The mob attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya dramatizes the extent to which the United States has become the target for a wave of anti-Western Islamic fervor washing from Iran across the Middle East.
If the surge in Moslem fundamentalism lasts, it could have serious repercussions for the place of the United States in the Arab world, affecting Washington's ability to influence the Arab-Israeli conflict or critical decision on petroleum.
Arab leaders seem bound to take the new religious tension into account as they make decisions on foreign relations. The Saudi royal family in particularly, seriously jolted by an invasion of the Great Mosque at Mecca that still is not completely over, has a grave new doubt to insert into its deliberations on oil production and prices, or Middle East peace possibilities.
There have been no reports that the Islamic fanatics at Mecca aimed their operations at the United States in particular. But their demands for a retreat from Western invention such as television and professional soccer put them into the stream that seems increasingly to flow toward anti-U.S. sentiment.
Throughout the Middle East, Americans are regarded as the chief purveyors of Western goods and ways, and the mosta obvious protectors of the "Western imperialism" -- diplomats call it Western influence -- denounced by the prophets of Moslem renewal.
For this reason, the United States tends to be identified with the area's westernization and the drift away from traditional Islamic principles that seemed to accompany economic development. In fact, Americans and their products in most of the Middle East are the main vehicles for change.
The traffic jams that irritate Saudi drivers, for example, are largely comprised of American-made cars. Also highly conspicuous, sometimes disturbingly so, are the approximately 40,000 Americans who live and work in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi children who watch too much television for their parent's taste see a Saudi version of "Sesame Street Saudie women who resent the Islamic obligation to stay home or cover their faces are most likely to cite U.S. women to their husbands as examples.
In addition, much of the development identified with the United States has been abused or poorly conceived. When this becomes obvious, Americans take the blame. Kuwaitei fishermen, for example find the United States an easy target for criticism when they complain that oil polution has reduced their catch of the giant Gulf shrimp for which Kuwait is celebrated.
The United States also is a highly visible target because of its role as the chief supporter of Israel. The press of such nations as Iraq and Syria refers to Washington as "imperialist" just as regularly as it refers to Israel as "Zionist."
Even in friendly countries such as Saudi Arabia, visitors find deep-seated resentment -- or puzzlement at best -- over the U.S. stand in favor of Israel.
The move from pro-Islam to anti-United States is thus easy slide, because affirming the Moslem case brings Arabs almost inevitably into conflict with U.S. policies in the Middle East.
The Libyan leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, has been preaching sermons on anti-Western Islamic resurgence ever since taking power in a bloodless military coup 10 years ago.But his eccentric antics at home and indiscriminate support of revolutionaries abroad weakened his message and prevented most Arabs from taking him seriously.
Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is a Persian, not an Arab, but has found a wide audience in the Arab world for his Islam-based appeals for defiance of U.S. support for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlvi. No Arab leader -- not even Qaddafi or his couterparts in Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization -- will endorse Khomeini's kidnapping tactics. But throughout the area, Iran's call for Islamic revival has been heard.
Even in Western-oriented nations like Jordan, for example, the Moslem month of Ramadan was observed this year with increased ardor, reportedly on orders from King Hussein. One resident of Amman, related to the royal family by marriage, fasted and stopped smoking during the holy month for the first time in his life.
In Lebanon the Shiite Moslem community is looking to Iran for inspiration and financial aid in its struggle to obtain increased weight in the country's sectarian power-sharing. Rightly or wrongly, the United States is viewed as an obstacle to these aspirations.
Across the Middle East, Washington is allied with governments that, in the average Arab mind, represent conservatism and subservience to the West. The prime example is Saudi Arabia, which is widely criticized for its moderation in opposing U.S. Middle East policies.
Similar close identification of the U.S. with conservative hereditary governments is typical in Jordan, Morocco and Gulf countries other than Saudi Arabia,. It is with Arab nations seen as most affirmatively Arab that the United States has chilliest relations: Syria, Iraq, Algeria and Libya.
Moreover, the United States has been the chief backer of President Anwar Sadat's bitterly opposed decision to pull Egypt out of the Arab front and make a separate peace with Israel. The Islamic revival preached by Khomeini has included strong condemnation of Sadat and his peacemaking.
Sadat's response so far has been defiance. Himself a devout Moslem, the Egyptian leader seems confident that his embrace of the United States can survive the anti-Western turn Isam has taken elsewhere in the Arab world.
The Egyptian people traditionally practice a tolerant form of Islam. Alcohol is on sale freely, and women in the streets of Cairo dress Western styl as often as not. Young couples can even be seen holding hands.
At the same time, Sadat's security forces recently rounded up more than 100 youths belonging to a fundamentalist Islamic group caled Jihad, or holy war. The arrests demonstrated that the government here realized the potential for trouble if Egypt's strong Islamic character ever turned toward Khomeini's anti-Western call.