When I finish one of my analyses I usually look forward to a week to ten day hiatus and sometimes even wonder if I will have to hunt around for the next topic. It rarely works out that way. Usually, within three of four days, something happens which strikes me as worthy of attention. Often other commentators have moved more quickly than I to report on the event. However, there are always more questions to be asked and different perspectives to be offered.
So it is with the death of four American diplomats, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, in Libya on Wednesday 12 September 2012. There are two mutually reinforcing parts to this tragedy: one takes place here in the USA, and the other in Libya, Egypt and several other places in the Middle East. Let’s take them in sequence.
Part I – The Stateside Story
In the summer of 2011 a convicted felon (bank fraud) by the name Nakoula Bassely Nakoula (aka Sam Bacile) decided to make a movie about the religion of Islam. Nakoula is an Islamophobe of Egyptian Coptic Christian background who lives in California. The movie was to be one of those propaganda pieces like the film “Obsession” back in 2005, but cruder and with more “shock value.” Nakoula went about contacting other Islamophobes to raise the money and otherwise promote the project. Among those he recruited were Morris Sadek, a fellow Copt, also resident in the U.S., whose long-term goal was to undermine the new Islamic government in Cairo, and a Christian fundamentalist extremist by the name of Steve Klein who also seems to have an obsessive hatred of Muslims. Hovering around the margins of the project was the extremist “pastor” Terry Jones from Gainesville, Florida. He is an expert at incitement to riot, having publicly burnt a Quran in 2011 sparking riots in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of 30 people.
Eventually Nakoula put together an all-volunteer cast and crew by setting up what can only be described as a confidence game. He told the actors and stage technecians that the movie was about a “desert warrior” living in the remote past: ”a benign biblical epic” about past life in Middle East. The initial working title was “Desert Warrior.” Later the film was reedited and new dialogue dubbed over the original script thereby transforming it into an anti-Muslim diatribe with a new, supposedly ironic, title “Innocence of Muslims.” Among other things the film depicts Mohammad as a fraud and a lecher. Subsequently, CNN received a statement from those who worked on the project indicating that, “the entire cast and crew are extremely upset…we are 100% not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose.”
Of particular import is the strong suspicion that the real purpose of the film was to incite a violent reaction in the Muslim world. According to Steve Klein, interviewed after the eruption of protests in the Muslim world, “we went into this knowing this was probably going to happen.” Klein told Nakoula, “you are going to be the next Theo van Gogh,” the Dutch film maker who was murdered in 2004 after making a film that defamed Islam. Subsequently, Nakoula’s accomplice, Morris Sadek, would contact an Egyptian newspaper reporter, Gamel Girgis, and tell him he had an exclusive story about a American made anti-Muslim video. Sadek’s obvious intention was to make the video known to the Egyptian public.
Part II – The Story in the Middle East
In July 2012, soon after “Desert Warrior” was morphed into “Innocence of Muslims,” it was posted on YouTube. It is still there (except in Egypt) and to date has garnered hundreds of thousands of hits. Just this month (September 2012) a trailer of the film, this time dubbed in Arabic, was posted and that seems to be what led to the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and further anti-American disturbances in at least eight other Muslim countries.
Someone at the U.S. embassy in Cairo immediately sensed the danger the film created. In an effort to defuse some of the inevitable anger it would cause he or she posted a statement on the local Egyptian internet that said in part, “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims–as we condemn the efforts to offend believers of all religions….We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” This effort obviously did not work.
The reactions of Muslim governments to the outbreaks of public anger have been swift. The Libyan government, which is beholden to the U.S. for its support in the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, issued an apology for the Benghazi attack and began an immediate investigation. This was easy enough to do since the militant group that stormed the consulate and killed Ambassador Stevens was readily identified and most of the violence was captured on film.
In Egypt, the newly elected president, Mohammed Morsi, himself a member of the Society of Muslim Brothers, was nuanced in his reaction. He noted that Egyptians had guaranteed rights to “expressing opinion, freedom to protest and announcing positions…but without assaulting private or public property, diplomatic missions or embassies.” In a telephone conversation with President Obama, Morsi “pledged to protect foreigners in Egypt.” On the other hand, he told Obama that there was a need for “deterrent legal measures against those who want to damage relations between peoples, and particularly between the people of Egypt and the people of America.” It is a need that Americans should take seriously.
Part III – Conclusion
This incident has exposed the deep vein of anger against the United States that runs through the Muslim world. This anger is nothing new and we continue to ignore it at our peril.
After 9/11 U.S. politicians refused to consider the context from which those attacks came. They asserted that violence against the United States was absolutely wrong and so there was no need to examine what had caused it. Well, that might be good politics stateside, but it guaranteed that the policies and behavior that led up to the 9/11 attacks, such as imposing sanctions that ruin the lives of countless innocents, the arming and supporting of dictators, and the carte blanche support of Israeli policies against the Palestinian people, would carry on into the future. In other words, between 9/11/01 and 9/11/12 nothing substantial about U.S. behavior has changed.
That means that the Muslim world continues to be a tinder box that someone resident in the West, someone like Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, can throw a match into and spark something akin to another 9/11.
At this point many will protest that Nakoula’s perverse film is protected under the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the abridgment of speech and press. But this may not be the case. Free speech does not excuse purposeful efforts to incite to riot. An enterprising prosecutor would not have a difficult time proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the entire enterprise that created “Innocence of Muslims” was a premeditated effort to produce exactly the type of violence that we have seen. If this is the case, Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, Steve Klein and Morris Sadek are potentially guilty of a range of crimes from promoting hate speech to accessory to murder.
The governments of the Muslim world, and indeed all governments, have the legal and moral obligation to protect foreign diplomats, embassies and consulates. And, the United States government has the responsibility to do all that is reasonable and practicable to protect its citizens. That includes the prevention of another 9/11 style attack or any variant on that theme. Moving to prosecute those here in the United States who would purposely incite such attacks seems an obvious step–and, in the long run, a step that is more useful than filling the skies with drones in search of alleged enemies.
Yet, as obvious and warranted as such a prosecution is, will it be pursued? Do not look to Mitt Romney for such preventative action. His sole concern is taking political advantage of the crisis by claiming that the State Department statement cited above proved that the Obama administration had more sympathy for the Muslims than for his own dead diplomats.
This is, of course, cynical nonsense. Yet, one cannot look to Barack Obama for much preventative action either. He is afraid of the political shadow to his right and will not move against even dangerous provocateurs, especially at election time. So the most likely scenario is that, just as in 2001, our leaders will do nothing to address our own behavioral and policy shortcomings. Thus, the dangerous likelihood of more provocations igniting the deep anti-American anger in the Muslim lands will go on and on.
Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His academic work is focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He also teaches courses in the history of science and modern European intellectual history.