An awful lot of press attention has been focused on "Innocence of Muslims," the anti-Islamic film at the center of this week's turmoil in the Middle East. In the latest twist in the story, Google, which owns YouTube, has blocked access to the video in both Egypt and Libya.
But there are a couple of good reasons that we probably shouldn't get too consumed by the video itself or the backstory behind its creators. Shadi Hamid provides the first reason:
The anti-Islam film in question was a pretext much more than the cause of yesterday's violence. It could have been anything. Anti-American anger, even in Libya, the most pro-American country in the Arab world, remains palpable, lingering underneath the surface of apparent gratitude. But, that aside, even if the United States did everything on Arabs' wish lists, there would remain a small, influential fringe that would find another reason to hate — or at least dislike and distrust — the United States.
The extremist groups who are behind the kind of violence we saw this week will always be able to find some pretext for their actions, and the exact nature of the pretext is no more important than the exact nature of a lightning strike that starts a forest fire. As long as there's enough dry tinder around, you'll get a fire eventually. Likewise, it's the underlying hatred of the United States that provides the real fuel for anti-American violence in the Middle East, and the reason for that hatred is much more about past and present American policies than it is about some shoddily-produced YouTube video. In that sense, getting hung up on the video just distracts us from the real — and much more difficult — issues at hand.
Robert Wright provides us with the second reason, which is even more compelling: even as a pretext, the video probably wasn't the inspiration for the violence anyway.
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 [in Libya], which seem to have resulted from a long-planned attack by a specific terrorist group, not spontaneous mob violence.
....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."
To recap: In Libya, the video probably had nothing at all to do with the attacks. In Egypt, it was probably little more than a convenient way to add some extra energy to a 9/11 protest that had been planned long before. This had the intended effect, of course, and now the video really is at the center of the ongoing protests. But it's still just a pretext. In and of itself, it's probably not worth all the ink that's been spilled on it.