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When the prophet became a political tactic

Nearly two years after the uprisings that started in Tunisia and swept across the Arab world, toppling the long-entrenched dictators of Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt, another wave of protests is now sweeping across the Muslim world, this time over an amateur film that maligns the Prophet Muhammad.

The initial uprisings were hailed as an “Arab Spring”: a widespread mass movement representing progressive components of Arab societies, the young, intellectuals and women, disgruntled by and alienated from their corrupt regimes. Optimists thought the ruling elites would make way for truly democratic societies, offering scope for women and youth to improve themselves and find employment.

Yet, with no history of democracy and thus no established political parties, elections allowed the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist religious parties, the Salafists in particular, to triumph because they benefited from pre-existing organisational structures.

Libya and Yemen are still racked by insecurity, while in Egypt and Tunisia hopes for a return to prosperity have been dashed as they seek international financial aid to avoid further implosion of their economies. Since the uprisings we have seen unfulfilled political and economic aspirations and resulting frustration and anger. This has produced a restive “Arab Street” predisposed to react to any incident that could ignite further stirrings. The Arab Spring made the Arab Street a shaper of Arab public opinion.

The controversy began in Cairo when the film, made in the US by a Coptic Christian, was aired on a talk show. This led to thousands of Egyptians protesting in Tahrir Square early and police arresting hundreds of people after four straight days of clashes.

After being criticised by many Egyptians for not doing more to discourage the attacks on the US embassy and other places in Cairo, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi spoke out against the violence, addressing the issue for some seven minutes on state TV. His calls fell on deaf ears.

What began as a small protest mushroomed into a full-scale international crisis as protests spread to Yemen, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, India, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Malaysia. Essentially, the violence has been anti-Western. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula quickly saw an opportunity to harness the anger, calling for more violence against US diplomatic missions in the Middle East and Africa, hoping to expel them from “Muslim soil”, as was done in Libya, where the American ambassador and three other American personnel were killed.

Calls for calm from Muslim organisations worldwide went unheeded, even those of Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheikh, the Saudi Grand Mufti, who condemned the attacks yet urged governments and international bodies to criminalise insults to the Prophet. The inference to be drawn is that this exposes the Arab Street’s vulnerability to being manipulated.

As Caroline Glick of The Jerusalem Post asserts “the film … received little notice until last month when a Salafi television station in Egypt broadcast it. In light of the response, the purpose of the broadcast was self-evident. The broadcasters screened the film to incite anti-American violence”.

Glick’s argument that the film is a pretext is supported by al-Qaeda’s statement saying the attack in Libya was motivated by an unrelated event, the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan al-Qaeda leader who was killed in Pakistan by a US drone strike. Although al-Libi was killed in June, al-Qaeda only acknowledged his death on Tuesday.

“The killing of Sheikh Abu Yahya only increased the enthusiasm of the proud, jihadi people of Libya and their determination for revenge against those who mock our religion and defame our prophet,” said the statement.

Political scientist Jose Ignacio Torreblanca traces the use of Arab public opinion: “As a result of this skilful manipulation of pan-Arab feelings — fomented by the official media or in mosques, as the vicissitudes of policy requires — the so-called Arab Street became a global political factor of the first order. Though some, not without reason, denounced the whole Arab Street concept as Orientalist, because it projected a diminished image of Muslims as an ignorant mob, fanaticised by Islam and prone to irrational violence; the fact is that from the viewpoint of the regimes and probably of the imams … it got Western governments to factor into their strategic calculations the negative impact their policies might have on Arab and Muslim opinion.”

Only when Arab public opinion expresses its revulsion for the ongoing abuses of power by the Syrian, its outrage at discrimination against and attacks on Christians in Muslim countries, and its abhorrence for acts of terrorism targeting civilians by Islamic suicide bombers, will the Arab Spring really deliver its fruits.


  • Ben studied at Wits, the Hebrew University, London School of Economics and University of Pretoria. He has two master’s degrees and has written four books on anthropology. He was the founding member of Jews for Justice, which took a stand against apartheid and provided assistance to victims of violence in Crossroads. He started Boston House College, a multiracial school in 1979. He currently serves as chairperson of the SA Zionist Federation in the Cape Council. He is married with four children.