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Thrity Umrigar Headshot

Murderous Dance

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I don't know Sam Bacile. I don't even know if that's his real name -- or if he's real.

But I know his type.

I don't know the individuals who stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo or who killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others, in Benghazi.

But I know their type, also.

You see, this sad dance, this ritualized tango of incitement of violence, and the predictable response to it, is something I'm familiar with from my childhood in India. We middle-class citizens of Bombay were intimately, wearyingly familiar with politicians using religion as a wedge between Hindus and Muslims, and between countless other people divided by religion, caste or region. We watched aghast at the fury and violence that the politicians unleashed, as groups of illiterate, undernourished, frustrated, unemployed youth attacked and massacred illiterate, undernourished, frustrated, unemployed youth from the other group. The powerless turned upon the powerless; the powerful grabbed even more power for themselves.

I don't want to get ahead of myself here. I don't know what Sam Bacile's motivations are for making a ridiculously buffoonish, deliberately offensive (both to religious and artistic sensibilities) film.

But what I do know is that Mitt Romney couldn't wait until the sun had set on the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11, to wage a false attack on Obama for "apologizing" to the Muslims. Nothing has made me so angry in several months as Romney's deliberately misleading attack. And given that the last several months have included Congressman Todd Akins' outrageous comments about rape and Paul Ryan's chutzpah-filled dissembling on Medicare, that's saying something.

My strong reaction took me by surprise, until I made the connection between what Romney had done and what politicians in India routinely did. I guess I expect so much more from my adopted country that it hurts to see gutter politics play out here much as they do elsewhere. The incident also brought back memories of the casual prejudice against Indian Muslims that I heard all around me while growing up.

I guess I expect a higher standard from an American presidential candidate than the people of my acquaintance. Where in Romney's comments was the outrage against people like Bacile putting out their messages of hate and prejudice against one of the major religions of the world? Even George W. went out of his way to stem the flow of hatred after 9/11. Would his base really have held it against him if Romney had shown a little decency, some basic humanity?

As I write this, the origins of the video posted on YouTube remain shrouded in mystery as does the identity of the poster. The only thing we can be sure of is that those who made this film knew exactly what they were doing, what genies they would be letting out of the bottle.

Needless to say, I'm equally outraged and saddened by the fact that these shameless tactics work. I long for the day when the Muslim world can look at an offensive cartoon or film and shrug its collective shoulder. The knee-jerk resorting to violence diminishes the followers of Islam, infantilizes them.

But one thing I'm sure of: It wasn't the upper-classes of Egyptian society who stormed the embassy in Cairo. It is those who are young, desperate, poor, hungry, jobless, frustrated with their lack of social mobility, who are the quickest to take offence, to resort to anger, to buy into antiquated notions of honor killings and revenge.

And one other thing: There is nothing inherently 'Muslim' about this rage. India is a predominantly Hindu nation and yet I have seen it explode at the first signs of religious divide-and-conquer. Hilter harnessed an entire "civilized" nation by feeding its sense of grievance and humiliation. In this country, too, Southern politicians fed the fears and resentments of poor whites until they resorted to acts of unimaginable barbarity against their black neighbors.

President Obama is right in saying that religious offence is no excuse for deadly violence. But while we rightly chastise the murderers who killed four innocent Americans, let's also turn our outrage to those people of education and privilege who deliberately incite and insult other people's religious sensibilities. Our First Amendment probably makes it impossible to punish them but the Constitution does not prohibit us from ostracizing them and judging them in the court of public opinion.

And while we are at it, let us also speak out against the man who would be president, for the haste and recklessness with which he sought to score a cheap political point over an incident that should make us even more aware of the fact that words and images are a life-and-death business.

Thrity Umrigar is the bestselling author of a memoir and five novels, including The Space Between Us and The World We Found.

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