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."