Deepening divide between Islamic world and West

The last few weeks confirm a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and Western democracy.

Protesters burn US flag in Afghanistan 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Protesters burn US flag in Afghanistan 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON - For those who believe in a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and Western democracy, the last few weeks must seem like final confirmation of their theory.
Even those who reject the term as loaded and simplistic speak sadly of a perhaps catastrophic failure of understanding between Americans in particular and many Muslims.
The outrage and violence over a crude film ridiculing the Prophet Mohammad points to a chasm between Western free speech and individualism and the sensitivities of some Muslims over what they see as a campaign of humiliation.
There seems no shortage of forces on both sides to fan the flames. The tumult over the video had not even subsided when a French magazine this week printed a new cartoon showing the prophet naked.
"It's ridiculous," Zainab Al-Suwaij, executive director of the America Islamic Congress, said of the violence that on Friday killed 15 in Pakistan alone as what were supposed to be peaceful protests turned violent.
"Yes, this video is offensive but it is clearly a grotesque over reaction that in part is being whipped up by radical Islamists in the region for their own ends. But it does show you the depth of misunderstanding between the cultures."
Starting last week with a few relatively small embassy protests and a militant attack in Libya that killed the US ambassador and three others, violence has since spread to more than a dozen countries across the Middle East and Asia.
Not all the news from the region indicates an unbridgeable gap, though. Many Libyans, especially young ones, came out to mourn Ambassador Chris Stevens after his death and make clear that militants who killed him did not speak for them. Thousands of Libyans marched in Benghazi on Friday to protest the Islamist militias that Washington blames for the attack.
Arab Spring's failed promises
Still, the "Arab Spring" appears not to have made as many friends for America as Americans might have hoped.
The very countries in which Washington helped facilitate popular-backed regime change last year - Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen - are seeing some of the greatest anti-West backlash.
The young pro-democracy activists who leaped to the fore in 2011, Washington now believes, have relatively little clout. That leaves US and European officials having to deal with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
There is concern that regional governments such as Egypt might now be playing a "double game", saying one thing to the US while indulging in more anti-Western rhetoric at home. It may be something Washington must get used to.
"What you're seeing now is that (regional governments) are much more worried about their own domestic population - which means being seen as too close to the US is suddenly...a liability," says Jon Alterman, a former State Department official and now Middle East specialist at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
The current US administration is not the first to discover democracy does not always directly translate into the sort of governments it would like to see.
In 2006, the election victory of Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip was seen helping prompt the Bush White House to abandon a post-911 push for democratic change, sending it back towards Mubarak-type autocrats.
The popular image of the United States in the Middle East stands in stark contrast to the way Americans view themselves.
Western talk of democracy and human rights is often seen hollow, with Washington and Europe only abandoning autocratic leaders when their fate was already sealed and continuing to back governments such as Bahrain still accused of repression.
"The simple truth is that the American people are never going to understand the region because they never ask the right question - which is what it feels like to be on the receiving end of American power," says Rosemary Hollis, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at London's City University.
Whoever wins the White House in November will face a string of challenges across the region.
As it faces down Iran over its nuclear program, while backing rebels in Syria and governments in the Gulf, Washington risks being drawn ever deeper into the historic Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian divide within Islam.