To call Innocence of Muslims a "film" is to give it too much credit. About the only description this web-only waste of 15 minutes deserves is "amateurish drivel", best ignored. But over the course of a few days, the Muslim world has allowed the hateful production by misguided American crackpots to become something far more dangerous: an excuse.
To be fair, protests that have captured headlines in recent days involve only a tiny minority in each country, and an even smaller group has reacted with violence. Most people have too much good sense. But what started in Egypt as a clear-headed demonstration against hate speech has, in some countries, become blind hooliganism. Nearly a dozen people have died in a crisis that is spreading from Khartoum to Rabat and many places in between.
Muslims, and people of all faiths, have every right to protect their beliefs. But everyone also has a responsibility to defend these beliefs peacefully - for Muslims, this is consonant with the basic principles of Islam. Laws against religious incitement must be applied justly, and if the producers of the misguided effort broke laws in the US, they should be punished accordingly. Yet there is no justification for the type of violence the region is witnessing. Over-reacting to such a provocation is a weakness, one that allows believers to be manipulated by the likes of the Islamophobes behind this video.
It is worth asking what is fuelling the anger now, five days after the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was killed by militants in Benghazi. Is it an online production that few have even seen? Or could it be that this is an opportunity to express deeply felt grievances with US policy in the region?
The latter seems more plausible. In Yemen, for instance, some protesters conceded they hadn't seen the video, but protested in frustration about US drone strikes. Others may take to the streets out of boredom - many young people are unemployed, and may find themselves caught up in the excitement of protesting for a cause. Across the region, many view the United States with suspicion - after the Iraq war, blind support of Israel, drone strikes ... the list goes on and on.
A better course of action, on all of these issues, would be dialogue and engagement. Torching embassy vehicles, attacking American schools, gutting fast food restaurants and killing US marines - as the Taliban did in southern Afghanistan yesterday - will not encourage Washington to reconsider its regional policies. Nor will it make Muslims stronger.