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Protests are as mindless as anti-Islam film

By Salman Shaikh, Special to CNN
September 22, 2012 -- Updated 0016 GMT (0816 HKT)
Protesters throw stones at police during clashes against an anti-Islam film near the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Friday.
Protesters throw stones at police during clashes against an anti-Islam film near the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Friday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Salman Shaikh: Violent protests of anti-Islam film have killed people and are pointless
  • Shaikh thinks the film, U.S. policy, Iraq war have justifiably angered the Mideast
  • But protests bolster worst Muslim stereotypes, he says, detract from issues like Syria
  • Shaikh: Anti-democracy elements behind protests; Arab leaders must denounce them

Editor's note: Salman Shaikh is director of the Brookings Doha Center and fellow, Saban Center of Middle East Policy, at the Brookings Institution.

(CNN) -- To say that I am upset by the copycat violent protests spreading around the Arab and Muslim world would be an understatement. I want to protest against the protesters.

The mindless and criminal actions of a few in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and elsewhere, which have already led to the deaths of innocents, threaten to do a great deal of harm and seem never to make a sensible point.

Like many other Muslims, I suspect, I have wrestled with the most appropriate response to that 14-minute trailer of trash produced by extremist, criminal -- yes, the "producer" apparently has a criminal record -- filmmakers in California. I have come down on the side of sanity.

Opinion: In Yemen, protests mask diverse views on anti-Islam video

Salman Shaikh
Salman Shaikh

For sure, as a Muslim, I am offended by those who recklessly and purposely denigrate my faith and those who share my faith. Certainly, some of the protesters represent the unemployed, the abused and the just plain forgotten in Arab and Islamic states that have been ruled by autocrats enjoying the patronage of Western governments.

It is also an obvious point for anyone living in this part of the world that virulent anti-Americanism is a driving force for what is happening today. U.S. policy in the region has bequeathed a fatal breakdown in trust between successive American administrations and Arabs and Muslims. An unjust and illegal Iraq war, a "war on terror" that spawned a whole new drone industry, Washington's double standards in promoting human rights in the region and its unflagging support for Israel in spite of an expanding occupation in Palestine have all contributed to that legacy.

As Arab states undergo a historic transformation, this breakdown in trust is having a devastating effect as the Obama administration wrestles with the right thing to do. Arabs, with the notable exception of most Libyans, give the U.S. very little credit for what it is doing and complain, as in Syria and Bahrain, about what it is not.

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But absolutely none of the above should justify the violent protests sweeping the globe.

Instead, the violence of the protests has undermined our legitimate pain in the eyes of billions across the globe. The protests have reinforced those who seek to portray Muslims as wide-eyed extremists and Islam as an inherently intolerant, violent faith.

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Worse still, they have detracted the attention of the world from the continuing slaughter in Syria. Last month was reportedly the most violent on record in all the Middle East's recent conflicts -- more so even than Iraq at the height of its civil war. Many Syrians on social media and elsewhere are asking themselves, rightfully, where are the protesters when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime continue to kill more than 150 men, women and children a day? And when his supporters continue to chant "There is no God but Bashar"?

If we are not careful, these protests could encourage the world to forget the so-called Arab Spring and turn away from the struggle for dignity, justice and opportunity that has driven people to demand change. Surely, that is the hope of their biggest supporters -- a mix of former regime elements, al Qaeda offshoots, other jihadists and Salafi political parties.

It is no coincidence that the protests first took root in weakened states, such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, which are in the early stages of democratic transitions. While not all the protesters may know it, their actions are helping those who want to derail those transitions.

That is why new governments in these countries must show zero tolerance for the violent challenge posed by these protesters. As they must surely know, they are engaged in a battle for the soul of their societies. There must be no hesitation, no equivocation and no nuance in dealing with such violent aggression.

In particular, President Mohamed Morsy of Egypt, an Islamist leader from the Muslim Brotherhood party, has to demonstrate the clear moral leadership that is required to steer his country to calmer waters. For many, his response to date and that of the Muslim Brotherhood has been troubling, illustrating both a lack of understanding of the United States and a desire to appease the demonstrators. It has shown a lack of confidence.

Morsy must realize that he is the president of Egypt, not simply a leader of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party -- from which he actually resigned on taking office just a few months ago. The economy and international reputation of his country is suffering great damage, which he must urgently reverse. Although opinions about him are sharply divided, Morsy has the legitimacy to rally his people. He has the responsibility to insist on safeguarding the rule of law, without restricting new democratic freedoms.

News: Why video upset so many Muslims

The protesters must realize that we cannot continue to go through this kind of turmoil every time an ill-meaning hate-peddler decides to mock our faith. The idiocy and recklessness of the people behind "Innocence of Muslims" are without question. Sadly, those who continue to protest violently against them are acting just as stupidly.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Salman Shaikh.

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