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  • How is it that groups of angry Muslims are demonstrating, rioting and attacking symbols of America across the Middle East over an obscure, mostly nonexistent film that almost nobody, including them, had seen?

    Perhaps this pathetic abortion of a film succeeded in doing exactly what it set out to accomplish without showing in a single cinema or selling a single DVD.

    The furtive producer and director, now identified as Egyptian Christians living in the US, surely knew enough about Islam to understand what buttons to push to create waves of angry reactions from Muslim believers. Talk is going around that they wanted to incite Muslims to go after Christian Arabs – their own people – to put the new Egyptian government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood in a bind and get the US to take action against it. Possible, but seems a bit of a stretch.

    Did the filmmakers also seek to ignite a backlash against Jews? Their cover story, after all, was that the producer was a Jewish-American real estate developer, and that a hundred wealthy Jews had bankrolled the project, all of which turns out to be false. In playing that line, maybe they thought that Jews would applaud any effort to cast Islam in a bad light.

    Almost none of the people protesting in the streets have seen the clip on YouTube, apparently, and are talking as if the film is US propaganda, which is completely ludicrous. Some of them want the US government to crack down on the producers, failing to understand the how freedom of speech works in America. Or perhaps they understand it all too well.

    While the First Amendment trumps any anti-hate-speech law, the Supreme Court has found that freedom of speech is not unlimited. It has ruled that one can't say things in public that cause panic and destruction, nor advocate for the overthrow of the government. Apparently it's OK to advocate overthrowing someone else's government, though, which the US government itself has done on many occasions (think of the build-up in the UN to the invasion of Iraq in 2003). And of course our politicians exercise their RoFS to panic voters and destroy groups they despise (eg., gays, undocumented workers, Planned Parenthood, public sector unions ...). Corporations use theirs to dole out campaign contributions and issue propaganda through front groups that criticizes anything that government does that interferes with their profit margins.

    If you stalk someone on the Internet and threaten to maim or kill him or her, you can be arrested. If you threaten a religion or a culture on the Net or in the media, are you breaking no law? In any event, nasty threats of political violence are issued continually on the Internet, but very few prosecutions ensue from such provocations.

    It seems that pretty much anything goes when Americans express their opinions, but vile political threats tend to be tolerated more than vile personal threats. So nobody should be surprised when blowback from extreme speech comes home. That speech might be legal but are the speakers prepared to bear its consequences?

    And speaking of blowback, after decades of meddling in majority-Muslim nations, the US does not have a great deal of street cred in their precincts. If you put together our tolerance of vile, provocative rhetoric and high-handed applications of American power, it's no surprise that after a while things are almost guaranteed to flare up.

    So let's not be surprised when people riot in North Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East in reaction to a film that offends their core faith. Remember that in Pakistan, blasphemy is a capital crime. You might think that's primitive, but hey, guess which country executes the most prisoners year after year and still has the highest murder rate?

    What is surprising is that so few of us seem to learn how to regard ourselves from others' points of view. Even though 9/11 made folks aware that not everybody loves the good old USA, to this day few Americans have ever bothered to contemplate how people on the receiving end of American media, lifestyles, influence and power might be a tad resentful after America tells them "Sorry, but there's nothing we can do about it. See, we have free speech."

    Maybe someday we'll become less provincial. But until then, try to understand others better, please.

    @image: A cross and a crescent are painted on the palm of an Egyptian demonstrator holding the hand of a fellow protester during a rally in support of national unity in Cairo's Tahrir Square on October 14, 2011, days after 26 people, mostly Coptic Christians, were killed in weekend clashes with Egyptian security forces. (AFP Photo / Mohammed Hossam)
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