BY AHMED SALAH
Special to The Washington Post
In the dawn of 2011, I and thousands of my fellow Egyptians took to the streets in the name of justice, equality and freedom. Along with protesters in Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and other Middle Eastern countries, we challenged the conventional wisdom in the West that brutal strongmen were the only leaders able, and indeed that they were necessary, to keep a lid on Islamic extremists. We showed the world a liberal vanguard ready and able to move the Middle East toward a peaceful and bright future.
Inevitably, this message has been challenged. Even before the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya, some Americans had begun to question whether our vanguard is a mirage, given Syria’s slide toward civil war, the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victories in Egypt and ultraconservative Islamists’ demands on democratic governments. It is the extremists whose actions precipitated those attacks, however, who I fear may succeed in killing the promise of our revolution.
The events of Sept. 11, 2012, began with extremists in the West - not the Middle East. Last week’s attacks were carried out by people enraged at a film that insults the prophet Muhammad. While the origins of the movie are not yet clear, we do know that the video was created and filmed in the United States. Terry Jones, a pastor in Florida infamous among Muslims for publicly burning copies of the Quran, also independently promoted it.
I do not use the word “extremist” lightly. Muslims did not object to the movie only because it portrayed the prophet or because it “criticized” Muhammad. Instead, it portrays him as bloodthirsty and deranged, creating religious teachings to spread deplorable practices and satisfy his sexual urges. The film’s backers did not aim to criticize or educate. Their aim was the goal shared by all extremists: to spread discord, hate and violence.
Until recently, this film was irrelevant. It should have stayed that way. But extremists in the Middle East saw it as a means to an end. In Egypt, two privately owned satellite channels, il Hekma (“Wisdom”) and il Nas (“The People”) spent hours describing the film and using Jones’s plans to screen the film to suggest that all Americans planned to do the same. They aimed to inflame Egyptians and, in a poor country with an illiteracy rate of 30 to 40 percent, they succeeded.
Discussion of the film spread to effectively all Egyptian media, and soon protests were planned.
A crowd of about 2,000 Egyptians gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. A small minority stormed the embassy, tore down and set fire to the American flag, and raised a black flag that reads, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.”
In Libya, the consequences were much worse. Extremist elements hostile to the West and the Libyan revolution used the protest to stage an attack on the consulate that, as we all know, killed four Americans, including the ambassador.
President Barack Obama has vowed that those behind the Libya attack will be brought to justice. I share this goal. But it cannot be enough. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has criticized Obama for being too soft; however, if America’s only reaction to this event is increased antagonism toward the Muslim world, then the extremists on both sides have already won.
What I hope Americans will understand is that they are not alone. This is not a fight between “the Muslim world” and “the West.” It is not a fight between American values and Islamic values. It is a fight between moderates and extremists. It is a fight between everyone - American and Arab - who is working toward freedom, equality and co-existence vs. the counter-progressives in the Middle East and the West who are fighting to spread discord and hatred.
The Egyptian channels that picked this film out of relative obscurity to manipulate viewers and sow discord are the same channels that resist the goals of Egypt’s revolution. They, too, are our enemies. During the revolution and after, they labeled revolutionaries un-Islamic criminals. They took footage of my 2009 testimony before Congress, in which I denounced the Mubarak regime, and manipulated it to accuse me of treason against Egypt. They work against the silent majority of Egyptians who, while sensitive to the dignity of their religion, seek not quarrels but the opportunity to live a better life.
Many Egyptians reacted to Tuesday’s events with shock and dismay. We feared that we would seem to be celebrating the 9/11 attacks, and we worried that it would damage our relations with the United States and set back our own societies.
My message to Americans is this: Never forget that this fight is not yours alone. It is ours, too. Never forget that in the battle against extremism and the struggle for peace and justice, you are not alone. And remember that only by reaching out to those who risked their lives for the goals of the Arab Spring, rather than casting the entire region as an enemy, will this battle be won.
Salah, an Egyptian activist living in Washington, is a co-founder of the Youth for Change Movement and the April 6 Movement. Alex Mayyasi, who interned at the Development and Institutionalization Support Center in Cairo monitoring Egypt’s 2011-12 parliamentary elections, contributed to this column.