The United States should never again condemn videos such as Innocence of Muslims. Official statements from President Obama and Secretary Clinton gave the video undue importance. As a result, the apologies were not received by protesters in Pakistan as condemnation of the video but were viewed as the U.S. government taking responsibility. The administration must understand the anatomy of violent protests such as those in Pakistan before it designs a strategy for dealing with them.
I joined one of the protests against the video in Lahore to explore the mindset of those who turned out to protest on what was a holiday designated by the Pakistani government to celebrate the love and respect for the Prophet Muhammad. To my surprise—and something that the pictures of the protest also reveal—at least 80 percent of the protesters seemed to be students, even as young as six years old, with very little clue of why they were a part of the protest. Most of these students were enrolled at nearby madrassas and were brought to the protest by their qaari sahab (teacher of the Koran).
The rest of the 20 percent appeared to be religious party workers and ulemas who were there for ideological reasons. In this sense, the protest was homogenous and could easily be confused as a religious gathering of specific sects rather than a national-level protest by Pakistanis against the video. Hence, it is more appropriate to call it a protest by Islamists in Pakistan than a protest by Pakistanis in general.
The merchants, traders and working class of Pakistan were neither a part of nor wholeheartedly supported the protest, largely because everyone is aware that such protests in Pakistan lead to serious economic losses for traders, shopkeepers and businesses. Individuals from state-run or private school systems, as well as white- or blue collar-workers, were noticeably absent at the protest. Even lawyers, who became part of the protests in Islamabad, were mostly activists of one or the other Islamist party.
I was able to hold casual conversations with over forty people at the protest site. Most of them showed little or no awareness about the reason for the protest. One of the protesters, a student, mentioned, "I'm here because the U.S. government is against Islam, and we should kick them out of Pakistan."
Another person, who was employed as a junior teacher in a madrassa, explained that he was there because "the Christians and the Jews ridicule our Prophet." He did not seem to know much about the video or its content.
Those who did know about the video claimed that the United States makes such movies to insult their prophet and hurt Muslim sentiments. When I inquired who they refer to when they blame the United States, one of the religious scholars made it very clear: "It is the U.S. government that controls everything and it is responsible for the video."
While some level of ignorance led people to the streets, it was not the driving force behind the protests in Pakistan.
After talking to a few people in Lahore, it became evident that the protest had nothing to do with the video. In fact, it was an attempt by individuals camouflaged under the name of protest to mobilize people to break into the U.S. consulate, which they hoped would create an international catastrophe and damage U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Rather than denouncing the video, the protest became dominated by anti-American sentiments and desperate slogans to break into the U.S. consulate compound. Thus, the protest against the video was only a cover used by the Islamists in Pakistan to achieve their long-term goal of mobilizing Muslims in Pakistan against the United States.
These Islamists continue their efforts despite the fact that Pakistani Muslims historically have rejected an anti-American approach. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center gave the Islamists a chance to make their case, but the Musharraf government sided with the U.S. government, leaving the Islamists disgruntled and disappointed. Later the Danish cartoon controversy and Osama bin Laden capture represented failures of Islamists to mobilize the wider population of Pakistan against the United States.
The protest against Innocence of Muslims was a failed attempt by Islamists to break into a U.S. embassy and perhaps kill people inside. The real motivation of the protest was not out of love of the Prophet. It was driven by a belief that violent action against the U.S. embassy or consulates would trigger Washington to come down hard on Pakistan, particularly given the already weak relationship between the two countries. If the protest were successful, Pakistanis, who are not really anti-American, would be forced to stand together against the United States, fulfilling the grand design of these Islamists to wage war against the West.
One must give Pakistani police a standing ovation for their success in protecting the U.S. embassy. The government of Pakistan, however, should have set a precedent by coming out against a few thousand protesters who have little or no base of support in Pakistan—rather than bowing down to their demands and giving a day off for protest.
Such protests are meaningless and should not sway U.S. policy-making circles. Most Pakistanis did not protest against the United States and understand that the government had nothing to do with the video. Thus, U.S. officials do not need to make public statements condemning such videos. Those in Pakistan and in the Muslim world who protest will do so in any case—apology or not—but will benefit from what they see as the U.S. government taking responsibility for the videos. Those who understand the Islamist spin on U.S. apologies is nonsense require no official statements.
Hussain Nadim is a lecturer in the department of government at the National University of Science and Technology in Islamabad. He was recently a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC.