Muslim world seethes, but who is pulling the strings?
I knew Abdulsalam Minhibbak for the majority of my English language studies at the British Council in Damascus, between 2004 and 2006. A middle-class young man from the Syrian capital, he was not a practising Muslim. By Salafi standards, he would probably qualify as a disbeliever.
Yet in early 2006, he led mobs to burn the Danish embassy in Damascus after a Danish newspaper published cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist. The cartoon sparked protests across the Muslim world. Rioters in Damascus stormed the embassies of Norway and Denmark, based in the same building.
I am reminded of his story today, six years after those protests, as a similar scenario is playing out in the region. Muslims, labelled fanatics by many in the West, are protesting against an amateurish film made in the US depicting long-held stereotypes about the Prophet.
What motivated Abdulsalam (which is not, I should say, his real name) to lead rioters chanting "Allahu Akbar" if he, in fact, was not religious himself? Had he become an Islamic radical overnight? And why are we seeing similar responses by young men in Egypt, Tunisia and beyond today?
If the roots of violence in the region are to be understood, attention must be paid to the political ideologues who too often exploit the cultural, economic, social, and religious sentiments of the publics they claim to lead.
Many observers have looked for easy answers in explaining the latest episode of mass rage (which has killed over half a dozen, including the US ambassador to Libya). Some have pointed to religious fanaticism. More nuanced voices have blamed US foreign policy in the region, and the weakened role of the state after the downfall of despotic strongmen. Some pundits have even questioned whether this is the result of the Arab Spring.
To be sure, many Muslims take the denigration of Islamic emblems seriously and view even the visual depiction of the Prophet as offensive. Most Muslims, however, do not seek revenge for such denigration. Just last month, Muslims across the region were outraged by the depiction of a Prophet's companion in a Ramadan drama. But there was no violence because the spark was not there (though it is safe to say the level of offence was similar).
But there is a minority of Muslims who can be pushed into violence by political groups with an ideological agenda. A quick survey of people's attitudes and reactions towards these incidents of last week shows that religiosity is hardly the driving force behind the riots. Instead, faith has become a tool manipulated by political groups.
Religious fanatics are dangerous not only because they carry out violent acts but because they are easily exploited to do so.
Indeed, many of those who were offended by the incident did not take to the streets at all. Many religious people chose to ignore it, while many of those who did not even see it were outraged. Such discrepancies can only be explained in the context of manipulation.
Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which called on people to demonstrate their anger against the film, or remnants of the older regimes in Libya and Yemen have ways to send rumours and, emotionally charge the people.
If agitation against US foreign policy really was the principal undercurrent, why now? Why didn't we see similar protests rippling across this region following the burning of the Quran by US soldiers in Afghanistan last February, for instance? We did see demonstrations in some places in Afghanistan, they did not explode and were largely contained.
It would have made sense for people to voice anger at the US for the deliberate destruction of the Quran by soldiers, rather than an amateur video by an obscure American citizen.
But that is not what we saw. What we did see were political and religious leaders intentionally stoking the fires of rage that existed just beneath the surface. Religious fanaticism, to be certain, does exist and will never go away. But far more dangerous is when we allow political ideologies to continue to thrive and exploit people's sentiments and turn them to a recipe of violence.
It would be a mistake to view the causes of these riots in a vacuum. Each person on the street, and in each city, had his own reason. But it is safe to say that religion was not the main driver. If it had been, wouldn't more people in the Muslim world have massed?
These riots took place in the context of the Arab Spring, but will not be defined by the same motives. In fact, their root causes belong to an older context that is being fought by the very makers of the Arab Spring: the manipulation of the public by powerful regimes for reasons of control and political power.
The riots are happening not because of the Arab Spring, but despite it. These riots and violent acts underscore that the battles against the past are far from over. Autocrats have fled, but tactics of control remain.
Recently, years after my classmate led his march on the Danish embassy, a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks alleged that the Baathist regime in Syria incited the riots and orchestrated the embassy arsons. Six years later, I find myself wondering whether Abdulsalam could have put down his torch and stowed his rage, resisting becoming a pawn of the Syrian regime.
I also know that we will be asking similar questions once this latest fire is extinguished.
On Twitter: @hhassan140
Updated: September 17, 2012 04:00 AM