Yes, the Mideast Protests Really Were About the Movie, Not U.S. Foreign Policy

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The cultural gulf between the Western and broader Muslim worlds goes beyond American policy, even if that can sometimes contribute.

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Hardee's and a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food outlet burn in Tripoli, northern Lebanon (Reuters).

The Innocence of Muslims, which depicts the Prophet Mohammed calling for the rape of enslaved women and the pillage of war booty, was followed by burning the American flag, ransacking American and other Western diplomatic facilities, and the killing of diplomats. All this happened in a span of the past week, yet no one saw it coming.

In the midst of chaos, analysts and other observers try to make sense of these unfortunate events and find deeper meanings for them. The death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, a great man by all measures, has skewed the assessment of the now week-long protests in the Middle East and broader Muslim world.

The central question, which has vexed the policy community since the start of the protests and is: What are they really about? Is this really just about the movie?

The answer is, no, but it is not about politics either. The protests are about culture and religion. The fact that a cheap and insulting movie motivated protests is the result of friction between two different worlds with vast cultural cleavages. This runs counter to the new conventional wisdom, which suggests that these demonstrations are a release, a pressure-valve exploding, due to wide discontent with U.S. foreign policy over many decades.

It is important to note that this is not the first time in recent history that Muslim communities from all over the globe have responded angrily to an insult directed toward the Prophet. In 2005-2006, Denmark was the target of worldwide protests and boycott movements when a Danish cartoonist drew and published a caricature of the Prophet deemed highly offensive. It is safe to say that Denmark is not viewed as an imperialist nation with vast interests in the Middle East, unwavering support towards Israel, or global expansionist militaristic expeditions. Yet, the fury toward Denmark and its respect for freedom of speech, even when that speech insults one or more faiths, was unprecedented.

The recent protests highlight the cultural divides between the West and the Middle East. Each side holds certain ideals sacred. In Egypt, nothing is holier than the Prophet, and desecrating his memory is unequivocal blasphemy to all Muslims. Meanwhile, in the West, freedom of speech remains an intrinsic right upheld for all, even those who peddle offensive ideas. The arrest of Alber Saber, 27, on the charge of atheism and for posting the trailer of The Innocence of Muslims on his personal Facebook page, is further proof and an example of the domestic repercussions of the cultural clash between the sanctity of religion and freedom of speech.

The uproar of the past week is a direct consequence of the Salafi satellite television station "Al-Nas" ("The People"), a religious network that publicized the existence of The Innocence of Muslims. For the believers of a faith that prohibits painting or reenacting its Prophet, let alone portraying him in a demeaning manner, the emotional reaction should have been expected, based on religious and cultural parameters, not political ones.

It is highly likely that the religious and political leaders who incited the protests solicited the emotions of keen defenders of Islam with other agendas in mind; however, had the movie not struck a cultural-religious nerve with the masses, such leaders would not have had troops to call upon.

At many points we fail to understand the real causes behind the problems at hand, because even though we might be highly informed about current events, we tend to analyze the situation by applying the same lens, regardless of where these events take place. The history of vilifying "the other" is part of the eastern-western narrative, which also must be considered when reading through such analyses.  However, this was a skirmish in a battle that has only a mild relation to Western values, freedom of speech, and the acceptance of different opinions.

This article also appears at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Ramy Yaacoub, the former chief of staff of the Free Egyptians Party, is a graduate student in international service at American University.

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