SENSibility: Who Benefits from Violent Protests over an Insulting Movie?

Vancouver, September 16 2012. Make no mistake, the Innocence of the Muslims is a sad moment in cinematic history (if the trailer is at all representative). Aside from appallingly bad production values and what appears to be a deliberate deception inflicted on its cast and crew, the film is clearly a clumsy work of propaganda and anti-Islamic hatred.

While the insulting nature of the Innocence of the Muslims cannot be disputed, there is far more to the widespread violent protests attributed to the film’s contents than outrage over the violation of Muslim beliefs. Without a dedicated effort to ensure maximum exposure of the trailer to Muslim audiences, as well as a possible manipulation of its soundtrack to magnify its insulting character, the trailer and possibly the film might have passed through the global ether largely unnoticed.

Instead, the trailer now the centerpiece of a series of anti-US protests in many countries. In circumstances such as these, it is always valuable to ask the question “who benefits?” It is clear that the protests serve a useful domestic purpose for their extremist choreographers.

Protests against the US, whatever the form they may take, provide a social reminder for Muslim societies of the continued existence of the American enemy. Extremist movements stand to garner increased popular support and sympathy for their world view from heightened anti-US sentiment in their own societies. The trailer has been an opportunity to reintroduce the Great Satan into the domestic politics of Muslim countries.

Stung by their marginalization in the Arab Spring protests, extremist factions have channeled religious outrage over a movie trailer into protests that serve to enhance their own political position in what is a delicate period in their own countries. Flexing their muscle in the street provides one kind of political leverage. Another comes in the form of compelling others to take sides, especially those in government. The protests attacking US diplomatic facilities and staff ask a simple question of governments: are you with us or the Americans? Government leaders have to find a balance between expressing outrage over the film and not compromising their relationship with America. For an illustration of how hard this can be, witness the backflips executed by the leaders of Egypt.

By attacking tangible symbols of the American presence in their countries, and violating the political sanctity of embassies and the security of embassy personnel, the protest choreography also engages America. The Obama administration understandably wants to see governments condemn the violence and punish those responsible. But in so doing, America might exert exactly the kind of pressure that will provide more ammunition to extremist groups. If the protests serve to alienate America from engagement in the region, or cause the US government to drop its support for their nominal allies, so much the better. Either eventuality can be turned to advantage by extremist groups.

In one sense, the protest choreography cannot fail to have some positive result for extremist factions: the plot can only succeed to varying degrees. Not a bad return on a what was once an obscure, low budget piece of hate cinema which, ironically, may have ultimately had its twisted desires served to some degree as well.

Allen Sens is a Political Science professor at UBC.

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