What We Can Learn from the Attacks on U.S. Embassies

This week's U.S. embassy attacks are the product of intense jockeying for power in an Arab political landscape riven with both new and familiar challenges. Here are five key lessons to take away from an ugly week

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Yemeni protesters storm the U.S. embassy in the capital, Sana‘a, on Sept. 13 2012

1. Fear of a Black Flag (or It’s the Salafists, Stupid)

Ordinary Egyptians, Libyans and Yemenis didn’t come across the latest insults to their religion because they spent hours trolling YouTube for Californian political-porn provocations. It required broadcasting of the offending clips by Egypt’s al-Nas network to trigger this week’s anti-U.S. protests in Cairo, Benghazi, Sana‘a and elsewhere. Al-Nas is owned by a Saudi businessman and promotes the extreme Salafist current within Islam, whose political adherents have emerged as a powerful challenger to the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s de facto ruling party.

The dominant political current to emerge from the Arab rebellion that began in early 2011 has been Islamist, but so diverse is the range of parties broadly grouped under that term that it’s insufficiently precise to explain the political dynamic at work in the embassy demonstrations. The more important signifier, at the embassies in Benghazi, Cairo and Sana‘a, is the ubiquitous black flag bearing an Arabic inscription of Islam’s founding tenet, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet.” That flag is an icon of political Salafism, having been used by al-Qaeda and also the Taliban, but also by a range of parties and movements across the Arab world that may share Osama bin Laden’s austere brand of Islam but in many cases vehemently reject the terrorism that became his leitmotif. And while Western governments feared the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to fill the void left by ousted dictators, they — and the Brotherhood itself — were largely caught by surprise by the Salafist surge in newly free Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and lately as an increasingly prominent feature of the armed uprising challenging President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. The Salafists’ political game in those countries, as well as in Gaza, where Hamas faces a similar challenge from Palestinian Salafists, is to challenge the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood mainstream from the religious-conservative and anti-Western right.

(PHOTOS: Protests Rage in Middle East, Sparked by Mysterious Anti-Islamic Film)

The movement has surged, lately, not only because of the newfound freedom to operate in postdictatorship societies but also because a number of Salafist groups are reportedly being supported from the center of Salafist thought, Saudi Arabia — a country whose rulers have long been wary of the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Salafists direct popular outrage at the U.S. embassy — or attack the Red Cross or other Western institutions, as they have been doing in Libya — they’re not just challenging the influence of a Western world still viewed with suspicion in their societies, and promoting a religious outlook that advocates a return to the ways of Islam’s founding generations in the 7th century. They’re also cleverly positioning themselves as guardians of an Islamic “purity” against the pragmatism and real-world compromises of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers or similarly inclined parties in Tunisia and Libya, who need pragmatic working relations with the West in order to deliver the development and economic growth their electorates are expecting.

Having long rejected political participation and berated the Brotherhood for contesting elections, Egypt’s Salafists shocked many after Hosni Mubarak’s fall by creating a political party, al-Nour, and running for parliament. Even more shocking was the fact that they won 25% of the seats by challenging the Brotherhood’s Islamic credentials from the right and agitating for the application of Shari‘a — an issue on which the Brotherhood preferred to soft-foot. Although the Brotherhood still won the dominant share of seats in the legislature, the emergence of the Salafists — who gather votes entirely at the expense of the mainstream Islamist party — may have prompted the Brotherhood to tack to the right at a time when many of its leaders had been hoping to engage with the center, reassuring secular parties and Western powers of its benign intent.

The Salafists may represent a more powerful challenge to the Islamist mainstream than to the West, precisely because they are able to turn a section of the Brotherhood’s political base against that mainstream by proclaiming as “un-Islamic” any compromises or willingness to work with the West, maintain the peace treaty with Israel or create a tolerant environment for the Coptic Christian minority. Demagoguery can work a treat in a population facing mounting social and economic stress, and the embassy protests that channeled genuine popular outrage at the contents of a marginal film reflect a strategy of driving a wedge into the emerging relationship between moderate Islamist parties and a Western world trying to adapt to the changes brought on by Arab democracy.

MORE: The Making of Innocence of Muslims: One Actor’s Story

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