The Muslim Protests: Two Myths Down, Three to Go

Here is the narrative that pretty much everyone was buying into 36 hours ago: Crude anti-Islam film made by Israeli-American and funded by Jews leads to Muslim protests that boil over, causing four American deaths in Libya.

Here is what now seems to be the case: the anti-Islam film wasn't made by an Israeli-American, wasn't funded by Jews, and probably had nothing to do with the American deaths, which seem to have resulted from a long-planned attack by a specific terrorist group, not spontaneous mob violence.

In retrospect, the original narrative should have aroused immediate suspicion. If, for example, this lethal attack on an American consulate in a Muslim country was really spontaneous, isn't it quite a coincidence that it happened on 9/11?

And as for the funding of the film: The filmmaker was said to be describing himself as Israeli-American and volunteering the fact that "100 Jewish donors" financed his project. Well, 1) 100 is a suspiciously round number; and 2) If you were this "Israeli-American," would you be advertising that this incendiary film was a wholly Jewish enterprise? (Kudos to two excellent reporters: Sarah Posner, who seems to have been the first to raise substantive doubts about the filmmaker's identity, and Laura Rozen, who seems to have been the first to suggest that he was "linked to [the] Coptic [Christian] diaspora"--a suggestion that so far is holding up.)

Maybe one reason these questions weren't asked is because the original narrative fit so nicely into some common stereotypes--about crazy Muslims who get whipped into a death frenzy at the drop of a hat, about the backstage machinations of Jews, and about the natural tension between Muslims and Jews. (How many Americans had ever heard about intra-Egyptian tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians, which may well have been the impetus for this film? How many had even heard of Coptic Christians?)

I bring all this up partly by way of warning that, though some early misconceptions have now been stripped away, we should be careful, as events unfold in the coming days, about letting simplistic mental templates continue to shape the story.

For example, it looks from afar as if ongoing demonstrations and disturbances are all about this film, and as if they're therefore a reminder of how touchy those darn Muslims are. Well, it's true that many Muslims in not-very-cosmopolitan, not-very-diverse, and historically authoritarian countries don't yet share our commitment to free speech and pluralism, and react accordingly to offensive films. But it's also true that these disturbances are about a lot more than this film. A number of grievances are at work, including, as Issandr El Amrani notes, various aspects of American foreign policy. (As either I or my wife can tell you, the issue that sparks an argument and is ostensibly its subject isn't always what the argument is really about.)

Similarly, when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, seems insufficiently concerned about the security of the American Embassy in Cairo--and when the Muslim Brotherhood itself supports (peaceful) demonstrations against the film--it may be tempting to see this as confirming fears about what happens when Islamists take over a country.

In truth, the behavior of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are less an expression of Islamism than a response to domestic political forces. Morsi and the Brotherhood are trying to fend off a political threat from Salafis who are true extremists; believe it or not, agitating against this movie is a way for them to increase the chances that radical Islamism will fail in Egypt--much as Republicans or Democrats may move toward the other party during the general election campaign in order to defeat it.

So by my count that's four misconceptions--two of them already debunked (about the provenance of the film and its consequences), and two of them still prevalent (about Morsi's motivations and the protestors' motivations).

And there may be one more misconception: the idea that the Egyptian protests were originally spontaneous. El Amrani reports that "the initial Egyptian protests were in good part due to a call by a small Salafi group... and timed for the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks."

The "crazy, touchy Muslims" meme has the virtue of convenience--it saves you the trouble of having to think about this carefully, because it seems to be a grand unifying theory, satisfyingly simple and powerful. But as Einstein, who like any good scientist loved theoretical simplicity, said: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

[Note: Whether Einstein said exactly that is not known, but he definitely articulated a more long-winded version of it: "[T]he supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience." I'm sticking with the shorter version.]

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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