It was a YouTube movie trailer that no one knew about. That is, until radical Salafis decided to draw everyone's attention to it. Already, people have died who had nothing to do with the film -- and the repercussions of all of this will go on for years to come. It's a tragedy -- one that can either be harnessed for good, or can continue to wreak havoc.
From the outset, a few facts need to be clarified in order to place this into its correct context. An Israeli real-estate developer in California, Sam Bacile, produced the little-known film, for which a 14-minute trailer was posted on YouTube. In a telephone interview with the Associated Press, Bacile said, "Islam is a cancer" and claimed that the film was intended to be a "provocative political statement condemning the religion." These are the facts as we have them at present, although questions are being raised about precisely who this filmmaker is.
None of that is going to really matter today, however. What will matter is the reaction: in Benghazi on Tuesday, the U.S. consulate was attacked, reportedly led by the same radical Salafi elements that have been going on a rampage in the past few months (and longer) against the mausoleums of Muslim saints in Libya. The attack resulted in the deaths of three U.S. embassy staff members and the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. There is no confusion in that characterization -- these elements were armed.
In Cairo, a day earlier, one of the spokesmen for the Salafi al-Nour political party, Nader Bakkar, had called for a peaceful protest outside of the U.S. embassy. He was joined in his calls by Mohammed al-Zawahiri (the brother of the al Qaeda leader), as well as other Salafi political leaders. The result was the pulling down and burning of the American flag, replacing it with a black flag inscribed with the Muslim declaration of faith, along with breaching the perimeter of the embassy, and spray-painting on the embassy gates.
The timing of all of this could not be more symbolic: September 11, 11 years after the attacks in New York. On a more local level, U.S. business leaders were in Cairo from September 8 to 11, meeting with the highest levels of the Egyptian political and commercial establishments, as part of a high-level trade mission. They are hardly going to be able to go back to the United States with the image Egyptian business would want.
Reactions to the events have been varied. A minority of fringe radical Coptic nationalists assisted in promotion of the YouTube video: however, the reaction of condemnation from the Coptic community worldwide shows just how irrelevant those radicals are, and how their involvement was more about creating a name for themselves, rather than representing any Coptic community. Members of that community, within Egypt, are even planning protests against the film. Any element in or out of Egypt that claims Coptic complicity can surely be held responsible for inciting sectarianism, at a time when Egypt specifically needs forces to align against divisions.
Others have, predictably, openly condemned the video, and insist on holding the producers to account. Presumably, they should hold those who reacted in this manner far more responsible for spreading the video far and wide. The budget of the movie (exceedingly badly made) was a paltry $5 million. The amount of free press and attention these reactions have given this film is worth far more than that entire budget. As a result of these reactions, millions of people who would never have heard of it are now watching the video.
Some would like to presume that the United States, as a government, or Americans as a population, bear responsibility for allowing this film to be made. They do not. In a globalized world, there are differences between the sensibilities of those who consider religion to be deeply sacred, and those who do not. It is true that there is a well coordinated, and well-funded, coterie of anti-Muslim propagandists in the United States -- the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC recently published research on that network. Their discourse has served as ideological support to right-wing fanatics such as Anders Breivik in Norway, and it needs to be challenged head on by all parts of the political spectrum within the United States. Instead, there are political figures that actively encourage the discourse. When the money trail for this particular film (apparently it had the support of a 100 different financiers) is revealed, it may be that serious questions need to be asked in the United States from within civil society.
Nevertheless, the U.S. government has no competency, nor should it, in banning films, which was supposedly the impetus for this protest. The U.S. government also was not involved in the production of this film, nor does it support the anti-Muslim discourse network. What would have been wise for it to do, it has already done, and did immediately: it condemned the making of the film, and made it clear that the U.S. government had no role in it. If the U.S. embassy had arranged for filming on their premises, with the U.S. ambassador endorsing its content, then a protest might have been understandable -- but nothing of the sort took place.
Government responsibility, however, does exist in this situation -- but on the side of the Libyan and the Egyptian governments. In the case of the Libyan government, it is long overdue for it to take firm steps against radical militias, that cared little for the Libyan revolution in the first place, and seem committed to destroying Libya's heritage and its potential for progress. The Libyan government has no choice -- either it is capable of protecting its citizens and its guests from harm, or it is not. To its credit, the message from its leadership has been firm and clear -- now, they will have to follow up with action. These elements are a threat to Libya's national security, and must be treated with the full power of the law. This tragedy is a real opportunity for Libya to bring all militias under state control and to ensure that radical movements are properly prosecuted.
In Cairo, President Mohamed Morsi's government's reaction has been far worse, with thankfully no loss of life. It is inconceivable that an angry mob could breach the U.S. embassy's perimeter and take down the flag if the security services wanted to protect the premises. In recent hours, the Egyptian Prime Minister expressed regret at what took place in Cairo, but without any explanation as to how it could have been allowed to happen. Someone must be held accountable, and an official apology from the Egyptian government to the U.S. government is the least that it can do. There is no security vacuum that the government can claim as an excuse -- the security services have proven during other protests, such as a recent one against the Syrian embassy, that if they want to protect an embassy, they can do so. President Morsi can provide evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood, when in power, can be a moderating force, or not.
Others wish to hold Islam as a religion, Muslims as a religious community, and Egyptians and Libyans responsible for the reaction. Both the likes of the film producer and radical Salafis want to make this into a Muslim versus non-Muslim issue. To encourage that is essentially to reward them with success. The tragic events in Benghazi have provoked the Libyan people to come out in far greater numbers to condemn what took place. At the highest levels, Libyan religious leaders (particularly the League of Libyan Ulama) denounced the tragedy and it is clear that beyond a radical fringe, no one supported this in Libya, and those who were engaged in it are being described as criminals. Within Egypt, religious leaders across the board have condemned the response, and there have been protests against the protests of the previous day. This has had very little to do with religion, but has been about identity and manipulation by radicals. Many of the demonstrators at the U.S. embassy in Cairo knew little about religion, even from within a skewed radical Salafi interpretation. However, they felt their identity was being attacked, and they responded accordingly. The irony is that mainstream religious leaders have made it clear that religion actually does have something to say in this case: that the safety of guests (including diplomats) is sacrosanct.
What is clear, nevertheless, is that radical preachers were certainly content to manipulate anti-American sentiment, spurred by U.S. foreign policies, to push a populist reaction. Without radical Salafi endorsement in Cairo and Benghazi, none of this could have happened -- and civil society at large has to respond to that trend directly. It is highly disappointing that the Muslim Brotherhood, where President Morsi comes from, has called for more protests, which hardly defuses the situation from needless escalation.
It is unlikely, of course, that these empirical realities will make much difference to the narrative that is about to unfold. Sensationalism rules the airwaves. In the coming days, as has happened before, radical voices looking for attention will be promoted, even by their erstwhile opponents, causing further polarization. It is an election year, and there are signs already that the right wing within the United States will use the events of the last few days as partisan political ammunition to attack President Barack Obama. In the region, no doubt, the Syrian regime is thankful that it has this kind of barbarism to point to in Benghazi, and is already taking full advantage, promoting itself as a victim of the same kind of "terrorism" within Syria. There will be other repercussions, undoubtedly.
Over the past two years, many of the people of this region have sacrificed a great deal to free themselves from oppression. The murder of Ambassador Stevens and others at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi should not cause us to forget those sacrifices. That kind of response would truly be a gift to the makers of the film as well as to those who incited these repugnant reactions. What has ensued can either continue spiraling into madness, or it can be a driver for positive change. Our shared future should not be ultimately left in the hands of an abysmal filmmaker, or populist radical manipulators.
Dr H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and Muslim world - West relations. He was previously Senior Practice Consultant at Gallup, and Senior Research Fellow at Warwick University. He tweets at @hahellyer; www.hahellyer.com.