The violent backlash against the American film is taking place in Muslim societies, but it doesn't seem to correlate with Islam's reach.
Red indicates violent protests over the film, yellow indicates non-violent protests. Click to enlarge. (Wikimedia/Atlantic)
Protests against the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims have erupted in cities from Morocco to Somalia and Pakistan to Indonesia, an agglomeration of otherwise disparate societies that we sometimes refer to as "the Muslim world." That phrase appears today in headlines at, for example, CBS News, the U.K. Telegraph, Radio Free Europe, and many others. A very handy interactive map of the protests so far, produced by The Atlantic Wire's John Hudson, shows just how widely the protests have spread across the diverse Muslim societies of the world.
But, looking into the severity and frequency of the protests, their occurrence doesn't seem to correlate as directly with the presence of Muslims as the phrase "protests erupt across the Muslim world" might lead you to believe. Even if that's generally true, we might learn a bit more by looking also at who is protesting violently and who isn't.
In a map above, I've charted the violent protests in red and the protests that did not produce violence in yellow. It's an imperfect distinction; I've counted the stone-throwers in Jerusalem as a violent protest but the flag-burners in Lahore as non-violent. But it gives you a somewhat more nuanced view into who is expressing anger and how they're doing it than to just say that the "Muslim world" is protesting. To help show what "Muslim world" means, I've used a map (via Wikimedia) that shows countries by their share of the world Muslim population. The darker blue a country, the more Muslim individuals live there.
The first thing that may catch your eye is that the violent protests appear clustered in the Arab Middle East and North Africa, and specifically in the countries that have endured significant political violence over the last year or so. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen have been by far the most effected by the uprisings of the Arab Spring. That's excepting Syria, of course, where citizens today presumably have more pressing matters on their minds and are not protesting. Sudan has also endured violent protests and crackdowns recently, and Israel's Palestinian protests have been sporadically ongoing for some time. An outlier here is Lebanon, where protesters today set a KFC on fire, and which has not endured the effects of the Arab Spring, although there has been some violence between partisans of the conflict in neighboring Syria.
The second thing you might notice is how sparse the protests have been in the three countries with the largest Muslim populations in the world: Indonesia, Pakistan, and India. Those three have Muslim populations way above 150 million each, compared to six million in Libya and 10 million in Tunisia, and yet have seen no violence and far fewer protests. India and Indonesia have so far had one protest each, both small; Pakistan has had several, some quite angry, but it's worth noting that such anti-American protests are not uncommon. The world's billion-plus Muslim individuals do not appear uniformly offended, or at least uniformly motivated to act on that offense. That might sound obvious, but the wide difference in protests are a reminder of just how differently people are reacting across the very large and diverse "Muslim world." If 200 of Indonesia's 200 million Muslims stage a protest, and several thousand of Tunisia's 10 million Muslims not only protest but storm embassies and burned an American school, does that say more about the Muslim reaction to the film or the Tunisian?
And, of course, there are the vast areas of the Muslim world that do not appear to be protesting at all. Those include most of sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, as well as Turkey, Russia, China, and the U.S., all of which have significant Muslim populations. There are probably disparate factors that might explain the lack of protests in those regions and countries: Muslims in China are perhaps a bit too cut off from the rest of the world, for example, and Muslims in America tend to be politically content. But the fact that these enormous populations -- 76 million Muslims in Nigeria, 75 million in Turkey, 29 million in Ethiopia, and so on -- across dozens of countries are not protesting shows the extent to which violent protests are the exceptions rather than the norm.
That's not to discount the importance of the protests, of course, nor the obvious significance of so many angry Muslims marching against the film (and, often, against the United States) simultaneously across so many different parts of the world. But it's worth considering the extent to which the anger behind today's events is a phenomenon specific to certain countries and regions rather than to the "Muslim world" in its broad, complicated entirety.
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.