My "Rational Rage?" talk the other day, among other things, argued that intra-Islamist leadership competition played a key role in driving the protests over the Danish cartoons. While they played little role in generating the early passion and outrage over the cartoons, once the issue's mobilization value became clear a wide range of Islamist politicians, pundits, and would-be leaders competed to get out in front of the issue and claim "leadership".
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Amr Khaled, Salman al-Awdah and the "Ulema Petition", the Muslim Brotherhood, and many others have staked a claim to represent Muslim anger and to guide the appropriate response. In general, they try to walk a difficult tightrope: keep the issue hot in order to drive people towards an Islamist political identity, but not let it get too hot so that they don't lose control to more radical Islamist movements. Hence Qaradawi calling for Muslim anger and demonstrations in early February, then after the embassies got sacked calling for "rational" rage, and then a week later declaring the mass protests a great success for demonstrating that "there is still life in the Islamic umma."
Despite intense agitation about the cartoons in jihadi internet forums, al-Qaeda, which actually benefits the most from the spiral towards radicalization, has been oddly absent from the public campaigns around the issue, until now. Ayman al-Zawahiri's latest video broadcast on al-Jazeera addresses the cartoons (along with Hamas's electoral victory). Predictably, he calls for attacks on the West and pro-Western Arab countries as the appropriate response, in contrast to the Ulema and Khaled's call for a new international law criminalizing insults to Prophets, or Qaradawi's support for boycotts.
What's interesting about this intervention is how reactive it is, rather than proactive - like Zawahiri's response to the Kefaya movement last June, it very much has the feel of someone trying to jump on a bandwagon which left a long time ago, and to "assert leadership" of it by escalating the demands for violence. Tomorrow hopefully I'll have more to say about the response to Zawahiri's video.