Via Time, by Tony Karon
The furor over a provocative video has obscured the deep anger at U.S. foreign policy that has long existed in the Middle East
Is there anything the U.S. can do to stop the wave of often violent demonstrations across the Muslim world this week targeting its embassies and those of its allies? The short answer is no; it will have to ride out the rage stoked by opportunists in Muslim capitals looking to profit politically from genuine popular outrage at a film insulting the Prophet Muhammad — and hope that no more diplomats or protesters are killed, thereby further escalating the confrontation.
Friday saw protests in countries as far-flung as Sri Lanka, Nigeria and the Maldives, as well as deadly confrontations in Tunis, where three people were killed after the U.S. embassy compound was breached, and in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, where one was killed after a similar breach. But Friday was always going to be a very bad day; as the Muslim day of prayer, it usually marks the zenith of any cycle of pan-Islamic protest, brings the global Muslim ummah together in mosques and affirms the bonds of a community of faith and submission to the God of Abraham. The Friday jummah prayer service symbolically reaffirms the community of the faithful, which can be used to remind them of the notion that an attack on Muslims anywhere, or on the symbols of their faith, should be felt as an attack on Muslims everywhere. Fridays, then, have in recent years always marked a high point in protests, whether against the invasion of Iraq, the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, Israel’s bombing of Gaza or the desecration of the Koran by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan or an obscure preacher in Florida. And, as in those previous rounds of protest, it’s a fairly safe bet that the outrage over the Innocence of Muslims film will eventually abate — although the death of protesters creates new grievances that can sustain the issue.
But White House press secretary Jay Carney may have been overreaching when he insisted on Friday that the protests arose “in response not to United States policy, not to the Administration, not the American people [but] in response to a video, a film that we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting. That in no way justifies any violent reaction to it, but this is in no way a case of protests directed towards the United States writ large or at U.S. policies.”
It’s never that simple.
The reason a piece of “evidence” of American animus to Islam — the desecration of a Koran, say, or the dissemination of a video painting a grotesque caricature of the Prophet Muhammad — ignites rage toward U.S. institutions in so many Muslims is the way those Muslims have viewed and experienced U.S. policy. Direct insults of Islam such as those contained in the offending movie are such a powerful tool in the hands of those who would agitate against U.S. involvement in the Middle East — and against those in the Arab world who would work with Washington — because they function as a kind of narrative “gotcha!” motive that ties together all of the Arab world’s many grievances with the U.S. Egregious insults like the Innocence of Muslims film would not be so easily translated into rage at U.S. power were it not for the simmering long-term rage at Washington over its invasions of Muslim countries, its support for Israeli governments and Arab despots, its drone strikes and more.