Film unleashed simmering discontent

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — At the height of the latest Islamic rage, one of the Muslim world’s first media-celebrity imams told worshippers they were indeed witnessing a clash of civilizations — one within Islam that helps explain the multiple personalities of the fury.

It is political in the uncompromising ethos of extremism clawing for any gains against more moderate voices. It is social, fed by an explosive blend of economic stagnation, anger over U.S.-led wars and frustration as the soaring hopes of the Arab Spring hit the grinding realities of rebuilding.

The clash also cuts deeply into questions that have added resonance in a hyper-connected world that moves at the quicksilver pace of the Web: How to coexist with the free-speech openness of the West and whether violence is ever a valid response.

“Our manner of protesting should reflect sense and reason,” urged Egyptian-born cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi in his Friday sermon in Qatar’s capital, Doha, where he has found a worldwide audience through the Internet and a show on the Pan-Arab network Al-Jazeera.

Yet such appeals have competed against opposing calls that can tap deeper passions that have been funneled into violence.

Political factions and hard-line clerics across the Muslim world have been quick to try to capitalize, as after other perceived offenses against the faith.

“There’s no doubt that every Muslim feels in some ways deeply troubled by any insults to the Prophet Muhammad, but how many have seen the video of this movie to make up their own minds? Very few,” said Sami al-Faraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. “You need someone to organize the protests and, in effect, throw the switch.”

Clashes in many forms

Extremist Islamists have taken the lead in protests in Arab Spring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt in a show of force against newly elected leaders leadership and their Western allies. In a curious battle of perceptions, Egypt’s fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood-led government called out riot troops to protect the U.S. Embassy against protesters, also claiming to “defend” Islam.

In Libya, U.S. investigators are examining whether armed terrorists used the uproar over the film as cover to launch a pre-planned attack on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, insisted Sunday that the attack on the consulate was neither coordinated not premeditated, but others have challenged that view.

Crowds in Yemen condemned the film but also chanted against the continued U.S. military presence and drone strikes that have targeted suspected al Qaeda leaders.

“Obviously there’s a latent anti-Americanism that is coming out,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “But that is only part of this. This is primarily about a struggle for the soul of these states.”

Organized outrage

Elsewhere — from Australia to Nigeria — hard-line clerics and political parties have mobilized demonstrations in both expressions of anger and messages to rivals. In Iran, protesters were given pre-made placards denouncing the United States in a clear sign of a state-organized demonstration.

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