CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Rioters were storming the gates of an American Embassy in the Middle East. A Democratic president, seeking reelection, was under bitter attack by his Republican rival for being too conciliatory with the Islamic extremists behind the unrest.
A conservative Israeli government, watching from the wings with intense regional interests of its own, and American Christian fundamentalists were forging an alliance of convenience against the Democrats.
And suddenly the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ was casting a shadow on the political landscape in an election year.
The scene described is not this week in Egypt and Libya, but 1979 and the Iranian revolution which erupted on the hinge of the 1980 presidential election.
The disturbing and worrisome pieces of the geopolitical puzzle that are coming together in Egypt and Libya and across the Muslim world in the last few days are remarkably similar to the moment in 1979 that unleashed a new and violent energy in Islamic fundamentalism.
We are suddenly back in a 1979 moment.
The Democratic candidate then was Jimmy Carter, and now it is Barack Obama – both recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize and both mistrusted by the Israeli right wing and the Christian right in America. The Israeli Prime Minister then was the strident Likud leader Menachem Begin and now it is the equally hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu – both have cultivated alliances with the Christian right and relied on it for political and financial support of the Israeli settler movement.
The Republican presidential candidate then was Ronald Reagan and now it is Republican Mitt Romney – both playing to the Christian right to challenge their Democratic opponents as too accommodating to extremists in the Middle East.
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In other words, the news cycle we are in right now in the Middle East has a deeply layered history like just about everything that happens in that part of the world.
The question is why the lessons of history never seem to be learned in the Middle East, leaving all of the players condemned to repeating the mistakes of the past.
And through many years of covering the Middle East and writing about religious fundamentalism, there is one public intellectual in America who I have long turned to on questions of such enormity and complexity.
That is Harvard Professor Harvey Cox, Dean Emeritus of the Divinity School who taught a very popular class titled “Fundamentalisms” at Harvard for several years. (In the interest of full disclosure, I served as a guest lecturer for Cox’s class at Harvard during a Nieman Fellowship year.)
“The comparisons between 1979 and what we are seeing right now are definitely interesting and worth thinking about,” said Cox from his home in the shadows of Harvard’s campus.
“You can believe for Barack Obama this is not what he wanted to have happen right now. I am sure he is thinking of Jimmy Carter and what happened to him,” said Cox.
“In all of the above comparisons, the fundamentalist wings of these three religious traditions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) are relatively recent in terms of religious history and they are ultimately reactive to things they see in the world that they don’t like,” explained Cox.
And now they all seem to be reacting to the Arab Spring, the popular street demonstrations which rocked the Middle East last year. The Arab Spring forged alliances between secular and religious movements to topple the dictatorships – such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi – who had been a kind of ‘equal opportunity oppressors’ for the religious and secular alike.
The fundamentalists on all sides didn’t really like this unity of purpose among the religious and secular alike, Cox argues, because it undercut the energy that fuels their respective movements.
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So when violence erupted in the last week, the fundamentalists, particularly the fiery Islamic militant stream of Salafists in Egypt, see a moment to reenergize their base. They see a moment to challenge the more mainstream Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood who now have the ruling party in Egypt.
“The message from the Christian and Jewish fundamentalists is, ‘Well, we warned you about this Arab Spring. We told you so!’” said Cox.
“And the message from the Islamic fundamentalists is, “See, it is no different! Despite the Arab Spring, the Zionist and the Crusaders still hate the Muslims. They were just doing this for their own interests, and this terrible film shows us that,’” explained Cox.
And so the next few days become a defining moment for the new governments of Libya and particularly for Egypt, where the Coptic Christian minority may be particularly imperiled this weekend.
Growing demonstrations have been happening amid reports by the AP that the film that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad and touched of the rioting was reportedly made by an Egyptian Coptic Christian.
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who had emigrated to America, lives in Los Angeles where reporters piecing together a profile of him say he was apparently immersed in the fiery anti-Islamic rhetoric on the fringes of the Christian right.
“A lot rests on the shoulders of [Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi. The Copts will certainly be very fearful and it will be up to Morsi to show some stature, to live up to claims that he can unify the country. So far, he has not,” said Cox, referring to the newly elected leader who emerged from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi faces a particularly tough challenge from the Salafists, who are widely seen to be more puritanical and militant in their views and who have had a history of attacking Christians in Egypt.
Cox added, “How he handles this will determine where we are headed. And for now I hope and pray we will not see more violence, but I am fearful that we will.”