For close to 1,300 years, Muslims cared little what infidels thought of them. The curious caliph, sultan, vizier, or cleric might engage the arguments of Christians questioning the one true faith, but such disputatious exchanges were made as much out of befuddlement as disdain: Any sensible, well-educated man would obviously see the superiority of Islam over earlier imperfections.
The great 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun could understandably wonder whether civilization was again, finally, arising in the cold lands of Christendom. Dante Alighieri could assign the prophet Muhammad to the ninth circle of Hell in the Divine Comedy; there is no classical or medieval Islamic equivalent of such literary fear and distaste. Powerful, proud, and vastly more cosmopolitan than their Christian counterparts, Muslims just couldn’t be bothered. Even in decline, after European technological superiority became undeniably obvious on the battlefield, Muslims remained religiously self-confident until the West’s growing military power and intellectual allure made them the subjects of Christian rulers—a distasteful disposition, the reverse of the natural order.
We don’t know whether the surreal, bigoted film The Innocence of Muslims really had anything to do with attacks on our diplomatic compounds in Cairo and Benghazi. Given the premeditated and well-armed nature of the onslaught in Libya, it seems most unlikely. Angry jihadists or former members of the Qaddafi regime (and the two may not be mutually exclusive) would love to kill Americans for the frisson, let alone the enormous political advantage gained from belittling the elected, non-Islamist government and possibly provoking America to run. In Egypt the film might be more consequential, since the onslaught, though probably planned, seems more popular in inspiration.
Islamic fundamentalist leaders are always able, if so inclined, to inflame their followers against Westerners for roughing up Muhammad and their holy book, which for faithful Muslims is the word of God. Local grievances and political cunning are hard, if not impossible, to separate from modern fundamentalism’s penchant to see the “far enemy” (the West) as the near one, to see fifth columnists among insufficiently faithful Muslims. And Westernized, secular Muslims are everywhere in the Middle East. Osama bin Laden did not originate this idea. It’s a defining theme for Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), the founder of the Egyptian Brotherhood, Sayyidd Qutb (1906-1966), the radical icon whose multivolume commentary on the Koran remains a must-read for intellectually curious faithful believers, and, on the Shiite side, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor, Ali Khamenei.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists both see red when they think of America, the turbocharged engine of the West’s materialistic and libidinous culture. With Egyptian über-alles hubris spurring them on, they see themselves fighting a battle over virtue at home and for the hearts and minds of Muslims everywhere. When Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 alighted upon the brilliant idea of putting a bounty on the novelist Salman Rushdie’s head, fundamentalist outrage went global.
In part, this mimics the West, whose ethics are the “universal values” extolled so energetically by Europeans, Americans, and third-worlders who admire, even if they have a hard time saying so, Occidental culture. If Westerners can hurl their values via the United Nations, socially conservative or politically militant Muslims can try to do the same, or use the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a contemporary attempt to reify the idea of the Ummah, the politico-religious community of believers founded by the prophet Muhammad, as their global bully-pulpit.
Westerners have their “hate crimes”; Muslims want to ban offensive speech. “Human rights” have no borders, so the militant Muslim variation on this categorical imperative—the obligations that man owes to God—knows no borders.
The real political driver in Cairo may well have been a Salafist/Muslim Brotherhood clash and the fear, however preposterous it may seem to us, that the Muslim Brotherhood was too powerful and too close to the United States. A tug of war among Egypt’s fundamentalists is under way. Very basic questions about Westernization (the eminence of the individual in ethics and politics), women’s rights, the nature of sexuality in society, the rights of Christians, the presence of foreign tourists in the country, and, last but not least, relations with the United States are going to roil Egypt’s fundamentalists.