The riots erupting across the Arab world over the hate-filled video Innocence of Muslims have taken many people, including those responsible for security at U.S. embassies, by surprise. After all, Barack Obama's administration has assiduously been working to improve America's ties and standing with Muslim societies, from the president's speeches in Ankara and Cairo in 2009 to the policies supporting emerging democratic movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and other Arab states. Furthermore, the current anger in the streets of Cairo and Tunis is over a film the U.S. government had no hand in creating or promoting, and it would therefore be logical to assume that once enough steam is let off and the protests run their course, everything will go back to the status quo that existed before this week.
Unfortunately, that's probably not true. It's far more likely that the events of this week mark the beginning of a period in which violent protests against the United States in Arab countries will become more commonplace. Three reasons stand out.
First, there is a fundamental disagreement between what the United States views as a basic right and what many Muslims living in Arab states view as a basic right. Where Americans prioritize freedom of speech as a value to be cherished and upheld no matter the circumstance, the Arab world sees sanctity of religion as a value that cannot be violated in any instance. While this is not new, the explosion in communications technology and the resulting dissemination of information, no matter how obscure or trivial, pushes this divergence of worldviews to the forefront.
Five years ago, nobody in the United States, let alone in Egypt or Libya, would have heard of "Sam Bacile," and not more than a handful of people would have seen any part of the infamous film. Now, however, anyone with a laptop can create an abhorrent masterpiece and ensure that it is viewed by millions of people the world over. The entire planet has become, in the words of Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer, a "crowded theater" on the brink of stampede.
This means that episodes like the current one are guaranteed to happen over and over again as Muslims are exposed to the pathology of hatred that consumes a fringe of Americans and take offense. Florida preacher Terry Jones and "Sam Bacile," a.k.a. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, are the worst types of ethnic violence entrepreneurs, and Arab Muslims are going to be increasingly angry at what they see as infinite affronts to their sacred values and rights while the United States does nothing to curtail the rights of its citizens to express their views, no matter how odious they might be.
Second, while the Obama administration has desperately tried to be on the right side of history when it comes to the Arab Spring, years of American support for Arab dictators has left the United States with zero credibility. Decades of U.S. missteps in the region cannot be undone in the span of a couple of years, particularly when Arab countries like Egypt feel that the United States has nakedly used them to further American ambitions and interests. On top of the myriad of historical resentments, the United States is viewed with deep suspicion for supporting democratic movements in some places, such as Libya and Tunisia, but propping up the government in others, like in Bahrain. This places the United States in a completely lose-lose situation, where it jeopardizes long-term strategic assumptions and relationships in places like Egypt as it sides with protesters and parties calling for democracy yet gets no credit for it from publics that view the United States as hypocritical -- or worse, as an enemy.
Even more than other states given its global status, the United States often has to make difficult decisions when its interests and values clash, but Arab societies are either unwilling or unready to cut Washington any slack or grant any leeway -- making it all the more difficult to respond to incidents like the Innocence of Muslims conflagration. Against a backdrop of massively unpopular decisions, Arabs unfamiliar with the United States just assume that this is yet another instance in which America is choosing not to take action and prosecute the filmmakers, when in reality that option is simply not available in a country where free speech is absolute.
Finally, the emergence of nascent democratic politics in Arab Spring states has thrown a newly added complication into the mix. Newly elected governments need to remain popular to appeal for votes and remain in office, and the easiest way to do this is to step aside and let popular demonstrations against the Untied States proceed unabated. In some cases, governments will actually encourage the rioters. The Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt did exactly that, as President Mohamed Morsy was faced with calls to stand up to the United States over the fate of the film's creators; it took an angry phone call from President Obama for him to change course. In addition, the presence of elected governments in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia means that protester are no longer focused on U.S. support for authoritarians, but on the perceived threat from American values that allow things like mockery of the Prophet. This makes incidents such as the current one even more likely to break out, as offensive material is both ubiquitous and a permanent feature of American culture.
While the anger triggered by Innocence of Muslims is sure to abate at some point in the near future, the riots taking place are not blips on the radar screen. American diplomats won't be breathing a sigh of relief anytime soon.