"I demand the expulsion of diaspora Copts from Egypt," said a placard held by a young man in jeans and a T-shirt at the U.S. embassy protest here in Cairo yesterday. On a day of absurdity and horror, this offered a bit of comic relief in an otherwise incomprehensible sequence of events.
I keep sighing as I write this.
The story in brief: An idiot makes a really bad film featuring Prophet Mohammed and his contemporaries as a bunch of bloodthirsty idiotic pederasts. According to the film, Muhammad was an illegitimate child, and the Quran was written by his wife's cousin, and current-day Muslims go around slaughtering Christians. And that's just in the 13-minute preview that has been making the rounds on the internet (the authenticity of which has been confirmed). Yes, it's chock-full of all the usual Muslim-hating stereotypes, and then some.
I've watched the preview and it's... sad. Pathetic. I did not feel so much insulted as bewildered, struggling to understand how someone could spend $5 million to produce this piece of technical and acting crap. Actors wore broom-like beards, and carried swords I could swear were Game of Thrones memorabilia. Teenagers with a flipcam and iMovie might do better. (Perhaps the financiers of the film got shafted.)
Normally, a film like this would have remained in the dusty confines of YouTube, where its only views would have come from the accidental search hit, the only comments from trolls. Or from people trying to get others to click on their website to claim all the money a Nigerian prince is giving away.
Unfortunately, it was picked up by an incendiary TV preacher who played segments of the clip on television, escalating the matter into what was yesterday's incomprehensible display of force at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, despite an earlier statement from this very embassy condemning the film.
The film, which was produced by the Israeli-American Sam Bacile, and promoted by notorious wacko Terry Jones (the Quran-burning preacher with the doubtful facial hair) as well as a handful of American-Egyptian Copts such as Maurice Sadek, offers plenty of targets for angry protestors.
Normally an unapproachable fortress, the embassy in Cairo is America's second-largest, exceeded only by the one in Baghdad. Yesterday, as the news of the anti-Mohammed film spread, it was surrounded by two thousand protesters, mostly from extremist and hardline groups, who eventually managed to scale the building, tear down a U.S. flag, and hang an Islamist banner -- one which I discussed previously - in its place. There have also been several condemnations of diaspora Copts, which have exceeded the few people associated to the film to the entirety of the U.S.-Egyptian Coptic community. This is painfully ironic, considering that the patriotism of this community is mostly beyond doubt, and that it has strongly supported the revolution from the very first days, establishing them firmly as a cherished part of the new Egypt.
Is the film insulting? Yeah, sure. But the best reaction would have been to ignore it completely. There is no virtue in displaying lethal outrage (as in Benghazi) whenever anyone throws a feeble punch at Islam and Muslims. Doing so is only a display of weakness, a fear that our religion cannot withstand even the silliest of skits. This idea is insulting in itself. Bring on the insults, I say -- bring on the hatred, the mockery, the piques, the spitballs. The amateur films, the Danish cartoons, the Geert Wilders, and the like. There is little harm than can befall Islam as a faith. It has withstood, over the past fourteen centuries, infinitely worse attacks, yet it has neither weakened nor vanished.
And the response to such hatred ought not to be riots that play right into the Islamophobes' hands, but a strong communications policy, and an invitation for dialogue to all those who wish to. The Baciles and the Terrys will probably decline the offer; but many of their followers will not.
I am outraged. Not really at a mediocre attempt to insult, which is easily brushed off and merits no second thought on my part, but at the protests and at those manipulating simple-minded people to score populist points, ultimately at the expense of their fellow countrymen.
A final note. Anti-Americanism and anti-Christian sentiment were tools often used by the Mubarak regime to divert attention from local crises. As Egypt is in the process of drafting its new constitution, in a highly controversial process dominated by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, one cannot help but wonder whether there are political gains to be made locally from these events. It makes no sense that the protestors had such easy access to the embassy, which is normally guarded by probably more army personnel than the eastern Sinai. But the Muslim Brotherhood is keen on building strong links with the U.S. Earlier this week President Morsi met with a large U.S. business delegation in Cairo. Burning the American flag (on September 11, no less) could easily torpedo those efforts.
So was this a case of a "tolerated" outrage that went too far? Whatever it is, I fear we may not have seen the end of it yet. And those who will suffer include Egyptians, Christians, and Muslims alike.
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.