Wednesday brought confirmation that U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other American diplomats were killed in Tuesday's attack on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. The consulate building was set on fire by protesters enraged over a film made in the United States that depicts the Prophet Mohammed in a derogatory manner. Similar violent protests have occurred in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East and could spread to the wider Islamic world by Friday.
There are several angles to this story. Most observers view it as an example of Islamist extremists taking advantage of the vacuum created by the fall of autocratic Arab rulers. Others look at the element of Jewish or Coptic provocation in the making of the film that sparked the crisis.
Stratfor believes these latest incidents of violence point to a much deeper geopolitical development. The debate between those who privilege freedom of speech and those who condemn it as hate speech by Islamophobes is an old one. The issue came up in the late 1980s, when the publication of The Satanic Verses led to calls for the death of its author, Salman Rushdie. It re-emerged a few years ago during the Mohammed cartoon controversy.
But this latest crisis comes with the Arab and Muslim world in the throes of a historic transition from authoritarian to democratic governance. A key feature of this transition is the empowerment of Islamists through democratic processes brought about by the fall of secular autocrats. This means that Islamists are playing the lead role in the transition toward democratic governance.
The Islamists leading the drive toward democratization, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, face a dilemma. They want to be perceived as responsible, mainstream actors who can govern their countries in a democratic manner and conduct rational foreign policies. At the same time, they have to placate the religious sensibilities of their constituents — and of the more radical Islamist forces, including those who will readily resort to violent agitation in response to perceived blasphemy.
While Islamists take the lead in such situations, almost all Muslims find speech criticizing Mohammed, the Koran or Islamic values unacceptable. From the Western point of view, democracy cannot exist without guaranteed freedom of expression. This value is the outcome of centuries of social, political and religious evolution that led to the adoption of secularism.
The Western view has long held that Muslim countries have not democratized because of the lack of secularism. Indeed, Islamic civilization, unlike the Judeo-Christian world, has not experienced a Renaissance, a Reformation or an Enlightenment. The Western path toward democracy is unique.
However, history has shown that democracy is a universal value, not a Western one, and that it can take different forms. The notion of "Islamic" democracy has been the subject of debate in the Muslim world for more than a century. In the last decade or so, this notion has been in the process of becoming operational — a process that has gained momentum since early 2011, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
It will likely be decades (at the very least) before democracy is established in the Islamic sphere, so we do not know what an Islamic democracy will look like. Even the Islamists driving this process are not sure what precise blend of religion and politics their preferred form of democracy will entail. What is certain is that religion will likely play a significant role in public affairs, and this will continue to have global repercussions.