Salafist rally in Tunis (photo: dapd)
Inter-Islamic Cultural War

The Despondency of the Political Middle Ground

Despite their poor results in elections, the Salafi movements have succeeded in putting their stamp on the policies of the Islamic mainstream - and moderate Islamists continue to react towards the Salafis with a certain degree of despondency. Samir Farangiya reports on the phenomenon of the new inter-Islamic cultural war

The reaction in Arab and other Islamic countries to the release of clips from the film "Innocence of Muslims" recalls previous incidents that have led to similar waves of anger and violence – the Danish caricature row, the call by the American pastor Terry Jones to burn the Koran, and, of course, Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses", which was the precursor to all such subsequent events.

Despite the many differences, there is, at least, the outward appearance of a common denominator in all these events that underlies a whole range of misunderstandings between the West and the Arab-Islamic world.

Yet, there are two fundamental differences between the present crisis and previous conflicts. First of all, there is the banality of the fare on offer. The amateur film "Innocence of Muslims" is far from being a serious work and has no saving graces that one might want to defend in any way whatsoever. In addition, this was intended to be purely provocative action and the film was to be available only on the Internet.

Blind rage

There are hundreds, if not thousands of such films, and no faith remains spared from their wrath. Ironically, this film would have probably disappeared in the vastness of the Internet without having caused a stir if it hadn't been discovered by some religious zealots.

Salafists in Tunis (photo: DW)
Religious zealots on the rise: "The despondence of pragmatic Islamists allows the radical Salafis to present themselves as the representatives of the only 'true' Islam"

​​Proof of the banality of the film is fact that it has met with a universally negative response, which was, for example, not so with the Danish caricatures or Salman Rushdie's work. In these cases, it was still possible to defend the supposed provocations in the name of freedom of opinion and the independence of artistic creation.

Now, there is hardly anyone in the whole world who hasn't already condemned the film, including the Vatican, the American government, and even Israel. A spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, for instance, repudiated the film as "intolerable fanaticism".

It seems as if there is no specific addressee to the demonstrators' rage. There have been protests in front of American embassies, as the demonstrators view the USA as controlling the world, even though it is not exactly clear what steps they want America to take.

By attacking American embassies, the Salafi zealots appear to recognize the superiority of the USA and have fallen prey to the erroneous belief that America is in a position to turn back the clock.

In the labyrinth of the cultural war

The second fundamental difference here as opposed to previous outbreaks of violence has to do with the historic transformations that have taken place in the wake of the Arab Spring. From the time of the Salman Rushdie affair all the way to the Danish caricature debate, we were still dealing with an Arab-Islamic world caught up in the labyrinth of a cultural war. This context has been drastically altered as a result of the Arab revolutions and their claims to democracy.

Those Arab societies, which have recently freed themselves from the yoke of dictatorship and are moving towards democracy, must now address a whole range of issues.

One of these was formulated by the American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, during a press conference after the storming of the US consulate in Benghazi. "I ask myself, how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?" Clinton said.

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Misunderstanding about anti-American resentments and violent outbursts: "The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others," declared US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

​​She was most likely attempting to be "diplomatic" here in her role as foreign minister of a Western country. Yet, it still doesn't help. Her question is directed quite specifically and without any diplomatic sensitivity to the people of the region.

When Libyans decided to open up their country to the world, pursue a pragmatic foreign policy, and to accept NATO support for their revolution, then, for better or worse, it means they have to begin to redefine their relationship to the West.

The hypocrisy that reigned under the former regime, which entailed engaging in military cooperation with the West while demonizing it in cultural terms, is no longer acceptable under democratic rule.

Clear rejection of all forms of violence

A further issue concerns the position of the "silent majority" in Islamic countries. They are the segment of the population that did not participate in the protests. The most progressive position being expressed about events consists of a condemnation of the film and a simultaneous censure of the exaggerated reactions – judging both, as it were, on an equal footing.

And it is exactly at this point where despondency manifests itself when confronted with the position of the Salafis. It is as if one wanted to say, "You are actually right, but your reactions went a little bit too overboard."

If this is where the debate ends, then the Salafis have already won, even if they are criticized in principle. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible today to find anyone advocating a clear rejection of violence, without resorting to any justifications and free from euphemisms. To claim that the film has any sort of value is an insult to reason, just as conflating the film with outbreaks of violence is an insult to moral sensitivities.

This cheap production is not worth discussing nor the uproar it has caused. Yet, when such inanities move us more than all our real problems, then there can be no talk of real democracy, freedom, and dignity in the Arab world.

In the wake of the Arab revolutions and the process of political maturation in the region, it simply won't do anymore to react to such events in the tried and true fashion of blaming everything on the West, as if it bears sole responsibility. The old patterns of justification and interpreting events no longer make any sense in an age of new democratic challenges within the Arab world.

Egypt's President Mohammed Mursi (photo: Getty Images)
On the defensive: "As long as the new Islamic authorities lack the courage to clearly and unmistakably reject the strategies and conduct of the Salafis, then the Salafis will continue to set the tone of discussion," warns Farangiya

​​In the post-revolutionary Arab states, the moderate Islamists who have assumed the responsibility of government are faced with the difficult challenge of setting limits to the Salafis, who, in turn, have shown no interest in pragmatic solutions to the regions' problems.

The danger posed by the Salafis is not that they are in a position to win elections and thereby gain supremacy in the political system, but rather their ability to set the tone of political discourse.

It is not difficult to recognize the similarities, in their conduct at any rate, between the Salafi movement and the extreme right in Europe or the Tea Party in the USA. All these movements pose a threat because they are in a position to determine the agenda for political debate. This has led, for instance, to religious matters becoming an issue in the American election campaign and the fear of immigrants influencing European policies.

Struggle to determine the direction of political discourse

Despite their poor results in elections, the Salafi movements have succeeded in putting their stamp on the policies of the Islamic mainstream. These moderate Islamists continue to react towards the Salafis and their actions with a certain degree of despondency. The foolish attempts by the Islamists to tear the game plan out of the hands of the Salafis by taking over their agenda only highlights the success of the Salafis.

The despondency of the pragmatic Islamists allows radical Salafis to present themselves as representatives of the only "true" Islam, in contrast to other Islamists, who appear to be merely caught up in political horse-trading. The pragmatists have thereby gained the image of having sold their political convictions for the sake of political profit.

As long as the new Islamic authorities lack the courage to clearly and unmistakably reject the strategies and conduct of the Salafis, and as long as they fail to stand up for the value of their own pragmatic policies, then the Salafis will continue to set the tone of discussion in this fragile phase of transformation.

And should the ruling Islamists actually lose the inter-Islamic cultural war with the politically incompetent Salafis for the right to determine the direction of political discourse, then this would be, without a doubt, a bitter setback for the establishment of democracy in the region.

Samir Farangiya

© 2012

The Lebanese journalist Samir Farangiya is a regular contributor to the widely-circulated Arab newspaper Al-Hayat.

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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