The Middle East Channel

Ending the radicalization spiral after the tragedy in Libya

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;


The Middle East Channel

U.S. ambassador to Libya killed in attack on consulate

Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. officials have been reported killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate late Tuesday night in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi. Protesters armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades stormed the consulate and set it on fire, according to Libyan officials. One report said the Americans were killed when gunmen opened fire on their car as they were being evacuated, while others stated Ambassador Stevens died from smoke inhalation. The assault was sparked by a protest against a low-budget film made by an Israeli-American from California, Sam Bacile, and promoted by an Egyptian expatriate. The trailer to the film, "Innocence of Muslims," which was posted on YouTube, has been criticized for being highly insulting to Muslims, denigrating the Prophet Muhammad. The film also spurred an attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo, where demonstrators breached the compound and pulled down and burned the U.S. flag, which had been flying at half-mast for the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have condemned the attacks, joined by Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagur.


Syrian opposition forces killed at least 18 Syrian soldiers in a car bombing and attack on a military post in Idlib province. Four Armenian Syrians were killed and 13 injured in clashes about three miles from Aleppo's airport. It is not certain who initiated the fighting. Government forces shelled several neighborhoods in Aleppo, killing an estimated 13 people, mostly civilians. According to the Local Coordination Committees, up to 136 people were killed across Syria Tuesday, mostly in Aleppo, Damascus and its suburb, and Hama. A group of nearly 300 Filipino workers have returned to Manila fleeing Syria's civil war, in repatriation negotiated between Syria and the Philippines. There are an estimated 3,600 additional Filipino workers in Syria with 3,000 who have expressed a desire to stay despite the conflict. Meanwhile, U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is set to meet with President Bashar al-Assad in his first visit to Damascus since taking the post. The trip will come just days after Egypt hosted a summit on Syria with diplomats from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt.


  • The White House insists there is no rift between the United States and Israel, as Prime Minister Netanyahu chides President Obama for failure to set "red lines" on Iran's nuclear development.
  • The Palestinian Authority has announced a package of subsidies and tax cuts in addition to canceling a tax hike in efforts to quell West Bank economic protests.
  • Libya's 200-member national congress is electing a new prime minister on Wednesday, picking from eight candidates, including Mahmoud Jibril, who led the transitional council during last year's revolution. 

Arguments & Analysis 

Seven Lean Years of Peacemaking' (Daniel Levy, The New York Times)

"That Israel will never live in peace and security with the Palestinians or the wider Arab and Muslim world under such terms doesn't seem to matter. Forty-five years of Israeli impunity as settlements metastasized in defiance of international law has bred an understandable sense of invincibility. Add to that mix the emaciated state of liberal Israeli politics, the messianic orientation that infuses religious nationalism and the catastrophism endemic to much Zionist thinking - and the seven lean years look set to continue. But don't be under any illusions; such injustice will not be sustainable

...The choices are stark. Either Israel takes bold and urgent action to reverse the 1.5 percent doctrine by getting out of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or it acknowledges that the doctrine has triumphed and embraces a democratic solution that moves beyond the classic two-state paradigm and guarantees full and equal rights for all residents in some form of confederation or unitary state."

The Future of Egypt's Electoral Law' (Daniel Tavana, Sada)

"The architects of Egypt's transition and those responsible for drafting the constitution have given little thought to the future of the country's electoral law-a critical component of sustainable democracy. Seemingly bigger issues have come to dominate the attention of decision makers in recent months: curbing institutional interests, checking the power of the military, and holding a broader debate on the role of religion in politics. Debate over these issues has come at the expense of discussing inclusive laws regulating elections and the legitimate transfer of political power."

Turkey is No Partner for Peace' (Halil Karaveli, Foreign Affairs)

"At first glance, it appears that the United States and Turkey are working hand in hand to end the Syrian civil war. On August 11, after meeting with Turkish officials, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement that the two countries' foreign ministries were coordinating to support the Syrian opposition and bring about a democratic transition. In Ankara on August 23, U.S. and Turkish officials turned those words into action, holding their first operational planning meeting aimed at hastening the downfall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Beneath their common desire to oust Assad, however, Washington and Ankara have two distinctly different visions of a post-revolutionary Syria. The United States insists that any solution to the Syrian crisis should guarantee religious and ethnic pluralism. But Turkey, which is ruled by a Sunni government, has come to see the conflict in sectarian terms, building close ties with Syria's Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Sunni opposition, seeking to suppress the rights of Syrian Kurds, and castigating the minority Alawites -- Assad's sect -- as enemies. That should be unsettling for the Obama administration, since it means that Turkey will not be of help in promoting a multi-ethnic, democratic government in Damascus. In fact, Turkish attitudes have already contributed to Syria's worsening sectarian divisions."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey 

AFP/Getty Images