Much has been written about the protests in the Arab world as a response to the negative portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad in an online film trailer. However, not enough attention was given to an important element in the equation. These protests might be more indicative of the current internal dynamics of an Arab world in flux than of resentment towards the United States or against an outsider defaming Muhammad. Certainly, for a variety of reasons, negative views of America abound in Arab social memory. It is also true that sensitivity towards Western attacks on Islamic symbols is very significant. Nevertheless, I would argue that it is a mistake to put resentment towards American policies in the region or the outsider/insider polemics at the center of the current unrest. A strong case can be made that these protests are also, and maybe mostly, about internal Arab struggles in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring.
When one takes a close look at the debates within the world of Arab politics, it becomes evident that social and political actors are currently waging fierce battles to move their societies in particular directions. Some analysts have noted the growing tensions between conservative Islamists on one side and liberals and secular leftists on the other. This is primarily occurring in countries where popular revolutions have toppled long established regimes, namely Tunisia, Egypt, and perhaps to a lesser extent Libya. But, similar patterns are noticeable in other countries, whose leaders swiftly enacted limited reforms to escape the fate of Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gaddafi. These observations are pertinent to any analysis of the aftermath to the so-called Arab Spring, although one must be careful about the ways in which labels like “Islamist,” and “liberal” might cloud up the picture. An important economic component is certainly part of the struggle. Accordingly, it is worth pondering the surprising electoral success of someone like Hamdeen Sabahi and his leftist agenda in the Egyptian presidential elections, despite his limited resources when compared to Mohamed Morsi or Ahmed Shafiq. That being stated, I would argue that the issue that has proven central to the political battles in most settings is the issue of individual freedoms.
There appears to be much anxiety over the limits of such freedoms all around the Arab world today. This is understandable given the long history of authoritarianism and tyranny from which suffered the Arab populations for decades. Importantly, there is a religious component to the equation. Islam had become a very useful ideological tool ever since the era of European colonialism and continued to be so under the post-independence Arab nation-states, guaranteeing some form of legitimacy to regimes that lacked popular support. It must be stressed that the recent revolutions signaled a possible break with this situation, in terms of creating potential space for popular sovereignty and democratic institutions to emerge. However, one must not forget the limitations inherent in such a transition. Not only are the remnants of the old regimes still seeking ways to reclimb the ladder of power, the ideological use of religion over a long period of time is also complicating the process further. This ideological use of Islam has ingrained strong sacred symbols in the collective memory of modern Arab populations, in ways that are significantly different from the much less centralized pre-colonial Arab contexts. In addition, it has helped establish many red lines and taboos in many aspects of life and thought, a situation from which the regimes in place before the revolutions greatly benefited to keep a strong control over their populations.
This is partly why the political battles remain centered on the highly symbolic but vague concept of الشريعة Sharia. For some Sharia represents divine wisdom and justice, while for others it is the road to put severe limitations on individual liberties and on the rights of religious minorities. Consider the example in Tunisia of the blasphemy trial of Nabil Karoui, the owner of Nessma TV channel for airing the animated film Persepolis, in which a scene portrays a little girl conversing with an old man representing God. Even more relevant is the fact that the Islamist ruling party Ennahda has proposed a new blasphemy law, in the aftermath of an art exhibition that was deemed insulting to sacred values and that led to riots around the country last June. Similar potential blasphemy laws are on the agenda of Islamist politicians in Egypt. We could furthermore include the growing tensions around the Islamic practice of الأمر بالمعروف و النهي عن المنكر enjoining good and forbidding evil and its potential relation to censorship and to the curbing of personal freedoms through the actions of both state and non-state actors.
It is important to keep this background in mind when we discuss the protests against the online film. The spread of these protests is a political victory inside these countries for those who would like to limit individual freedoms and to mold the still forming institutions of the new era in a more conservative shape. As a result of the chaotic situation that we recently witnessed all around the world, it would not be much of a surprise if domestic support within Arab countries for enacting blasphemy laws and for imposing limits on religious freedoms considerably grows. This puts some light on the ambiguous reaction of the Islamist leadership to the attacks on the American embassies in some countries. It also explains to some extent why an obscure and mediocre online video made by an amateur provocateur ignited so much heat across the Arab world and by extension across many parts of the larger Muslim world. Perhaps, we should start considering in what ways these protests are also part of the counterrevolution to the so-called Arab Spring.