Everywhere lately we have been seeing big, sudden and sometimes terribly violent rallies of angry people — the worst, with the deadliest consequences, in Benghazi, Cairo and other parts of the Islamic world beginning September 11, but almost simultaneously in Barcelona (also September 11), Madrid and Lisbon (both with huge rallies on September 15), Moscow and across China. Very different movements, but the fact that they are all happening now reflects the conjunction of two global phenomena: The explosion of electronic media, making it vastly easier to convoke a crowd, and deteriorating economic conditions everwhere.
About those violent assaults on U.S. embassies in Muslim countries that began on September 11, I think Ross Douthat is right about the immediate cause: it was not about a movie that, as far as we know, doesn't even exist (nobody seems to have seen any more than a 14-minute trailer) — though the video was sure convenient for the assailants.
It’s Not About the Video - NYTimes.com
The question remains, though: Why did such large numbers of angry people respond? Focusing on the video has got us into a useless and damaging debate about whether we should limit "blasphemy," a concept that has no place in a free society. It also encourages the notion that Muslims are generally crazed fanatics easily aroused if you push their sacred buttons. Those of us who are a little older remember when the really big political movement in Egypt and from there to other parts of the Arab world was entirely secular — Nasser and with his call for pan-Arabism could muster enormous enthusiastic crowds, even without Twitter or SMS. Religious fanaticism is not genetic or eternal, but a circumstantial response to some very dramatic circumstances.
Here, since I claim no special expertise on the region, all I want to offer is two lines of investigation to identify the forces that are inducing people to look for radical solutions. We should first look at demographics, and then who those interplay with economics, and only then do the particular doctrines of preachers, ulemas and other agitators become relevant. In the Arab world, and in almost all other Islamic countries as well, population has been growing too fast to be absorbed in a rigid, and closed, opportunity system, and the economic crisis— including in parts of the Near East, a long-lasting drought that has driven more and more people to the overcrowded cities, creating greater density of desperate folks.
There are other possible answers to the economic crisis, and other ways to mobilize mass discontent. Limiting anybody's freedom of expression, as in the proposed legislation to outlaw "blasphemy" as in Tunis, is just going to delay finding such a solution. We need the freest debate possible to find those answers.
I hope to say something about those other mobilizations (Spain, Portugal, and Catalonia among them) in future notes — not because I know the answers, but at least to clarify our questions, what is really at stake and what can we do about the really serious world problems?