Americans trying to make sense of the wave of violent protests against U.S. diplomatic stations that have swept across the Muslim world in the past week are unlikely to find a singular explanation. The American-made film that debases the Prophet Muhammad and the Islamic religion clearly proved to be a ready ignition source: As many critics note, it's akin to shouting "fire" in a crowded theater. But angry Islamists were stoked for trouble well before the degrading, low-budget film, "Innocence of Muslims" -- and more specifically, the trailer on YouTube --provided focus for the latest tinderbox reaction.
Religious and cultural misunderstandings are partial answers. Muslims in a score of countries from Africa to the Middle East to Southeast Asia generally are unaware of, or don't understand, the basic rule of freedom of personal speech that prevents the U.S government, and governments in many other western countries, from imposing harsh strictures on citizens' free-speech rights. In most Muslim-ruled countries, citizens don't enjoy such rights. Their individual liberties are curtailed or denied by strict or tyrannical governments, and offenses bring punishment.
Control of government aside, many mainstream Islamists adhere to larger social and religious tenets that restrain ridicule of different religions outside their own country. They would not feel at liberty to debase another religion elsewhere, so they don't understand why debasement of their religion is allowed by western countries.
Mainstream governments in many Islamic governments, to be sure, allow plenty of street antagonism and suppression of minority religions. Yet however hypocritical, observant Muslims still find it alarming that the United States and other western countries don't appear to honor or protect Muslims' group values in behalf of their religion. And that plays into their group defense of the Muslim religion, which in their view is a higher calling than defense of individual liberties.
There's also more than a decade of poisonous U.S. history in American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and perceived meddling and interference other Muslim countries from Yemen to the Arab Emirates to Pakistan and beyond. Muslims readily cite the dismal abuse of Muslims in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, U.S. soldiers' debasement of Muslim corpses in Afghanistan, denigration and burning of the Koran, drone strikes in several Muslim countries that kill innocents of all ages, and mistreatment of Muslims in Guantanamo Bay.
Other factors cited by Muslim observers as fodder for the protests include frustration on the street with the failure of the Arab Spring movement to bestow democratic reform after the fail of tyrannies; and incitement by rebels, terrorists and al Qaida to stir protests among disgruntled, disillusioned reform advocates. Libyan officials report evidence of the latter in the attack last week in Benghazi that killed four Americans.
President Obama's quick response to shore up military defense of embassy and consular offices and to secure support from host governments appears to be quelling the violent protests. But securing immediate safety is not a remedy for anti-American attacks. The larger problem is how to enhance tolerance and mutual respect for others' religious beliefs, both through foreign policy and at home.