Hidden Causes of the Muslim Protests

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What are the sources of simmering hostility toward America that helped fuel these demonstrations?

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Protesters gather outside the U.S. embassy in London. (Reuters)

As the Muslim protests subside, more and more people have come to realize that what seems to have sparked them--one of the worst YouTube videos ever, which is saying something--isn't what they were mainly about.

But what were they about? Here theories differ, and some of the best theories haven't been getting much attention, because they're not on the talking-points agendas of Democrats or Republicans--which means they won't be occupying much airtime on network or cable TV during an election campaign.

Ross Douthat, writing in Sunday's New York Times, embraces a theory that's true insofar as it goes: these protests often got a boost from local political jostling. For example, in Egypt the struggle "between the Muslim Brotherhood and its more-Islamist-than-thou rivals" is what led those rivals (Salafis) to call protestors onto the streets.

Fine, but since people aren't sheep (though they sometimes do a good imitation), we have to ask why the protestors responded to such calls in Egypt and elsewhere--and why sometimes the crowds swelled.

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Part of the answer is that the video itself did offend people. But, as when a single offensive remark from someone you've long disliked can make you go ballistic, the explanation for this explosion goes deeper than the precipitating event. What are the sources of simmering hostility toward America that helped fuel these protests? Here is where you get to answers that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney wants to talk about and that, therefore, hardly anybody else talks about.

Below are three examples, but first the customary disclaimer: I'm not excusing any violence that American policies may have helped cause and I'm not blaming America. But when American policies have bad side effects, Americans need to talk about them.

[1] Drone strikes. Obviously, President Obama doesn't want to say anything bad about the gobs of strikes he's authorized. Neither does Mitt Romney; if you're going to spend your whole campaign calling Obama a hyper-apologetic girly boy, you can't turn around and complain that he kills too many people! But American drone strikes--which seem to always target Muslim countries, and sometimes kill civilians--are famously unpopular in the Muslim world. Note which countries tend to cluster toward the bottom of this graph from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. And watch the one-minute-clip below of my conversation on BhTV with Robert Becker, an American who lives in Cairo, taped after the protests had started. I asked him to list the most common Egyptian complaints about America, and here's what he said:

[2] Israel-Palestine. That's the second issue Becker mentions in the video clip, and it is also cited in a recent Atlantic piece by Middle East expert Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. Again, don't expect to hear about this from Romney or Obama. During an election campaign, especially, neither man wants to dwell on the downside of America's essentially unconditional support of Israel even as Israel pursues policies that violate both international law and basic principles of justice, such as the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. But rest assured that the Israeli-American relationship gets plenty of airtime in Muslim, and especially Arab, nations. And, while some of this assumes the form of wild conspiracy theories, the core fact that American support helps sustain highly objectionable Israeli policies is not a figment of anyone's imagination. Neither is the fact that when President Obama did try to get Israel to freeze settlement expansion, he encountered so much blowback in Israel and America that he had to give up.

[3] American troops in Muslim countries. Though American soldiers have left Iraq, they remain in Afghanistan. Noting the downside of this fact doesn't fit into either Obama's or Romney's game plan as they try to out-hawk each other. But, while they stay silent, there are people who are happy to talk about American troops in Afghanistan: Jihadi recruiters. And the reason is that they know this subject strikes a chord among young Muslim men who for various reasons (including local ones such as unemployment) are unhappy campers to begin with. This demographic played an important role in many of the protests last week.

The three grievances I've listed (and there are others) aren't wholly unrelated to that horrible YouTube video. They're interpreted by some Muslims as evidence of American contempt for the Muslim world, and the video was taken as yet more confirmation.

Obviously, the fact that an American policy contributes to anti-Americanism in the Muslim world isn't by itself a decisive argument against the policy. But ever since terrorism became a significant threat to American interests, this consideration has belonged in the policy cost-benefit calculus. All the more so in the wake of the Arab Spring, when the policies of Egypt and some other Muslim countries are more responsive to popular opinion, and anti-American sentiment can therefore translate more directly into anti-American policies.

It's really unfortunate for America that, as it tries to make sense of what just happened, the national conversation is so heavily shaped by the presidential campaign. Obama and Romney are in many ways different, but they do have this in common: If you're trying to honestly grapple with last week's contagion of sometimes violent protests, neither man is worth listening to.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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