It seems like a bad joke. Once again, Islam has been insulted by what appear to be Christian fundamentalists from the United States. “The innocence of Muslims”, a satirical movie of bad quality, taste and murky origins depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, child molester and ruthless killer. Again, the deeds of a few Christian radicals and Islam-haters are mistaken for representing the majority and of course many consider the Muslim response to this affront of a similarly narrow-minded nature.
There have been attacks of varying violence and success against American embassies in Libya, Egypt, North Sudan and Tunisia, but protests have reportedly also occurred in Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria and Malaysia. In North Sudan, most prominently, the affront was even considered as hailing from the larger Western world and consequently a German embassy also became the target of organised violence.
It is important to see these attacks in the wider context of the ideological battle which is taking place in the Arab world, one and a half years after the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring. Autocratic regimes in the entire region have been shaken by their people’s demand for more responsible and democratic governance, human rights and poverty-reducing policies. However, real social and economic progress remains distant even in those countries where autocratic and corrupt regimes were toppled. As the United States have witnessed in Iraq, overthrowing a regime is not the difficult part – rebuilding the country afterwards is.
In this light, a major consequence of the Arab uprisings has been political instability. As the overthrown regimes have left a power vacuum, various political actors struggle for influence as old wounds, rifts and conflicts resurface. Despite all the drawbacks, the Middle Eastern dictatorships were a synonym for stability. With an iron fist they contained sectarian conflicts (such as those witnessed today in Syria), tribal feuds (such as those in Libya) or ideological conflict (such as those in Tunisia).
In addition, these regimes repressed political Islam - and forced a more or less secular identity upon the population. Today, this repression is gone, and all over the region groups from different orientations within the ideological spectrum try to impose their views on their nations. The attacks against US embassies reflect a prime opportunity for extremist preachers to assume leadership and spread their ideas. In this sense, the current crisis has to be seen for what it is: a successful publicity stunt conducted by radical Islamists seeking to grow the ranks of their supporters and shape the ideological future of the Arab world.
Radical Islamists are a minority in the Muslim world. The more extreme their views are the less people will listen to them. As they fight for influence within the process of political transition, it is important for them to broaden their audience, without compromising on their values. In order to achieve this, they need to be seen as fighting for values that they share with a major part of the population. When it comes to Shari’a law or the full-body veil, the average Muslim may not see eye-to-eye with Salafists; when it comes to tasteless blasphemy such as ‘The Innocence of Muslims’, it is easier. Here of course all Muslims will be united in their condemnation; room for disagreement only will occur in terms of how to respond to this affront.
The choice of US embassies as targets is also like to resonate with a large public. Anti-Americanism has grown in the region for many years due to the United States’ unwavering support for Israel and other efforts to interfere in Arab affairs.
In turn, this wave of anti-Americanism will be used by Christian fundamentalists to build support for their ideas and action plans. It has been reported that the well-known Christian fundamentalist preacher Terry Jones was involved in the promotion of ‘The Innocence of Muslims’. Of course, the current attacks and waves of anti-Americanism in the Middle East will help him, and others, construct a wave of anti-Islam thinking in the United States.
The bottom line is that both these fundamentalist currents feed off each other’s affronts towards religion and ideology. The trend indicates a crescendo, where their shared objective is to radicalise the moderates in their respective regions. Should they succeed, what once was extreme will become mainstream. In the United States, hate of Islam would grow, while on the other hand the Arab Spring could well turn out to have triggered the region’s return to the dark Middle Ages. These are distant dangers, but they could become forces to be reckoned with unless both continents effectively counter fundamentalism at home.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.