It should be clear to almost everyone by now that the rampaging mob violence against American embassies and consulates in the Middle East and North Africa last week was not primarily motivated by a video uploaded to YouTube. Something offensive to Muslims (along with something offensive to just about everyone else in the world) is posted on the Internet several times every second, yet massive international uprisings against this thing or that thing break out only periodically.
Rather than a spontaneous outburst, what we saw last week was a raw play for political power by radical Salafists. We have seen things like this before, most notoriously in Tehran after the Iranian revolution.
On November 4, 1979, 52 American diplomats were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Iran by young supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who belonged to the so-called Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line. Iran was not yet a theocracy. Khomeini had not consolidated power after the overthrow of the Shah's government; his Islamist faction still had to battle it out for control with Iran's liberals and leftists.
Khomeinei may not have orchestrated the takeover personally, but it was not long before he threw his full support behind it: he realized how popular the hostage-takers were -- Iranian anti-Americanism was at its apogee then -- while his proposal for a theocratic constitution was meeting stiff resistance from his internal enemies. By rallying the country around the cause of anti-Americanism he was able seriously to blunt criticism of the domestic agenda. All he had to do was tar his opponents as secretly pro-American. The deflection worked brilliantly.
The Salafists have just pulled a similar stunt in Egypt. They are more extreme and therefore less popular than the Muslim Brotherhood government. By ginning up an anti-American mob and forcing President Mohamed Morsi, himself a Brotherhood member, to send riot police after the demonstrators to protect the American Embassy, they were able to make him look like a tool of the West. When push came to shove, Morsi ended up siccing the cops on his fellow Egyptians to protect the interests of the hated "imperialists."