Husain Haqqani in Newsweek Pakistan:
Thousands of cellphone subscribers in Pakistan received an anonymous text message recently announcing a miracle: an earthquake on Tuesday, Sept. 18, had destroyed the Washington, D.C. movie theater that was exhibiting Innocence of Muslims, the controversial film that has triggered violent protests in several Muslim countries. An email version of the text message even included a picture of a mangled structure. Allah, the texter claimed, had shown His anger against the movie’s insult to Islam and Islam’s Prophet, and with Him on their side the faithful should not be afraid to vent their anger against the West, which belittles Islam and abuses the Prophet. There was, of course, no earthquake in Washington, and no movie theater had been destroyed. In fact, the movie has never made its way beyond YouTube. But for several days, the fabricated text message and email made the rounds, forwarded and reforwarded around Pakistan and in some cases to Pakistanis living in the diaspora. It was part of a campaign to arouse Muslim passions by what author Salman Rushdie has termed “the outrage industry.” Similar false mass messaging convinced millions after 9/11 that Jews had been warned to stay away from the Twin Towers, implying a conspiracy that many still believe without a shred of evidence. Last year, after U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden, anonymous messages suggested that the raid in Abbottabad was a staged event and bin Laden had been killed months earlier.
Such well-organized manipulation of sentiment belies the notion that orchestrated protests are spontaneous expressions of Muslim rage. Like followers of any other religion, Muslims do not like insults to their faith or to their Prophet. But the protests that make the headlines are the function of politics, not religion. Hoping to avoid being accused of siding with blasphemers, the Pakistani government tried to align itself with the protesters’ cause by declaring a public holiday and calling it “Love of the Prophet Day.” Although 95 percent of Pakistan’s 190 million people are Muslim, only an estimated 45,000 actually took part in that Friday’s demonstrations around the country against Innocence of Muslims. The protests mattered largely because of their violence: as many as 25 people were killed and scores injured.