In the current Mohammed film crisis, certain patterns repeat themselves from the crisis over the Danish cartoons six years ago. In both cases, Middle East Islamists seized on a marginal piece of anti-Islam criticism to put pressure on the West—and on more moderate forces in their own countries.
The Western reaction is also familiar, particularly in its understanding of the Middle East as a bonfire waiting to happen and criticism of Islam as the spark that ignites it. Descriptions of the YouTube film (a trailer, actually) that sparked protests in many Muslim countries—as the New Yorker put it in a typical formulation—rely on this false metaphor. It suggests that the protests are spontaneous occurrences that would not have come about without such a spark, and that the demonstrating Muslims are primitive savages governed by passion, not responsible for their own actions. The only parties with control over their actions are the filmmakers.
We should have learned a few things from the Danish cartoon episode. No less than four months elapsed between the cartoons publication in September 2005 and the unrest that began in January 2006. The laborious task of machinating such a crisis required journeys by Danish imams in the Middle East, meticulous planning by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, strenuous political pressure from Egyptian foreign secretary Abdul Gheit and Danish ambassador Mona Omar Attia, numerous incendiary speeches from leading Islamists, and much more. In 2006, the spark-and-fire metaphor obscured such planning, just as it does today.
Al-Qaida already has claimed that the Benghazi killings were motivated not by the film, but by a desire to avenge the drone killing of an al-Qaida leader. The Egyptian unrest was no less premeditated. On August 30, the terrorist group Jamaa al-Islamiya called for 9/11 riots in Cairo, and Egypts large Salafist party, Al Nour, followed suit. The film seems to have been used as a pretext. Egyptian prime minister Hesham Kandil now claims that a number of demonstrators admit they were paid for their efforts. The spark-and-fire advocates also overlook the strange fact that a demonstration of a few thousand people had the power to breach the American embassy. Cairo has long experience handling demonstrations of hundreds of thousands. One of us participated in a free-speech rally there earlier this year, where an overwhelming security presence ensured that nothing unexpected could happen.
A reasonable interpretation of the Egyptian embassy breach is that the government ordered security to back off so that demonstrators could enter the embassys garden and occupy its walls. As author Jytte Klausen has suggested, the extreme Salafists may have used outrage over the film to put pressure on the ruling Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, forcing them in a more extreme direction—and away from the U.S.
Many in the West unfortunately remain in the grip of spark-and-fire thinking. Among many other commentators, Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Middle East Center argues for prohibition of hate speech in the U.S. Of course, curtailment of free speech is one of the central goals of Islamists and fundamentally antithetical to Western values. Instead of caving to extremist pressure, we might note the low numbers of demonstrators outside the embassies. Perhaps the Islamist instigators are struggling to attract a sufficient number of ordinary Muslims to these rage-fests. If so, might it be a sign that citizens in Islamic countries are realizing that religious criticism is customary in open societies—or that, more simply, ordinary Muslims are simply fed up at being manipulated for political purposes?