Ross Douthat / It's not about the video

Ask Salman Rushdie: It's all about who wields power

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The greatest mistake to be made right now, with our embassies under assault and crowds chanting anti-American slogans across North Africa and the Middle East, is to believe that what's happening is a completely genuine popular backlash against a blasphemous anti-Islamic video made right here in the USA.

There is a cringing way to make this mistake, embodied by the apologetic press release that issued from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo last Tuesday as the protests outside gathered steam, by the Obama White House's decision to lean on YouTube to take the offending video down and by the various voices (including, heaven help us, a tenured Ivy League professor) suggesting that the video's promoters be arrested for abusing their First Amendment liberties.

But there's also a condescending way to make the same error, which is to stand up boldly for free speech while treating the mob violence as an expression of foaming-at-the-mouth unreason, with no more connection to practical politics than a buffalo stampede or a summer storm.

There is certainly unreason at work in the streets of Cairo and Benghazi, but something much more calculated is happening as well. The mobs don't exist because of an offensive movie, and a U.S. ambassador isn't dead because what appears to be a group of Coptic Christians in California decided to use their meager talents to disparage the Prophet Muhammad.

What we are witnessing, instead, is mostly an exercise in old-fashioned power politics, with a stone-dumb video as a pretext for violence that would have been unleashed on some other excuse.

This has happened many times before, and Westerners should be used to it by now. Anyone in need of a refresher course should consult Salman Rushdie's memoir, coming out this week and excerpted in the latest New Yorker, which offers a harrowing account of what it felt like to live under an ayatollah's death threat and watch as other people suffered at the hands of mobs chanting for his head.

What Mr. Rushdie understands, and what we should understand as well, is that the crucial issue wasn't actually how the novelist had treated Islam's prophet in the pages of "The Satanic Verses." The real issue was the desire of Iran's leaders to keep the flame of their revolution burning after the debacle of the Iran-Iraq War, the desire of Pakistan's Islamists to test the religious bona fides of their country's prime minister and the desire of religious extremists in Britain to cast themselves as spokesmen for the Muslim community as a whole. (In this, some of them succeeded: Mr. Rushdie dryly notes that an activist who declared of the novelist that "death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him" would eventually be knighted "at the recommendation of the Blair government for his services to community relations.")

Today's wave of violence, likewise, owes much more to a bloody-minded realpolitik than to the madness of crowds. As The Washington Post's David Ignatius was among the first to point out, both the Egyptian and Libyan assaults look like premeditated challenges to those countries' ruling parties by more extreme Islamist factions: Salafist parties in Egypt and pro-al-Qaida groups in Libya. (The fact that both attacks were timed to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks should have been the first clue that this was something other than a spontaneous reaction to an offensive video.)

The choice of U.S. targets wasn't incidental, obviously. The embassy and consulate attacks were "about us" in the sense that anti-Americanism remains a potent rallying point for popular discontent in the Islamic world. But they weren't about America's tolerance for offensive, anti-religious speech. Once again, that was the pretext, but not the actual cause.

Just as it was largely pointless, then, for the politicians of 1989 to behave as if an apology from Mr. Rushdie might make the protests subside ("It's felt," he recalls his handlers telling him, "that you should do something to lower the temperature"), it's similarly pointless to behave as if a more restrictive YouTube policy or a more timely phone call from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the anti-Islam film's promoters might have saved us from an autumn of unrest.

What we're watching unfold in the post-Arab Spring Mideast is the kind of struggle for power that frequently takes place in a revolution's wake: between secular and fundamentalist forces in Benghazi, between the Muslim Brotherhood and its more-Islamist-than-thou rivals in Cairo, with similar forces contending for mastery from Tunisia to Yemen to the Muslim diaspora in Europe.

Navigating this landscape will require less naivete than the Obama White House has displayed to date, and more finesse than a potential Romney administration seems to promise. But at the very least, it requires an accurate understanding of the roots of the crisis, and a recognition that policing speech won't make our problems go away.

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Ross Douthat is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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