One of the first scenes in the ridiculous but thoroughly nasty film "Innocence of Muslims" shows angry Muslims running through the streets smashing things and killing people. So what happens when a clip from the film dubbed into Arabic goes up on the Internet? Angry Muslims run through the streets smashing things and killing people.
It's as simple as that: press the right button, and they'll do what you want. Some Christian extremists set out to provoke Muslim extremists into violence that would discredit Islam in the eyes of the West — and it worked, of course. As the U.S. consulate in Benghazi burned and the American dead were carried out, many people in the West thought to themselves: "The Libyans are biting the hand that freed them."
Wrong conclusion. It wasn't "the Libyans" who broke into the Benghazi consulate and murdered the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens; it was a heavily armed band of Islamic extremists. "The Libyans" recently voted in their first real election ever, and they elected a secular government. The film just gave the fanatics an opportunity to undermine that choice.
Maybe the Christian extremists don't understand that their film serves the purposes of those who want to overthrow the moderate, democratically elected governments, both Islamic and secular, that have come to power in the "Arab spring". Or maybe they do realize that, and hope that the violence that they are stirring up will bring Muslim extremists to power in those countries. After all, it's easier to mobilize Western opinion against outright fanatics.
The grown-ups try to keep the situation under control. Grand Mufti Sheik Abdel-Aziz al-Sheik, the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, said that Muslims should denounce the film, but without anger: "Muslims should not be dragged by wrath and anger to shift from legitimate to forbidden action, (as) by this they will, unknowingly, fulfill some aims of the film."
Exactly so, but the leaders of the Arab world's post-revolutionary governments have to walk a fine line, denouncing both the film and the violent protests against it. Moderate Islamic governments like that of Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi have a particularly tricky task, since they are competing with the Muslim extremists who are organizing the protests for the support of the same pious and socially conservative bloc of voters.
"We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our prophet," Morsi said last Thursday, "but at the same time we firmly say that this cannot be taken as a justification to assault consulates or embassies and cannot be taken also as a justification for killing innocent people."
It was not a sufficiently robust condemnation of the violence for U.S. President Barack Obama, who said on the same day: "I don't think that we would consider (Egypt) an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy."
Obama has his own right flank to protect, and cannot afford to acknowledge in public that elected Arab leaders are in competition with Islamic fanatics for popular support, and so must choose their words with care. Most American voters are not sophisticated enough to understand the intricacies of Arab politics, or patient enough to care.
Similarly, most Arab voters do not want to hear about the American constitution, which guarantees free speech and means that the U.S. government cannot just ban crude attacks on Islam by American citizens. The elected Arab leaders will certainly have had this fact explained to them in private by their political advisers, but in public they must demand that the U.S. government suppress the film and punish its makers.
It's not the United States that has attacked Islam, or even "Hollywood"; just a handful of Americans with a political and religious agenda. It's not "Egypt" or "Libya" that has attacked American and other Western diplomatic missions in the Arab world, but small groups of Islamic extremists with a political agenda of their own, supported by a larger number of pious dupes.
Indeed, the film in question passed without notice when it had its single public screening in the Vine Theatre in Los Angeles in June; only a dozen or so people showed up, probably mostly friends of the producer. It attracted little more attention when a shortened version was posted on YouTube at the beginning of July.
It only took off when the religious Egyptian television channel al-Nas broadcast scenes from it on September 8, and then posted a clip online with an Arabic translation. That got hundreds of thousands of views in a matter of days, and the violent protests began almost at once. The Christian fanatics and the Muslim extremists are, in the old Marxist phrase, "objective allies."
This is not a "turning point" in Western relations with the Arab countries or the broader Muslim world (as some excitable commentators have suggested). The whole thing will blow over after a little while, just like the violent protests against Danish newspaper cartoons about Muhammad did six years ago. It is a tempest in a teapot.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.