Cultural Clash Fuels Muslims Raging at Film

CAIRO — Stepping from the cloud of tear gas in front of the American Embassy here, Khaled Ali repeated the urgent question that he said justified last week’s violent protests at United States outposts around the Muslim world.

“We never insult any prophet — not Moses, not Jesus — so why can’t we demand that Muhammad be respected?” Mr. Ali, a 39-year-old textile worker said, holding up a handwritten sign in English that read “Shut Up America.” “Obama is the president, so he should have to apologize!”

When the protests against an American-made online video mocking the Prophet Muhammad exploded in about 20 countries, the source of the rage was more than just religious sensitivity, political demagogy or resentment of Washington, protesters and their sympathizers here said. It was also a demand that many of them described with the word “freedom,” although in a context very different from the term’s use in the individualistic West: the right of a community, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, to be free from grave insult to its identity and values.

In a context where insults to religion are crimes and the state has tightly controlled almost all media, many in Egypt, like other Arab countries, sometimes find it hard to understand that the American government feels limited by its free speech rules from silencing even the most noxious religious bigot.

Some commentators said they regretted that the violence here and around the region had overshadowed the underlying argument against the offensive video. “Our performance came out like that of a failed lawyer in a no-lose case,” Wael Kandil, an editor of the newspaper Sharouq, wrote in a column on Sunday. “We served our opponents something that made them drop the main issue and take us to the margins — this is what we accomplished with our bad performance.”