The now-infamous trailer for the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims spawned a rash of anti-American protests throughout the world. Those protests, in turn, spawned a deluge of commentary. Amid any number of screeds about “Muslim rage,” a few pieces—such as Steve Inskeep’s recent New York Times op-ed—stand out as particularly thoughtful.
Inskeep writes about the burning of Pakistan’s Nishat cinema, a movie theater opened in 1947 that showed blockbusters from around the world. He describes Nishat as “reflecting Pakistan’s relative openness compared with neighboring Muslim nations” and “symboliz[ing] the country’s resilience.” Although protesters destroyed this landmark on a state-sponsored holiday protesting the American film, the act, Inskeep contends, “wasn’t about American influence or anti-Muslim videos.” Instead,
what the protesters really oppose, though they may not realize it, is the nature of their own country. Pakistan is a cultural crossroads with many languages and religious sects, and the Nishat’s eclectic screenings mirrored the nation. Cultural diversity, like alcohol, quietly persists, but it is being driven underground by intolerant brands of Islam.
Inskeep’s piece, like many others on the subject, revolves around the concept of freedom of expression. But instead of focusing on the mob’s revolt against Americans broadcasting distasteful messages, he focuses on the small group of Pakistanis attacking the country’s long tradition of fighting for free expression. His narrow focus on one particular protest in one particular country allows him to provide historical and cultural context, a feature notably lacking in sweeping commentaries that lump recent demonstrations from Islamabad to Sana to Cairo into an oversimplified, one-size-fits-all mode.
Inskeep may go too far in contending that anti-Americanism played no part in these protests—if nothing else, the video was a spark, and decades of tumultuous U.S.-Pakistani relations have provided plenty of tinder. But he’s correct to note that recent protests, in Pakistan and elsewhere, are about more than a bigoted video, a backlash against American policy or even a simplistic war between religious radicals and secularists. This smart piece illustrates the extent to which the reasons behind the recent violence defy general, monolithic characterizations—and solutions.