As the Muslim world continues to react, sometimes violently, to a film, "The Innocence of Muslims," that portrays the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light, observers are weighing in on the reasons behind Muslim anger. One is Charles Kurzman, a leading authority on Muslim movements and the author of "The Missing Martyrs," a book that argues that the radical minority does not represent Muslims as a whole.
In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari, Kurzman argues that what we are seeing is an opportunistic "clash of hatreds."
RFE/RL: How much is this rage orchestrated and fanned by a small group of extremists and how much is spontaneous?
Charles Kurzman: I have no inside knowledge about either the moviemakers or about the protests against the movie. But as an outsider, it seems to me that we have seen this whole [thing] before. Somebody says something outrageous and offensive, other people take offense and engage in protests that turn violent on occasion, and that just reinforces the animosity and hatred on both sides.
It seems so sad that we are forced to watch [these same scenes] over and over, while most of us just want to get along.
RFE/RL: As you said, these kinds of protests have happened before. Some observers in the region have said that extremists are behind them and are co-opting them for their own interests. Why do some Muslims get provoked so easily?
Kurzman: I think in all countries there are small groups that get provoked easily. We have basically a conspiracy of fools, people who are using whatever pretext, whatever hatred and misunderstanding to mobilize and misrepresent other people around the world that they dislike, and this is just another example.
I don't think Muslims are more sensitive than others. I think there are small groups in every country who are very sensitive to insult and who organize protests when they feel they're under attack. Look at the numbers, the numbers of these protests; they're still relatively small. We're talking a few thousands of people in countries with populations of dozens of millions.
Compare those protests to the size of protests during the Arab Spring uprising. These are very tiny protests and yet they get international global media coverage and they appear to be more important than they actually are.
RFE/RL: Some are framing this as a clash of cultures, a clash of civilizations. What are your thoughts on this?
Kurzman: No, I call this a clash of hatreds. Most people do not hate one another and yet these small groups who do hate seem to be able to grab the headlines and get everybody's attention. Let's keep in mind that protesting an insult is perfectly legal in most countries, including the United States, and if people want to hold signs or even burn flags, they're allowed to do that. That is called free speech, and so I do not mind when groups organize to protest a movie. I think that is a sign of political participation.
Now, when those protests turn violent, of course, then a crime has been committed and I oppose that. But to give these filmmakers the level of importance that these protests have done is almost a gift -- a gift by extremists from one side to the extremists on the other side -- and it's a gift that keeps circulating among the extremes.
But most of us are not in the extremes; most of us just want to get along. And I think that is the saddest part of this episode: that the large majority, they may disagree on political matters, they may disagree culturally, but we don't hate each other. Let's refocus our energies on understanding and on peaceful pursuits rather than on conflict.
RFE/RL: Do you see a change in the Western response to such reactions? In the case of Salman Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses," the response from politicians and publishers in the West was an immediate, strong defense of freedom of speech. In this case, the response has been much more measured. Are we seeing a concession to Muslim sensitivities?
Kurzman: Remember, we now live in a different time and we've just witnessed these uprisings around the Arab world that show a huge interest in political participation throughout the Middle East, and I think we are right in saying that we support those movements and want to have good relations around the world. I don't call this a concession.
I believe this is a recognition that people's political opinions may differ from our own and if it's important enough to them to go out and hold signs and protest, that is their right to do that.
RFE/RL: Is what we're seeing also an indication that anti-Western sentiments are on the rise in the region?
Kurzman: I think there is a distinction. First of all, these again are very small protests, so I wouldn't take them as a sign of underlying mass opinion. The second is that there are two sets of issues: One is a very widespread concern in the Middle East, and in many other countries around the world, that the United States is a country that has more than its share of power and influence around the world.
There've been numerous surveys that have documented these attitudes. That's a political position; it's not particularly a cultural position. There's also, as you know, cultural differences. And I think those should not be dismissed, either. But the mainstream opinion in Muslim societies around the world is one of tolerance.
And we see through all sorts of forms and evidence, including surveys and election results, that the movements and parties and attitudes that desire coexistence and peacefulness far, far outweigh the movements that are in favor in violence and hatred. So that even though there may be severe political disagreement, that does not necessarily translate into violence.