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How can a puerile, anti-Islam film prompt such excessive reactions?

New York: The US government, ordinary Americans and most reasonable people in the world have all lined up to condemn the mean-spirited, absurd, amateur anti-Mohammed Innocence of Muslims YouTube video produced in the US by American-Israeli filmmaker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. But the anti-American violence across the Muslim world has people convinced that it is not just about the silly movie.

The searing images of burning flags, breached embassies and smoldering cars have shocked Americans who consider it unthinkable to react violently to art, movies or books — no matter how obnoxious or incendiary. The 2006 Hollywood film The Da Vinci Code, which was seen as an affront to Christianity and Christ didn’t raise a crazy commotion in the US.

In contrast, there have been at least 19 people killed, including an American ambassador and three consular workers, in a week of furious protests over the anti-Islam film.

Egyptian protesters gather around a burning vehicle in downtown Cairo. AP

Rushdie told India's NDTV that the video made by Christian extremists, "looks like the worst little clip ever made" but there could be no justification for responding with "mayhem and murder."

The terrorist hand in the protests

All the terrible Hafiz Mohammad Saeed-style raving and ranting mullahs have made it their mission to stoke the anti-American protests.

“It has been unclear how much of the violence was spontaneously triggered by the film and how much of it was spurred on by anti-American militants using it as a tool to grow and enrage the crowds,” said The Huffington Post.

Jihadist organizations of every stripe are now exploiting the situation to the hilt by egging-on violent protests in Muslim countries. Almost on cue, Al-Qaida's branch in North Africa on Tuesday called for attacks on US diplomats and an escalation of protests against the video. Dangerous crackpots like Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, who India blames for the Mumbai attacks, have been working up crowds in Lahore.

At some level, the protests are a gale of anger at America’s decade-old war against terrorism, which in the eyes of many Muslims in the region often looks like a war against them.

The Salafi grab for power

On the other hand, some foreign policy analysts say the murder of American diplomats in Libya is the “precursor of a grab for power” in several Muslim countries by Salafi Islam, a more austere form of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. Members of the Salafi movement try to model their lives on the early followers of the Prophet Mohammad.

Some Salafis embrace the militancy of groups such as al Qaeda that have a similar purist vision of Islam. Scholars say some 10 million out of 1.9 billion Muslims follow Salafi-inspired Jihad theology, which forbids democracy and insists on traditional Sharia law.

The murder of the American diplomats in Libya and the anti-American sentiment behind them underscore a foreign policy puzzle for President Barack Obama. Many of the protests in the Arab world were in countries that underwent Obama-backed revolutions during the Arab Spring. But it appears that what was dubbed the pluralist voices of the Arab Spring has become Islamist.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could not contain her revulsion when she said: “The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of dictator for the tyranny of a mob.”

Libyan President Mohamed Yousef El-Magariaf, himself has stated quite unambiguously that the attack on the US embassy was pre-planned, that this was not a protest that's gone awry, but an attack on US consulates for historic grievances. The president has said the extremists are dangerous for Libya’s new government.

“The broader Islamic world is not enthralled by Obama anymore. His popularity levels there are comparable to George Bush’s levels there,” Michael O’Hanlon, the Director of Research at the Brookings Institution, told Euronews.

There have been demonstrations and violence in more than 20 countries starting from last Tuesday, when the American ambassador in Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed in an attack on the embassy in Benghazi, a stronghold for Islamists and cradle of the revolution which toppled Muammar Gaddafi last year.

Culture clash

According to Associated Press, if Nakoula still lived in Egypt where he comes from, he could be charged with "insulting religion," a crime punishable by up to three years in prison or he could face the more serious charge of "upsetting national security," which carries a life sentence.

In America, which celebrates free speech, the government can't even order that the video be pulled from YouTube. All it can do is ask and so far, Google which owns YouTube has politely declined, saying the video was within its guidelines for content. Google has, however, restricted access to the video in three Muslim countries — Egypt, Libya and Indonesia.

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