That, I think it’s fair to say, was the first reaction most Americans had to the news that a film insulting the Prophet Mohammad had set off mobs in Egypt and Libya, resulting in attacks on American embassies and the murder of an American ambassador. Apparently, the story is this. A couple of Americans have posted a film on YouTube, the oddly-named “The Innocence of Muslims,” that ridicules the Prophet and the founding of Islam, and also portrays the suffering of Coptic Christians in contemporary Egypt. It’s unlikely the “film” — it’s really more a poorly-done video — would have been seen by more than a handful of internet trawlers, had not Terry Jones, the Florida pastor last known for threatening to burn a Quran, promoted it. Word spread through the Middle East – who knew Jones had a following there? – and, eventually, as one thing led to another, Islamist mobs saw a chance to stoke resentment against the US. And now we see the results.
There will be time to reflect on all of this, but two things seem immediately clear. First, there’s going to be more violence before this episode ends. Some of that violence will be directed against American interests, but most will be directed against the Middle East’s own Christians, particularly Egypt’s long-suffering Copts. Local governments will do relatively little to protect these Christians, and the international human rights community will remain largely silent as well. (Hopefully, the US is getting ready to grant a wave of asylum applications from Coptic refugees, but you never know). In Syria, Assad’s support among Christians will only solidify. Syrian Christians really need no reminder of what is likely to happen to them if the Ba’ath regime falls, but yesterday’s events do underscore things.
Second, whatever happens in this crisis, similar crises are bound to occur in future. As long as America continues to respect the First Amendment, people will continue to make and show films like “The Innocence of Muslims.” In a YouTube age, in which anyone with a video camera and a computer can beam films around the globe for very little money, it will be virtually impossible to restrain them — even assuming it would be legal, which it would not be, to attempt to do so. And, as long as the religious sensibilities of the West and the Muslim world continue to diverge so radically — as long as videos most Americans would dismiss as obscure junk continue to be bloody provocations in the Muslim world — clashes like yesterday’s seem sadly inevitable.