The violent demonstrations that have spread across the Muslim world in recent weeks have convinced many in the United States and Europe that the Arab revolutions that began in late 2010 are now officially over and that the democratic project has failed. Bitterness and a sense of impending catastrophe are replacing the enthusiasm that followed the toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt last year.
Now there is ominous talk of an "Islamist Fall" and a "Salafi Winter" after a supposedly failed Arab Spring. To these skeptics religion is the driving force in Arab politics, and hateful anti-Western slogans and the killing of America's ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, are evidence of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West.
While these fears are understandable, such alarmism is misplaced. The Arab revolutions have not turned anti-Western. Nor are they pro-Western. They are simply not about the West. They remain fundamentally about social justice and democracy, not about religion or establishing Shariah law.
The democratization of Tunisia, Egypt and other countries has allowed a number of extremist free riders into the political system, but it also has definitively refuted the myth that democracy and Islam are incompatible. Islamists are political actors like any others. They are no more pure, more united or more immune from criticism than anyone else.
Islamist parties are now free to take part in political debates and to win seats in legislatures and governments. However, these political changes also have rendered the divisions among Islamists more apparent than ever before.
Islamists span a wide ideological and political spectrum, yet many observers still seem to believe that extremist Salafi groups represent a majority. They are wrong. Radical Salafis who advocate violence and Shariah law constitute a very small minority in Tunisia, and even in Egypt they are vastly outnumbered by more moderate Islamists. They are a minority within a minority, and extremely unpopular among both religious and secular Tunisians. They do not speak for all Tunisians, all Arabs or all Muslims.
The goal of these violent extremists is not political participation, it is the creation of chaos. We should not forget that, before attacking American symbols, these extremists had degraded Tunisian symbols, such as the flag and national anthem.
Despite their small numbers, the danger they pose cannot be dismissed. Tunisia's economy depends on the millions of foreign tourists who visit each year. If Salafi extremists were to attack only two or three foreigners in Tunisia, it would destroy our tourism industry and ruin our country's peaceful reputation. As a democratic government, we support the Salafis' freedom of expression, but advocating violence is a red line. Those who cross it will be arrested.
The strength and importance of extremist groups have been unduly amplified by the news media. Images of angry Muslim mobs, like the one featured on a recent cover of Newsweek, once again revived the old Orientalist trope of a backward and hysterical Muslim world, unable to engage in civilized and rational debate or to undertake peaceful negotiations -- in other words, incapable of conducting political affairs.
However, that image is a distorted fantasy. it does not represent any sociological or political reality. Arguing that the groups who have recently staged violent demonstrations represent the entire Arab population is as absurd as claiming that white-supremacist groups represent the American people or that the Norwegian right-wing mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik is representative of Europeans.
The demonstrations that took place against the anti-Islamic video "Innocence of Muslims" involved small numbers of extremists -- there were only about 3,000 in Tunisia. Counterprotests denouncing the violence also took place in Benghazi, Libya, after the killing of Ambassador Stevens. Numerous Muslim leaders have implored believers not to respond to provocations, and no demonstration occurred last Friday after a French newspaper published demeaning caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
The attempts by journalists and anti-Islamic filmmakers to stage a sequel to the Danish cartoon controversy of 2006 are in vain. Most Tunisians firmly condemn the violence that took place against the United States embassies, even if they were personally offended by anti-Islamic provocations emanating from the United States and Europe.
They are frustrated by how this unnecessary uproar has made more arduous the struggle for what matters most to them: building new democratic institutions, creating jobs and halting the exodus of Tunisian boat people seeking a better life in Europe.
These are difficult tasks for any country, and the challenge is even greater for new democracies in the post-revolutionary Arab world. We are in a race against poverty. At this crucial moment the West must not abandon us. It must continue to aid Tunisia in strengthening democracy and the rule of law, securing our borders to stop arms from reaching extremists, and creating economic opportunities that give our citizens hope.
The writer is the president of Tunisia.
© New York Times. Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate.