Dinner and a Movie: Why the Middle East Is Rioting
Within hours of the eruption of violence in Egypt and Libya this week on the anniversary of 9/11, more than a dozen blog posts popped up asking, “Who is Sam Bacile?” It was a natural question to pose: “Sam Bacile” is the pseudonym of the filmmaker behind The Innocence of Muslims, an American-made video whose deliberately insulting depiction of the prophet Mohammed appears, at this point, to have incited anti-U.S. riots in Benghazi, Cairo, Tehran, and Sana’a, Yemen. What’s more, “Bacile” seemed, in those early hours, to have American blood on his hands: on Tuesday night in Libya, four Americans diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed in a melee at the consulate in Benghazi.
But as week has progressed, the situation has clarified a little. It now appears that the lethal attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi was a planned assault by religious extremists armed with rocket-propelled grenades, who used the protests as cover to murder the four Americans. As truly awful as his film is, Sam Bacile appears to be at least something of a patsy. Moreover, that’s not the only way in which the American media and political classes, in their focus on The Innocence of Muslims, have missed the forest for the trees.
In cases of broad social unrest, catalytic incidents are important insofar as they take the measure of people’s passions and attach a vivid narrative—a shot heard ‘round the world—to a mass movement. Last year, the wildfire of the Arab Spring was touched off, by many accounts, when a Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor named Muhammad Bouazizi had his food cart confiscated by government officials and set himself aflame in protest. Individual uprisings in other countries also had their inciting events.