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Protesters climb a fence at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa September 13, 2012.MOHAMED AL-SAYAGHI/Reuters

The anti-American riots spreading through the Arab and Muslim world are sickening displays of what might be termed bin Ladenism – attempts to inflame the Islamic world against the United States. But they haven't fundamentally altered the political status quo in the countries of the Arab Spring.

The riots serve the interests of the Islamic radicals who are jockeying for power in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and beyond. It is no coincidence that the riots and assaults on U.S. diplomatic missions began on September 11. Nor is it a coincidence that an Egyptian television station linked to militant Salafists was behind the initial provocation – broadcasting a hateful, amateurish 13:51 film, which may or may not be a trailer for a full-length film called Innocence of Muslims (it's not clear that such a film exists).

These radicals have demonstrated their ability to manipulate the passions of the most extreme elements of the faithful. But that is little surprise. They are still a force, and it is disturbing that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, either because of political calculations or personal conviction, was slow and soft in his criticism of the violence. Still, the democratically elected Libyan leader, Mohammed Magarief, was unequivocal in his condemnation of the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

The ease of the manipulation is frightening. The film was not made by a Hollywood studio. It was not shown in theatres to an admiring public. It did not, for all intents and purposes, exist, until someone posted it to the Internet, and the Egyptian TV station Al-Nas translated it into Arabic. Unlike TheSatanic Verses, written by the novelist Salman Rushdie, which led to an international assassination campaign beginning in 1989, or the 2005 Danish cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad, which sparked deadly riots around the world, this film was made by a nobody and shown to no one.

It is said that some people in the Arab world believe that if something is permitted to be made in the United States, it must be approved by the United States. And some in Muslim countries hold that blasphemy or an insult to the Prophet Muhammad should be punishable by death. One anti-Muslim extremist in America can awaken mobs.

But, in the midst of the chaos, some still have the courage to speak up, as in this comment in an Egyptian newspaper: "Should we turn into murderers and slaughterers to prove to the world that we love the Prophet?" The mob has not taken over in the Arab world, but there are provocateurs hoping it will.