By Sreeram Chaulia
Sep 14, 2012
The assaults on American diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya by frenzied mobs of Islamists, on the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, have rekindled the unwholesome spirit of what the intellectual Tariq Ali dubbed as a "clash of fundamentalisms." Groups of angry youth mobilised by proponents of Salafism (a particularly conservative ideology that is known for spreading religious hatred) and by an offshoot of al-Qaida known as Ansar-al-Sharia (literally supporters of Islamic law) went on the rampage in Cairo and Benghazi in seemingly coordinated fashion, targeting US diplomatic compounds and claiming the lives of four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya.
The motive was the airing of excerpts of an offensive film denigrating Prophet Muhammad, titled 'Innocence of Muslims', which was made by an Israeli based in California, Sam Bacile. This movie was financed by rich Jewish donors holding ultra-conservative Islamophobic persuasions. The auteur is also associated with the maverick Christian fundamentalist pastor from Florida, Terry Jones, who became notorious for 'Quran burnings' and preaching in crusading language.
The organisers of the acts of arson and violence in Egypt and Libya have shown themselves to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Jewish and Christian right wing in the West. The Salafists' al-Nour party bagged a surprisingly high number of seats (25 percent) in Egypt's parliamentary elections in January 2012, and they are at the forefront in driving a chauvinistic agenda in Egyptian society and politics. Their intolerant actions, which came into the limelight when 16 Egyptian army personnel were killed in a raid by hard line Islamists in the Sinai peninsula in August, pose a huge challenge to the relatively more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, which holds the reins of power in a post-revolutionary society.
By laying siege to churches and spreading baseless rumours that Egyptian Coptic Christians bankrolled Bacile's incendiary film, Salafis in Egypt have done what all dangerous communalists do, ie lumping all the stereotypical hate categories of Zionists, apostates and blasphemers into a single basket of 'enemies of Islam'.
The Ansar-al-Sharia in Libya is almost identical to Egyptian Salafists in its modus operandi. After the overthrow of the former dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, Ansar has risen to menacing proportions in the transitional period where public space has been carved out by heavily armed militias. The inability of the recently elected moderate Libyan government to curb the Ansar's razing of Sufi shrines has created a lawless air in which fundamentalists are thriving.
The fact that several dozens of the Ansar's vandals deployed rocket-propelled grenade launchers in the storming of the US consulate in Benghazi and engaged government security forces in pitched battles, demonstrates how disorderliness is at its peak. Uneasy questions about what would replace Mubarak and Gaddafi are now being answered by the Salafists' viciousness.
The author Robin Wright has argued that a "new Salafi Crescent, radiating from the Persian Gulf sheikdoms into the Levant and North Africa" is being funded by the Sunni Wahhabi establishments as a counter to Iran's 'Shia Crescent'. It is ironic that Western discourse on the Gulf monarchies is couched in terms of "moderate states", when they are destroying the inter-sectarian mosaic of the region with vengeance. While the presence of Salafis and foreign fighters wedded to jihadist fundamentalism in the Syrian war is troubling, their wild reaction to a cranky hate-spewing film is an omen of extremism overtaking the Middle East.
In the United States itself, notwithstanding the calming presence of President Barack Obama as a countervailing force to religious and racial bigotry, the activities of ultra-radical fringe groups such as the congregation of pastor Terry Jones are flourishing under the canopy of electoral politics. The Republican challenger to President Obama, Mitt Romney, has delineated a strategy aimed at corralling votes of the "white working class". His camp was quick to denounce the Obama administration's condemnation of "misguided individuals" (a reference to the now infamous Bacile) after the incidents in Libya and Egypt. The Republican Party does not believe that the Sam Baciles and Terry Jones have committed any wrong. Supporting hate speech and incitement to violence as "freedom of expression" has been a tested strategy of the fundamentalist Right in the US.
Western geopolitical strategies aimed at appropriating the Arab spring by cultivating armed Salafis, the sinister role being assayed by pro-Western Sunni Arab allies, the popular dissatisfaction with post-revolutionary regimes in the Middle East, and the unfinished mission to produce truly 'post-racial' and 'post-religious' politics in the West, are all factors that are combining to engender a violent cocktail in which minorities and majorities, diplomats and ancient spiritual shrines, are being swept away.
To step back from the clash of fundamentalisms, it will take major social organisational efforts that force politicians and religious leaders to think through the harmful effects of the poison they are unleashing for self-interested reasons. The choice between Terry Jones and the al-Nour party is a terrifying one that can only be replaced by right-minded social forces striving for a new kind of politics based on coexistence rather than extermination. The time to embark on an alliance of moderates dedicated to human decency in both the West and the Muslim world is now.
Sreeram Chaulia is a Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs.