The Arab Spring has seen plenty of blood shed, mainly in Yemen, Syria and Libya, where the count is like a war casualty list. Elsewhere the tolls have been lighter even though the results have been equally dramatic. But the deaths have mostly been a fallout of the struggle between regime and reformers. If innocents died it was because they came in the way.
That has changed in the last few days, however, with the death of four American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya after the embassy was stormed on September 11 by a crowd carrying assault weapons such as grenades, rocket launchers and machine pistols. By a coincidence it happened on the day of the infamous attacks on the World Trade Center 11 years ago, when nearly 3,000 people were killed. It’s a day of commemoration for Americans all over the world.
The victims included Ambassador Christopher Stevens, one of the people closely involved in the opposition’s struggle to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. He was a key player in the American effort to build a relationship with the new administration. In Cairo, Egypt, 9/11 was a day of protests outside the US embassy. Some demonstrators entered the mission and tore down the US flag. The next day saw some 500 demonstrators throwing stones and trying to enter the compound again. A strong police presence kept things from sliding out of control.
The new governments in both these countries owe something to the US, because in both cases Washington’s sympathy and aid was important to the final outcome. So it is something of an irony that, of all the western allies, the US should be attacked, that too on a day when it mourned its worst tragedy since World War II.
The provocation for the attacks was serious, in the shape of an anti-Islam video posted on YouTube. Obviously, the US government was not to blame for the post, but the protesters decided otherwise. It was promoted by people such as the Rev Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida. The Quran-burning preacher is a well known right-winger with a history of animosity towards Islam and Muslims. His presence as one of the sponsors may have acted as a red rag to a bull.
Innocence of Muslims, as it is called, began life on YouTube last June, where it lay largely unnoticed for the next couple of months. Its origins are obscure because no one is yet certain who made it or when. The New York Times said it was made “somewhere in the sprawl of southern California and promoted by a network of right-wing Christians with a history of animosity directed toward Muslims”. On YouTube the film is attributed to Sam Becile, but so far there’s no face to the name. Perhaps the events of the last few days have persuaded the maker that there’s safety in anonymity.
Just before September 11, the film was translated into Arabic and re-posted twice on YouTube. It was promoted by a network of the Coptic (an ancient Christian sect in the Middle East) diaspora in the US and became an instant hit, with over a million views. It was enough to fuel a rage that set off the violence in Cairo and Benghazi.
Washington is, understandably, outraged by the attack, but so far its reaction has been marked by restraint. What everyone seems to be starting to understand is that Muslim reaction to insults to Islam or the Prophet is rarely orchestrated; if it boils over into violence that is partly because there’s no shortage of trigger-happy hotheads.
As for the video itself, it is completely unremarkable. It’s hard to believe that anyone could take it seriously even though it depicts the Prophet “as a child of uncertain parentage, a buffoon, womanizer, homosexual and a greedy, bloodthirsty thug”, says the New York Times. It was obviously calculated to provoke and it did, with horrific results. To a non-Muslim it’s not per se offensive so much as cartoonish, a crude copy of a Sacha Baron Cohen film, which is crude enough to begin with. To a Muslim, however, it will seem like a deliberate attempt to inflame passions. In that sense, the embassy attackers have fallen into the trap of the film’s supporters and promoters, who seem satisfied with the result.
For instance, Vietnam veteran Steven Klein, a California insurance salesman, says, “A small fraction of people will come to understand just how violent Muhammad was… If you merely say anything that’s derogatory about Islam, then they immediately go to violence, which I’ve experienced.”
The video comes at a particularly sensitive time for America, caught up in one of the most divisive presidential elections in recent times. While the timing may not have been deliberate, both the film and the reaction will probably be used to further muddy the waters in a race that is more like an undeclared war than anything else.