The anti-Islam film responsible for provoking protests across the Muslim world over recently was, to say the least, a bad idea. This is a project with a lot of vile motivations behind it that must be uncovered. At the same time, violence as a response to a film is certainly the wrong way for Muslims to react. These are truths that most people seem to accept by now.However, what demands more discussion is the fact that this film has provided one more in a long list of excuses for governments in the Middle East to confront extremists at home. The political landscape in the Middle East has changed dramatically due to new leadership in many countries and the general political pressure brought to bear by widespread political change. Let's look at some examples.
- On Sept. 17, Hamas handed down four convictions to Salafi-linked extremists responsible for killing Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni last year. Two of them will serve life; the third will be in jail for 10 years. They would have sent these men to be hanged had it not been for the Arrigoni family asking that the death penalty not to be imposed. "They will find justice with God and not with this court," a relative of the one of the defendants muttered.
- On the same day, the Tunisian forces surrounded the house of Saif Al Hussini, a Jihadi Salafi, in his stronghold mosque in downtown Tunis. The government accuses this Al Hussini of instigating the riots surrounding the American embassy and American school that lead to the deaths of four people. Al Hussini, who has traveled and worked in Morocco, London and Pakistan, is defiant and continues to criticize the government. "I do not fear the threats made by the Ministry of the Interior; this government is a dictatorship that is picking fights with the Salafis"
- A day earlier in Egypt, the Minister of the Interior personally went down to the streets of Cairo and led the operation to clear the streets of protesters (mostly Salafis) who are seizing on the opportunity to draw global attention to their agenda. As a result, the American embassy in downtown Cairo has been placed inside of a kind of de facto safe zone. Close to 200 rioters and violent protesters have been rounded up. Other troublemakers have been chased off.
"Our manner of protesting should reflect sense and reason," said renowned cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi in his Friday sermon. The Egyptian-born and Qatar-based Al-Qaradawi has a global following thanks to Aljazeera and YouTube. This is a very sobering call from the same figure who called for unrest in Egypt, Libya and Syria. He is not the only one to make such statements. Scholars and imams in most Muslim countries have echoed the same remarks. An Indonesian Muslim scholar, Komaruddin Hidayat, noted that Muslims have the duty to oppose anything they deem offensive to their faith, but must "avoid using violence in expressing their objections." At the other end of the Muslim world in Nigeria, a top Islamic leader, Sheik Sani Yahaya Jingir, said violence never brings "any benefit to Islam."
I am watching this with mixed feelings. Certainly, Jihadist Salafis subscribe to extremist (and sometimes violent) ideas. They come across as angry, and they hold themselves above the rest. Thus, they give themselves the right to harass other people and try to force them to submit to their strict interpretation of Islam. The right thing to do, according to these folks, is whatever they tell you. They claim to know best, when in reality they know little. Such people tend to idolize their leaders and imams to a startling level. This is why a lot of Muslims rightfully fear the Jihadi Salafi mentality. These people shun weddings, entertainment, the human body, science and oftentimes education. They expect people not to make mistakes, and often quote the Quran and the Sunnah. But when they themselves sin, it should of course be understandable and forgiven. They are often dismissed and ostracized by societies, but for the most part they are not doing anything illegal. They may stop you in the street and give you a cassette tape or a book about the virtues of modesty. They are often mocked for their uncontrollable appetite for food and polygamy. And historically, most Muslims have questioned their sources of funding, which invite a whole host of conspiracy theories.
But now things are different for these Jihadist Salafi; they are no longer facing off against a secular out of touch government. Instead, they are answering to whole new governments courtesy of the Arab Spring. Their brothers in faith -- as they call them -- are firmly in the driver's seat; The Muslim Brotherhood is well acquainted with these Salafi groups. Jihadist Salafi can no longer claim that the government imprisoning them is run by godless goons. They are both on the same moral ground, except one has a mandate to govern and a country to run and the other wants to sing the blues about the nostalgic "glory days" of his/her religion. One wants to work with everyone and the other wants to force his views on the rest of us.
The Brotherhood are now in control, but the Salafis seem to think that the new governments of the Arab world will let them get away with these shenanigans instead of arresting them like the secular dictators did for years. Little did they know, the Muslim world's two dominant strains of political Islam are now pitted against one another, and the whole world is watching.
It isn't clear if this change -- the installation of moderate political Islamists in seats of power in the Arab world -- will pay off in the long run, but it's certainly worth a try. Until then, this will continue to be a debate between the party that wants to play ball and the party that wants to spoil the game for everyone.