have brought more vilification than praise, more resentment than gratitude. And now the reason we’re not intervening in Libya is because we are paranoiac racists coveting Libya’s oil?

As for the “Pizzeria,” that’s obviously a reference to the Palestinian suicide bombing at a Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem in 2001, one month before al-Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Fifteen people were killed, seven of them children. The West was hardly “up in arms.” When has the West ever been “up in arms” over an attack against Israelis? A few days ago, Palestinians entered an Israeli home and murdered a mother, father and three children – one of them a baby girl. She was decapitated.  The Washington Post, CNN, the BBC and other media outlets were conspicuously unsympathetic to these victims.

My friend responded apologetically. These were not his opinions. He was only reporting what Libyans are thinking and perceiving. I understand. He’s a great guy who embraces American values no less than I do.  He’s listening to Libyans in Libya who are feeling desperate – justifiably so.

But I can’t help growing frustrated over much of the “thinking and perceiving” taking place in Libya and the wider “Muslim world” – from those who sentence “blasphemers” to death  in Pakistan to those who protest Congressional hearings examining how jihadis recruit in America.

Meanwhile, in Libya – and in Yemen, Bahrain and other Arab countries – Arabs are killing Arabs.  Why is no one looking to the Arab League to take responsibility? Over the weekend, the Arab League called on the U.N. Security Council to organize a “no-fly zone” in Libya. The Washington Post reported that the move “could significantly raise pressure on the United States and European nations to act …”

Why is that exactly? How did it evolve that the Arab League’s wish becomes America and Europe’s command? Why is that no one even considers that possibility that the U.S. and Europe “could significantly raise pressure” on the 22 members of the Arab League – actually, 21 since Libya was suspended last month — to impose a no-fly zone of their own? If they need assistance to get the job done properly, perhaps they could ask for it. (And, as Senator Richard Lugar said, they could offer to pay for it.)

Why is it, too, that when Muslims kill Muslims — as has been the case for decades in Iran and many other countries — the Organization of the Islamic Conference feels no obligation even to try to put a stop to the violence? More than 50 states belong to the OIC. Some are super wealthy (thanks to the Western appetite for the oil that lies beneath their sands). Turkey is a member, too, and it has a formidable military. Perhaps Turkey might at least consider organizing a flotilla to bring aid to Libya? Are Libyans in less need of aid than Gazans?

The OIC and the Arab League exercise enourmous power at the United Nations. As a result, Libya, in recent years, was allowed to serve both on the Security Council and as president of the General Assembly. Less than a year ago, Libya also was elected to the UN Human Rights Council, whose latest “Universal Periodic Review,” praises Libya for its “commitment to upholding human rights on the ground.” Yet in the wake of these obvious missteps who is criticizing the UN, demanding resignations or real reform? Not U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice who has been going around the country making speeches about why the U.N. is worth what Americans pay to support it. When Libya’s membership in the Human Right Council was finally suspended a few days ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton patted herself on the back, saying “our engagement is paying dividends …”

Despite all that, as I told Mohamed, I do believe it will be a tragedy if Qaddafi remains in power. Too many Arabs and Muslims already believe that one is either a strong horse – meaning a despot and a mass murderer like Qaddafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Osama bin Laden – or a weak horse which means the abattoir awaits. Confirming that one more time – especially after President Obama’s public commitment to dislodge Qaddafi – would have consequences.

Arab and Muslim societies are in turmoil and, very likely, reaching a hinge in history. Freedom is one possibility. Theocratic tyranny at home and increased support for jihad abroad is another. Americans are willing to help those who want the former and reject the latter. But the Arab League, the OIC and even Mohamed’s friends and relatives are not making it easier.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.