Adding Grist to the Salafists' Mill
It was Tuesday morning, and on the day of the anniversary of the September 11th attacks rumours were circulating in Cairo about a US-produced film that denigrates the prophet Mohammed. A short time later, a 14-minute trailer was circulated via Youtube, Facebook and Twitter. Two versions can be seen on the Internet, one in English and one dubbed with Egyptian dialect. The cheaply-produced film shows a devious Mohammed as a crazy, sex-obsessed womaniser who, with his bloodied sword always to hand, calls for attacks on adherents to other religions.
Just as in the case of the row over the Danish cartoons, the Pavlovian reaction was prompt. Various Salafist television channels called on people to protest at the US embassy in Cairo. This was a call primarily issued by Salafist leader Wesam Abdel-Wareth on the Salafist channel he himself directs, El-Hekma.
Several thousand people, most of the Salafists, followed this call and gathered in the afternoon in front of the US embassy, a high-security building in the city centre. A group of youngsters used ladders to scale the walls, break into the garden, haul down the US flag flying at half-mast in memory of September 11th, and burn it. The Stars and Stripes was replaced by a black flag proclaiming the Muslim profession of faith to one God and the prophet Mohammed.
The prelude to further protests
But what happened in Cairo was intended as just a foretaste of what was to occur at other US representations in the region. In Benghazi, a group of armed Salafists describing themselves as "supporters of Sharia" attacked the US consulate with rocket-propelled grenades and missile launchers, setting it on fire.
The US ambassador Chris Stevens, who happened to be present at the time, and three other US State Department officials were killed in the attack. And this in the city where the rebellion against Gaddafi began, and which has the US Air Force to thank for halting a revenge campaign launched by Gaddafi troops militarily superior to the rebels on the outskirts of the city.
Wanis al-Sharef, an official at the Libyan interior ministry, said Tuesday's attackers simply outnumbered troops and US consulate guards.
The producer of the two-hour film that triggered the violence described Islam as a "cancerous growth". Sam Bacile, a 56-year-old Californian real estate entrepreneur who describes himself as an Israeli Jew, wrote the script. The film was promoted on the website of Morris Sadek, an Egyptian Copt resident in the US and known for his extreme views.
This move served to escalate tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt, as several radical Islamic preachers are emphasising the Coptic involvement in the film. Egypt's Coptic community is meanwhile attempting to limit the damage. Medhat Klada, leader of Coptic organisations in Europe, declared that Sadek's views were "not representative of those held by exiled Coptic communities". Sadek is an extremist who incites people in Egypt against Copts, he explained. The Maspero Youth Union, an organisation of young Copts that took part in the uprising against Mubarak, made it known on its website that Sadek represented neither mainstream Coptic patriotism nor Copts within the Diaspora.
Controversy takes on a new dynamic
Unlike the row over the Danish Mohammed cartoons six years ago, this new controversy is taking place in a changed Arab world. And although anger at the film may be considerable across the region, it is the small and vociferous Salafist minority that is seeking to exploit the case to further its political goals and that forms the majority of the demonstrators in Cairo and the attackers in Benghazi. Within Libya and Egypt, this means the controversy is taking on a new dynamic. Ousted dictator Mubarak had always cast the Salafists as the bogeymen, also during the row over the Danish cartoons. Along the lines of: if you don't want any attacks on embassies and western installations, then support me in the name of stability.
Today, Egypt is governed by Mohammed Mursi, drawn from the ranks of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, holder of governmental responsibility and also therefore responsible for protecting foreign embassies. The Muslim Brotherhood is still attempting to play a dual role, denouncing the film and calling for peaceful demonstrations. Party spokesman Muhammad Ghozlan called on the US government to apologise and punish those responsible.
But if the Muslim Brothers want to retain their governmental responsibility, they cannot leave street-level Islam to the Salafists. The same goes for the newly-elected Libyan government. The controversy surrounding the film and the attacks on US installations represent an initial wake-up call for new democratically-elected Arab governments; a warning that they can no longer sidestep political confrontation with the Salafists. Alongside the economic situation, this will pose the greatest challenge to new rulers in Cairo and Tripoli.
In tackling this issue, they would have the support of moderate Islamists, liberals, the military and western foreign nations. And the whole business would surely be much simpler if it were not for these sporadic Islamophobic provocations from abroad, which only serve to add grist to the extremists' mill.
© Qantara.de 2012
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de