The reaction to Pope Benedict XVI's comments this week, drawing on sources who argued that there is something inherently irrational about Islam that can lead to violence, underscores the current depth of religious sensitivities – ones that extremists are quick to exploit.
To millions of Muslims, Pope Benedict's words fit into a centuries-old tradition of rhetorical attacks designed to harm their faith. But to many in the West, the violent sectarian reaction by extremists in Palestinian territories, Iraq, and elsewhere indicated that the pope had a point.
The ensuing controversy demonstrates the spread of what could be called "Clash of Civilizations" thinking that serves the interests of violent extremists, experts say, as it provides an opportunity to advocate for their worldview. Central to the thinking of Al Qaeda is their claim that jihad is a response to what they consider 1,000 years of Christian persecution that poses an existential threat to all Muslims.
With extremists successfully exploiting popular anger over comments like the pope's or at cartoons critical of Islam, this fringe view has moved closer to the center, often undermining more-moderate views, analysts say.
"Arabs and Muslims feel oppressed by the West. Afghanistan and Iraq are features, but most important is Palestine ... and all of this built-up anger then sometimes explodes,'' says Abdel Wahab al-Messiri, an Islamist thinker and professor in Cairo. "The anger at the West can't be expressed through the popular channels because of their own regimes, so they wait for something like cartoons or the pope's comments and their totalitarian governments can't stop them because that would be something un-Islamic."
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