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Libya attack graphically marks rise of fundamentalist Muslims

The new wild card in Arab and Muslim politics may be the hardline Salafi Muslim groups that have emerged from the Arab Spring.

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The violence was widely condemned across the region, and "many Libyans and Egyptians are disgusted at how this portrays them in the international community," says Hamid, noting that Ambassador Stevens was a key supporter of the revolution that toppled Muammar Qaddafi last year. "There's very little room for Libyan radicals to sell this to the wider public. And let's just recall that Libya is the only country in the Arab world where the US is relatively popular."

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Still, the attack confirms the trend building over the past 1-1/2 years, the "rise of Salafi extremists who operate outside the legal and political arena, and they have their own rules," says Hamid. "It's been a problem in Tunisia, in Libya, and increasingly in Egypt as well, that with greater political freedoms Salafis have come out of the woodwork and have asserted themselves."

He distinguishes between mainstream Salafists in Egypt and now Tunisia who take part in the political process, and those who prefer violence.

"I think we are seeing an increasing divide between those two," adds Hamid. "But you are still going to have a small, influential fringe that still doesn't believe in democracy, that sees it as a sign of disbelief and infidelity."

And that group has found a close match in those in the US set out to make the film with an anti-Islam agenda. Mr. Klein, the apparent maker of the anti-Islam film that has generated such protest, said in his latest broadcast on "Wake Up America," a program he hosts, that "Western civilization is absolutely superior to Islam, period," and chuckled at the notion that any Muslims might be "good people...."

"You are talking about two fundamentalisms," says Gerges of the LSE. "Here you have a very tiny group, who don't speak for hardly anyone in the United States, providing ammunition for fundamentalist Islamist groups [which are] unwilling to make the distinction ... between the filmmaker and a few American idiots, and Americans as a whole."

In Afghanistan, Karzai said steps would be taken to stop Afghans from seeing the video. YouTube was temporarily blocked, but with only 18 percent of the country with access to reliable electricity and an illiteracy rate of 72 percent, few Afghans were likely to see the film. Still, newscasters are likely to describe it, and Afghans are likely to protest even if they don't see it.

"Affronts to Islam tend to draw even stronger reaction from Afghans than do incidents involving large civilian casualties or other violations of the laws of war," says Taylor Strickling, a law professor at the American University of Afghanistan. "Certainly we should expect Western institutions and the Afghan security apparatus will be on higher alert than usual in the coming days."

Tom Peter contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan

Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott 


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