The film that wasn't

The story of the fallout from an American-made YouTube "film" that makes the prophet Muhammed look like a backwards pedophile has escalated to the point where it's hard to believe you're actually watching real life.

The unknown, low-budget, 13-minute farce - most likely funded and produced by fringe Egyptian-American Coptic Christians with ugly grudges against Islam - was posted to YouTube in January and caught fire a few days ago, after hardline Salafi pundits in Egypt got hold of it. Today, Western embassies across the Middle East are witnessing attacks and protests.

That Arab Muslims have legitimate beef with the United States goes without saying, as does the fact that political and religious movements are taking advantage of these protests for their own reasons. But to say, as many smart people have, that this violence "is not really about a film" glosses too easily over the widely shouted sentiment that indeed, it is.

Placing the September 11 protest in Cairo amid the context of decades of support for Hosni Mubarak's repressive government (not to mention the invasion of Iraq, support for Israel, etc.) makes sense. Lots of people still hate American policy. 

Though there seemed to be many conservative Muslims angry about the film involved in that protest - graffiti praising Muhammed and chants defending his reputation abounded - there were also plenty of plain old angry young men (many with longstanding grievances against Egyptian police), and the youths who climbed the walls and ripped down the US flag looked to be more Ultra than Salafi.

But today, the protests have expanded. One can easily understand anger against US policy in Yemen and Lebanon, but less so in Tunis, where today men jumped the embassy walls and set fire to trees inside, prompting gunfire. Harder still is figuring out why Sudanese protesters vandalized the German embassy before moving on to the American.

And if one asked protesters on the ground why they were angry, as many reporters did, the answer came back loud and clear.

"All of them say they're there to defend the prophet," members of a crowd told Kristen Chick in Cairo.

"Just so you know. None of the protesters I asked yesterday said that drones had anything to do with their attack on the #USEmbassy," tweeted Iona Craig in Yemen.

Even an article in the Egypt Independent cited by Shadi Hamid, who firmly believes that anyone who thinks the protests are about the film is "missing the point," said most protesters in Cairo "claimed to be there to 'preserve the dignity of our Prophet.'"

We all know that good journalism means going straight to the source, and in this case the source - the "man on the street" - says he's pissed off because someone is mocking Muhammed. 

That being said, good anthropologists and sociologists know that people often say things they don't mean - or rather, they give pretexts that obscure deeper motivations. A man might justify killing his neighbor in the next village with the pretext that the guy insulted his religion, but he might've actually done it so that he can take the guy's land.

Those people on the street who are claiming deep offense at the Muhammed film and say they're protesting to defend their religion might be speaking in complete honesty, but undoubtedly their hatred for the United States flows a little bit more freely because of the many other wrongs they have felt at US hands over the past years.

The question is: To what extent should we ascribe motivations to this week's protesters that they are not willing to ascribe themselves? If someone tells you he wants to burn down the US embassy because someone in America made a revolting film about Muhammed, and not because he's opposed to America's extortionist foreign trade policy, then who are we to tell him otherwise?

The most tragically ironic and astute responses to the ongoing unrest may have come from Syrians, both online and in the street, who wondered how their fellow Arabs and Muslims could muster such outrage over a film and not over the murderous policy of Bashar al-Assad's government.

"Dear idiots protesting in Cairo? Where the fuck was your anger when Assad's troops defecated in mosques and then torched them?" tweeted Shakeeb al-Jabri. In the Syrian town of Kafr Anbel, men held up a cartoondepicting a bearded man with his finger pointed at a reel of film and his back turned on a smoldering mosque. At a protest in Daraa, others held up a sign asking, "Arabs, in Syria the prophet is cursed, the Quran is burned, and mosques reduced to rubble. What have you done?"

The discrepancy in responses brings to mind the 2005-2006 protests over the Muhammed cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which led to dozens of reported deaths. While the context of malign American influence might be hanging over the ongoing film controversy, it's much harder to argue that Muslim anger over the newspaper cartoons stemmed from decades of Danish imperialism.

Hani Shukrallah has attempted to explain the angry reaction this way:

[I]t is my contention here as well that the real motivation behind what on the surface appears an irrational, indeed stupid and self-defeating reaction, is in fact quite rational, goal oriented and, for its culprits, highly advantageous.

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In the broadest sense, there are forces in the Arab and Muslim worlds whose very reason for existence is the assumption of a clash of civilizations, an eternal and ongoing battle between the faithful and the infidels allegedly bent on their destruction.

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As for the Salafists, Jihadists and various other Islamist extremists, the film was the answer to a prayer. Not only did it provide a golden opportunity to strike against the revolutionary values they abhor as atheistic Western imports, it also gave them renewed access to the nation's political stage.

Shukrallah's analysis is smart and nuanced and takes note of the ongoing political battle in Egypt between the popular, elected and "moderate" Muslim Brotherhood and its off-and-on opponents to the right - a broad current of Salafi thought. 

The contest between the two is not so different from those in the United States, between political forces struggling to hold onto popular mandates and avoid being outflanked - in this case, from the religious right. The anger over the Muhammed movie, if one takes the protesters' at their word, is very real. The more important question might be how the Brotherhood and various other political movements in the Middle East will use the anger to their advantage - to shore up support, to distract from woeful social ills.

My point in this argument is not to imply that crazy Muslim fanatics are running rampant, and I certainly respect the contexts being supplied by Hamid and others. The point is simply that those who gloss over pretexts and first-order causes are ignoring very clear indicators provided by the protesters themselves, as well as the looming gap in philosophy between the the West and Middle East. 

"I've been trying to explain to some of my overheated contacts on Facebook and Twitter that there is a thing in the US Constitution called the First Amendment, which makes freedom of expression - however repugnant what's being expressed - practically sacrosanct," Shukrallah wrote. "Indeed, America's founding fathers made freedom of expression considerably more sacred than any of the sacred religious beliefs held by Americans themselves."

This is an area where governments in the West and Middle East are going to find it difficult to navigate a middle ground between each side's core values. Even as the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi belatedly condemned the attacks on the embassy and expressed remorse for the American deaths in Libya - suddenly realizing the seriousness of the situation and the anger in the US government - they called on US authorities to apologize for the film and take action against it, perhaps by passing laws forbidding work like it in the first place. That's just not something Obama or any other president will do.

"Morsi/MB was torn btw two audiences - their conservative base & the US - that wanted completely different things. They opted for former," Hamid tweeted. "'Moderate' Islamists feel particularly vulnerable when others claim to defend faith w- more fervor than they do. So they veer to the right."