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Many Muslims denouncing anti-Islam film decry violent protests, too

Thousands of people attack bases of an alleged militia terror group in Libya as part of an organized effort called "Save Benghazi." NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

BEIRUT -- The headline of Lebanon’s leading English Newspaper read “Calm reigns as protests condemn film.”

Ayman Mohyeldin

For the tens of millions of Muslims who have been watching angry protests sweep the region over the past 10 days, reading a headline like that would be welcomed as a collective sigh of relief. Some 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide are being depicted and characterized by tens of thousands of angry protesters.

Since the emergence of an insulting anti-Islam film surfaced last week, a wave of frenzy has swept the Muslim world at large and the Arab world in specific. The overwhelming majority of Muslims rejected and denounced the film that insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Here is another fact: the overwhelming majority of Muslims did not participate in protests, take to the streets or attack embassies or restaurants.

Lebanon has seen its share of ant-film protests. In fact, Hezbollah, the powerful political militia organized one of the largest demonstrations to date earlier in the week. On Friday, they held a protest, this time in Baalbek outside of the capital. In Beirut, tight security barricaded the downtown area as a hardline Salafist leader rallied about 2,000 of his supporters against the U.S. and France defending Muhammad.

But how many people actually saw the film or the subsequent derogatory caricatures printed in a French magazine? Where were the voices of the silent majority of Muslims, the ones who woke up daily and went about their business not paying attention to the media frenzy and street demos popping up at US embassies?

On Friday, I spent the afternoon conducting an unofficial, unscientific survey of a small sample of Lebanese. Out of the two dozen people I met in the different neighborhoods of Beirut, not a single person had seen the full 14-minute clip. A handful had seen excerpts of it but did not finish it, and the overwhelming majority had not seen any part of the movie.

Hassan Ammar / AP

Lebanese Hezbollah veiled women chant slogans Saturday during a protest in the southern border town of Bint Jbeil, Lebanon about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Arabic writing reads

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Surprisingly, there was an overwhelming consensus among the people I spoke with. From those coming out of Friday prayers in Beirut’s central mosque to those taking a stroll in Hamra, few felt the violent protests were justifiable. In fact, most felt the protests did not reflect Islamic values or Muslims. All felt that while it was justifiable to be upset over the film, the violence was not acceptable.

Among examples:

  • Tarek Taha, 17, a high school student: “I think that the film and the cartoon … target every Muslim in a really personal way. I’ve seen the beginning of the film and I couldn’t continue it because I was really offended … We must protest in another quiet and peaceful way together to get our demands.”
  • Abdallah, 26, social media consultant: “I’ve been disappointed with the killing of the ambassador in Libya and I’ve been disappointed with the way Muslims and Arabs demonstrated and the way they react to anything that hurt their religion. It’s not right. You can use media, you can use more modern methods, to show your own opinion without using violence and killing your own people and destroying your country.”
  • Zeinab Hakim, 21, Lebanese University journalism student: “I saw the trailer. I just saw the half of it and I cut it off. It was really really awful. This is not us. This represents the violence, scars the image of Islam around the world. Our prophet Muhammad is as much a saint to Muslims as Jesus was for the Christians, so why would they do such a thing? … We want to protest, but to protest in a peaceful way. The protests that end in killing and end in burning, I’m against them 100 percent.”
  • Farah Assi, 27, journalism and advertising student who heard about the cartoons:  It’s not the first time they’ve insulted Muslims. It’s just one of the ways to tease Muslims … Some of the protests, the peaceful ones, can be justified. But the ones that lead to killing people and others, I’m 100 percent against them.”

Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

Protests ignited by a controversial film that ridicules Islam's Prophet Muhammad spread throughout Muslim world.

The initial wave of protests was deadly, destructive and disruptive. But 10 days later, the protests were relatively calm and peaceful and secured. What happened that changed? Well for one, Arab leaders, both political and religious, changed their tone dramatically. At first, most leaders in the region remained on the sidelines not commenting on the violence of the protests but rather condemning the films.

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In fact, initial reaction from Egyptian officials included the cabinet demanding an apology from the U.S. government and punishment against the filmmaker. Ironically, there was no pledge by the Egyptian government to punish protesters who vandalized and scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

A week later, Egypt’s President Mohammad Morsi had a different tone. After Friday prayers in Cairo he reportedly told worshippers, “Violence is not justifiable even when it’s to prohibit someone else from committing sin.”

As parts of the Muslim world fire up with anti-American protests, thousands rally in Benghazi, Libya, where the U.S. ambassador and three others were killed, to support America. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

On the eve of this week’s Friday protests across the region, religious figures, most notably Egypt’s top figures, denounced the use of violence and urged Muslims “to endure the insults” that had been leveled against them. Both were seen as calls urging calm and shifting the onus of the protests attention away from the West to a more introspective need to address the violence the protesters were resorting to so they could express themselves.

As one worshipper told me in Beirut, at “the end of the day what have these protests brought us, this was a film made in the U.S., but here on the ground it has led Muslims to kill Muslims.”

Related: Pakistan official offers $100,000 reward for killing of maker of anti-Prophet Muhammad film