The wave of anti-American protests set off by the film The Innocence of Muslims has occasioned an explosion of politicking, soul-searching, and speculation across the media spectrum here in the U.S. and among our allies abroad. Amidst alarm intensified by the genuinely horrific murder of America's ambassador to Libya and three of his colleagues, the polemics and rhetoric generated by these events have been white hot and wildly divergent, suggesting a discourse made incoherent by hysteria. Dire predictions of an ensuing clash of civilizations abound, pundits decry a U.S. foreign policy "in shambles." In their rush to pronounce definitively upon a fluid and sensational situation as it unfolds, few observers seem willing to pause long enough to consider what the long-term historical implications of this moment might be.
To anyone paying attention to this crisis, it should be clear that it is not a spontaneous paroxysm of conflict between the Muslim world and "the West." Innocence of Muslims (or at least the 14-minute "trailer" for this supposed movie that has been available on the internet) is a transparently childish provocation. It is an insult so vapid and generic that any number like it could be unearthed from the fringes of American media culture at any time, and it persisted in total obscurity for months before interested parties in the Arab world waged a campaign to incite outrage corresponding neatly with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Though the resulting protests have generated real violence and vivid imagery, they have engaged a narrow band of the citizenry of the Muslim world. In Cairo, a city of 6.7 million people, the protests at the U.S. embassy have drawn about 2,000 individuals. That is a potentially dangerous mob, but it hardly reflects the consensual state of public sentiment.
If one realizes that this is not a "spontaneous" cultural reflex, but the very deliberate mobilization of social groups in promotion of particular political interests, many of the more feverish assessments of the foreign policy implications of these events are shown false. The idea that these protests are a response to "American weakness" is absurd. If this crisis were a visceral response to perceived American weakness, it would not have required such cynical and contrived fabrication. Likewise, the notion that these events stand as an indictment of the Arab Spring or of the wisdom of America's support for democracy movements does not stand the test of logic. The fact that regimes like the Mubarak government could forestall this type of unrest through brutal oppression did not make the world a safer place or further U.S. interests, and as events like the Danish cartoon crisis demonstrated, repressive secular regimes were not above stoking Islamist aggression when it suited their interests.
If we can get beyond the pulling of hair and rending of clothes, what can or should be done? We cannot imagine that these attacks are innocuous or harmless. The death of Ambassador Stevens in Libya is both a tragic loss and a grievous insult to the United States. The destruction of the American Cooperative School in Tunisia is a senselessly nihilistic blow to the fabric of international civil society. The response to such crimes must be resolute and vigorous. But we should remain aware throughout that these attacks are more focused on the internal power dynamics of the nations in which they occur than on the international geostrategic order of which the U.S. is a part. Those who destroyed the American Cooperative School did not do so to weaken America, but to make life more difficult for Western diplomatic personnel (whose children principally constituted the school's pupils), in hopes that the nations they represent will politically and economically disengage from Tunisia. Such an outcome, if it came about, would weaken the forces in Tunisian society that thrive on cosmopolitanism, and strengthen the hand of those who would usher in parochial theocracy. Corresponding motives underlie the "protest" movements in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and the other Muslim nations that have experienced unrest.
In light of this fact, the most important step the U.S. and its allies must take is to refrain from panic. America must match the Islamists' resolve to disrupt communication and trade with a countervailing resolve to remain engaged in Muslim nations, even in the face of hostility and violence. The perpetrators of these attacks will only truly represent the Muslim world if countries like the U.S. abandon the field of interaction and debate, leaving those in Egypt, Libya, and other Muslim societies who support openness and exchange isolated and vulnerable. We cannot force our values onto other nations, but neither can we completely desert our potential roles as interlocutor, partner, or ally in the diverse communities of the Muslim world.
We should take heart in the apparent weakness of the forces challenging our resolve. Like the Nazis and the communists of the 20th century, today's Islamists are using techniques of mass mobilization and mob violence to expand their influence during a period of weakening state power. Those former groups, however, did not make targeting foreign embassies a central strategic method of their program for political ascendancy. The fact that today's Islamists evince the need to isolate their societies internationally is not a sign of strength, but of fundamental insecurity.