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Why Did an Obscure Movie Raise Such Ire in the Muslim World?

Protest in front of U.S. consulate in Cairo. Photo by Yasser Alaa.

The violent reaction to a low-budget American-made film mocking Muslims raised a lot of questions this week. What was going through the protesters’ minds? Are embassies secure? How could it have happened at all?

To get some perspective from someone tapped into the Muslim world, we contacted Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. Her organization surveys Muslim communities in 40 nations to provide nonpartisan information about their views.

We first asked her about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments made Thursday at a reception for Eid ul-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan. Clinton said the “actions of a small and savage group” do not “speak for the more than 1 billion Muslims around the world.” And while the movie was despicable, she said, there was no justification for such violent acts.

“When Christians are subject to insults to their faith, and that certainly happens, we expect them not to resort to violence. When Hindus or Buddhists are subjected to insults to their faiths, and that also certainly happens, we expect them not to resort to violence. The same goes for all faiths, including Islam,” she noted.

(You can read Clinton’s full statement and that of Libyan Ambassador to the U.S. Ali Suleiman Aujali at the Eid celebration.)

Dalia Mogahed: It’s hard to generalize. I think that each country has its own specific circumstances. In the case of Libya, there’s a complete breakdown of security and 95 percent of the Libyan people say that they feel armed militias are an immediate threat that must be addressed. And we saw the immediate consequence of that in the tragic killing of four Americans.

In the case of Egypt, there have been violent breaches by soccer hoodlums called the Ultras throughout the transition — both with or without provocation or any kind of religious offense.

In Yemen, it’s yet another issue of being riled up for political reasons and being provoked to go out and protest and in some cases be violent at the embassy. And most people reportedly at the Yemen Embassy had never seen the movie. So they weren’t directly responding because of some visceral reaction to the film.

So I think it would just be too much of a generalization to say Muslims react violently when they’re offended, whereas everyone else reacts peacefully. I think that riots and protests turn violent all over the world. But what is unique about the Muslim world is that it has become easier to spark a mob mentality by evoking religious sensibilities. And I think that’s a reflection of the state of frustration and also the state of a religious sentiment, which is perhaps unique to the Muslim community.

Also this week, the Embassy in Cairo had a testy exchange with the Muslim Brotherhood via Twitter:


The Twitter message has since been deleted from the embassy’s account, but still exists on the Muslim Brotherhood site.

What did you think of the Twitter exchange?

Dalia Mogahed: I think two things were going on there. First, the Muslim Brotherhood has different constituencies that they are playing to, and sometimes their tone — especially in their Arabic tweets and their Arabic platform — is very different than their English platform.

The embassy called them out on that, and the embassy’s tweet saying “we read those, too” was a huge hit on Twitter. It was being re-tweeted and praised all day. And in some ways was a bit of a comeback after the embassy was so harshly criticized for appearing to suggest that there was something wrong with free speech, or being accused of doing so.

(Read the U.S. Embassy in Cairo’s statement that generated criticism.)

But I think that the bottom line is that the Muslim Brotherhood is really struggling with their new role as people in government and not just in opposition, where they have to be responsible for what they say and what they say in one venue has to be consistent with what they say publicly. This is just a new world that everybody in the government is getting used to.

What do this week’s events say about the understanding of Islam and whether strides have been made since 9/11?

Dalia Mogahed: I think that there have been improvements made. There’s greater understand among some people and at some levels. But fundamentally there’s still a lot of confusion on both sides. The fact that some people are calling for the criminalization of defamation of religion on one hand in some Muslim-majority countries, and on the other hand, people really generalizing that Muslims are simply prone to violence when those who perpetuated the violence are a tiny fringe minority, does mean that we still have a long way to go.

I’ve heard people say here in the United States that when people make such an offensive movie that seems to provoke and incite, they’re actually putting Americans’ lives in harm’s way and in danger. I think that’s true and it’s something to keep in mind.

The other message that I think that Muslims must hear, though, is that when they stage a mass protest or a protest of any size to object to a film that no one would have really noticed had that protest not occurred, that they are actually giving a gift to this filmmaker. That this free publicity is beyond what this low-budget and poorly made filmmaker probably ever dreamed of. And I think that’s also something to keep in mind. If the film is so offensive, then the best thing to do is to dutifully ignore it.

Why didn’t people ignore it?

Dalia Mogahed: I think it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how things really work here in the United States. I think there’s a belief that somehow this film being online automatically means it now becomes a duty somehow to say something against it. And not taking the step forward that there’s all kinds of material online and most of it is completely ignored. And that the attention drawn to it is more harmful perhaps than had the movie just been ignored by those who took such issue with it.

On Thursday’s NewsHour, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Marwan Muasher, Philadelphia Inquirer’s Trudy Rubin and Al-Arabiya News’ Hisham Melhem weighed in on the possible motivations behind the protests and the complicated relationship between the United States and Egypt:

View more of our World coverage.

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