After the noon prayer in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Sept. 14, a copiously bearded speaker delivered a rousing, finger-wagging open-air sermon. Thundering against the incendiary anti-Muslim film trailer that recently appeared on the internet, he warned his brothers to prepare for battle, urging them to take up weapons against incoming "Crusader armies." Soon afterward youths resumed a rock-throwing assault on police protecting the nearby American embassy.
As with past incidents of what many Muslims see as Western attacks against their beliefs, similar scenes unfolded across the Muslim world, producing tragic results. The anger displayed at all these events was certainly real, and widely shared among Muslims.
Yet the television coverage of protests obscured an obvious fact. As in many other protests across the region, the crowd at the fiery Friday sermon in Cairo numbered in the mere hundreds, in a space where throngs a thousand times bigger have become commonplace. In the midst of a city of perhaps 20 million inhabitants, the rest went about their business as usual.
The number of youths who actually picked up rocks barely rose to the dozens. Their anger was aimed as much at the police as against "the West." The street-fighting looked more like a rowdy sporting event, replete with parading to the cameras, than a clash of civilizations.
The news focus on violence and on the shrillest voices of protest shifted attention from other important responses to the offending film. In many Muslim countries the furor has boosted moves to strengthen laws against blasphemy, exactly when such laws had come under unfavorable scrutiny. In Pakistan, for instance, a young Christian woman was belatedly freed from custody when her accuser was found to have planted evidence used to charge her with blasphemy. In Egypt human-rights groups had protested against the imprisonment of several Coptic Christians for allegedly putting blasphemous material on the Internet.
In Egypt the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood now appears to have bowed to pressure from harder-line Salafists to enshrine stern wording against blasphemy in the country’s draft constitution. This would criminalize "insults" directed not only against God and all the prophets of monotheism, from Moses to Muhammad, but also against the wives of Muhammad, the first four caliphs of Islam and the prophet’s companions. In a related move, at least six countries with big Muslim populations have persuaded Google, the owner of YouTube, to block access to the offending footage.
Seeking to show a more measured response than public displays of rage, some governments have proposed counteroffensives to the film. The vastly wealthy Gulf state of Qatar says that it is spending $450 million to sponsor a three-part epic film on the life of Muhammad. The office of Egypt’s Grand Mufti, the highest state religious official, plans to launch an international "Know Muhammad" campaign to correct misinterpretations of him.
Yet the debate also has sharpened criticism of religion’s intrusion into politics. To expose the pitfalls of Egypt’s blasphemy laws, for instance, activists have filed suits against a sheikh who angered Egyptian Christians by publicly burning a bible in response to the anti-Muslim film clip.
Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic leader of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shia party-cum-militia, provoked an angry backlash by staging a giant rally to protest against the film. Critics not only charged him with manipulating the incident to ingratiate himself with Sunni Muslims, among whom Nasrallah’s star has waned with the region-wide rise of sectarian animosity. They called him a hypocrite for condemning America as a shielder of blasphemers while ignoring the offenses to God committed by his ally, Syria’s regime. Its soldiers have destroyed mosques and, by the evidence of YouTube footage, forced prisoners to say, "There is no God but Bashar Assad."
As the noise over the film dies down, the furor also has provoked deeper reflection about the issues of blasphemy and of legal and cultural differences between Muslim countries and the West. The tenor of this more thoughtful response, in newspaper and Internet commentary, has been sharply self-critical.
"We Are All Khaled Said," an Egyptian Facebook page with 2.4 million followers that was instrumental in rallying last year’s revolution, posted a list of 12 truths regarding the allegedly blasphemous footage, such as the fact that before the protests erupted barely 500 people had watched it, a number that apparently rose to 30 million a week later.
Writing in the London-based daily al-Quds al-Arabi, Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury was less circumspect. The "film," he said, was in fact only a trailer. It is "us," the Arabs, who are the spectacle.
Khoury ended by quoting al-Mutanabbi, a medieval poet who ridiculed religious excess with a gibe against men of his time who, in supposed imitation of the prophet, sported full beards with bare upper lips: "Is it the point of faith to shave your mustaches/ O people whose ignorance is the laughing stock of nations?"