Cairo. Behind the anger over a film mocking the Prophet Muhammad, public protest is giving way to measured debate over free speech in the new Muslim world.
But while many crave more openness, few if any will go so far as to say that includes the right to blaspheme.
Angry shouts of “No, no to America!” and “No to Israel!” have been balanced by voices condemning the weeklong violence that has targeted US and other Western embassies and left more than 30 dead in seven countries, including Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
“Muslims should know that Islamic extremist groups bear some responsibility for the uproar taking place now, and for the collision of the world cultures,” said Sheik Hameed Marouf, a Sunni cleric in Baghdad.
“The moderate people and clerics in the Islamic world should do their best to isolate and stop such groups that do not represent the true moderate values of our religion.”
Religious extremists — whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian — “will lead only to more killings and more blasphemous acts,” he said.
Anger is still palpable over the anti-Islam video made in California, as well as French political cartoons that denigrate Muhammad, but most of the Arab world has not seen protests for much of this week.
The streets around the US Embassy in Cairo, where clashes raged for days, were relatively quiet Thursday. Egyptian security forces patrolling the area casually leaned their rifles against the same compound walls that were scaled by angry protesters just last week.
The easing of the violence reflects the balance that Egypt and other Islamic nations are trying to find as they work to nourish democracy in societies where blasphemy is a crime.
“There is no doubt that most Muslims take offense at anyone mocking the prophet,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center. “The great divide is over the response. The vast majority of Muslims understand that the world is now interconnected and all kinds of material — good or offensive — pours in.”
“What we see now is a rage against both the film and, indirectly, the interconnected world,” he said.
The violent backlash stretched from Indonesia to Morocco, but nowhere did Muslims take to the streets en masse to protest the film.
In Cairo, there were never more than 2,000 demonstrators outside the US Embassy at any point during four days of protests. And most were believed to be ultraconservative Islamists, known as Salafis, although US officials say the crowd shifted over time and eventually was galvanized by gangs of rowdy teenagers. Salafis are seeking the creation of an Islamic state founded on a strict interpretation of Shariah law.
“The whole thing, our reaction, was way, way over the top,” said Ali Abdel-Halim, a 22-year-old business graduate from Cairo, who did not participate in the clashes but said he visited the area around the embassy to watch them.
“I think the film is meant to provoke us as Muslims,” he said. “My personal view is that we should have ignored it. It received much more attention than it deserves. Really, it was not worth people dying for.”
Over the last decade, dictators have been toppled in four Mideast countries — Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya — and a fifth is threatened in Syria. With that has come a widespread embrace of assembly and religious freedoms that had been held in check by authoritative regimes for decades.
Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements, predicted it will take a generation or more for Mideast nations to fully develop a working democracy that respects individual rights and Muslim values.
“The Arab world is on the edge of choosing between joining the modern world and political development, or to remain as in the last few centuries,” he said. “There shouldn’t be a trade-off. But it’s an enormous challenge, and it will take time.”
Iraq was the first Mideast country to embrace democracy after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, but it is arguably more unstable than ever.
“The Muslims are taught to die for God, not to live for God, so I think that the chances of moderation are limited in our Islamic world,” Baghdad businessman Hassan Rahim said Thursday. “The West should accept the fact that Muslims might tolerate a specific level of criticism on Islam, but not mockery or blasphemy.”
In Egypt, al-Anani said, the government should encourage progressive thinking by pumping more funding into religious schools that offer a range of interpretations of Islamic texts — and not just conservative views. Salafi influences rose in Egypt over the last decade, in part because of the schools and growth of satellite TV, which conservative clerics use to promote extremist views and, often, hate speech against Christians and Jews.
The anti-Islam video, like Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad several years back, is believed by some to be part of a conspiracy against Muslims to provoke them into acts of violence. But even the voices of moderation on the issue are in agreement with the militants that the film, the latest French cartoons demeaning Muhammad and the Danish caricatures before them cannot be tolerated as freedom of speech.
At the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, which is considered to be the primary seat of Sunni Muslim learning and a traditional voice of moderation, Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb is calling for an international law that ensures respect for religions and criminalizes blasphemy.
Judicial authorities in Egypt, meanwhile, have said they would try those behind the film in absentia before a criminal court.
The approach to religion is dividing Egypt, creating a fault line between Islamists and secularists as well as between various shades of Islamists. That Salafis spearheaded the protests is evidence of that schism. The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Islamist President Mohammed Morsi hails, has stayed away from the protests, only condemning the film and calling for peaceful demonstrations.
Morsi’s government also stepped up its policing of the riots after President Barack Obama called Egypt neither an ally nor an enemy, but “a new government that’s trying to find its way.” Washington began airing ads in Pakistan this week condemning the video in an olive branch to the Muslim world.
In Gaza City, Shukri Abu Fadel, a 42-year-old teacher, proudly said he joined protesters who were demonstrating peacefully — a basic tenet of democracy.
“We sent our protest message in a civilized and modern way, and it should be known that this movie has unified Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, and has unified all strong believers in God all over the world,” Fadel said as he left a mosque.