The murder of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens yesterday as an unopposed crowd ransacked and torched the consulate in Benghazi, along with a raucous protest at the US embassy in Cairo, are events that are going to reverberate for months to come. That the violence came on the anniversary of the 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington was not a coincidence.
Mr. Stevens was killed along with three other Americans in Libya's second-largest city, in protests that used as their pretext a hitherto unknown amateur film designed to insult the prophet Muhammad. Stevens was the first US ambassador murdered in the line of duty since Ambassador Adolph Dubs was assassinated in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1979. Early unconfirmed reports from Benghazi indicated the other dead Americans were Marines assigned to diplomatic security.
The ginned-up controversy over the film, which was propelled to violence by a rabble-rousing Egyptian television channel that presented the film as the work of the US government, recalls the protests over cartoons depicting Muhammad published in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005.
Then, there were violent protests across the Middle East over the exercise of free speech in a Western nation. In some ways, it was the beginning of an era of manufactured outrage, with a group of fringe hate-mongers in the West developing a symbiotic relationship with radical clerics across the East. The Westerners deliberately cause offense by describing Islam as a fundamentally violent religion, and all too often mobs in Muslim-majority states oblige by engaging in violence.
Terry Jones, a fringe evangelical Florida preacher, has been one of the instigators on the US end. In the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, he basked in the publicity of a planned Quran-burning and the threats and violence that ensued. Mr. Jones is involved in the latest manufactured controversy as well, since in the past week he's drawn attention to the deliberately insulting film, financed by a self-described Jewish-Israeli real estate developer Sam Bacile living in California.
Jones and Mr. Bacile cannot be blamed for the violence and death of the ambassador. That blame goes to the perpetrators. Who whipped them up? Ground zero for bringing attention to the movie in Egypt appears to be Al-Nas TV, a religious channel owned by Saudi Arabian businessman Mansour bin Kadsa. A TV show presented by anti-Christian, anti-Semitic host Khaled Abdullah before the violence showed what he said were clips from the film, which he insisted was being produced by the United States and Coptic (Egyptian) Christians.
The clip, dubbed from the US film into Arabic, was certainly inflammatory. It shows Muhammad as a grinning fool, talking to a donkey and dubbing it "the first Muslim animal." Max Fisher found a 14-minute video of the movie in English that is even worse, one badly acted anti-Islamic caricature after another, with all Muslims portrayed as cartoonishly violent and depraved child rapists, and a running "joke" that constantly calls Muhammad "the bastard of the unknown father." The frankly disgusting clip is included below.
But the filmmakers are among the least responsible for the chain reaction that followed. More responsible is Al-Nas, which turned it into an anti-Christian propaganda exercise of its own. Then there are national leaders. The US embassy in Cairo is nestled in the usually heavily-guarded Cairo neighborhood of Garden City, with security checkpoints in a half-mile perimeter before you can reach the embassy walls. Yet a group of protesters were not only allowed in, but allowed to scale the wall of the US embassy, stealing the US flag flying there and ripping it to shreds after replacing it with an Islamic flag. The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, now Egypt's president, has so far been silent on the total security failure at the embassy.
Events in Benghazi may be more forgivable from a security standpoint, given the turmoil of post-Qaddafi Libya and the general incompetence of the country's emerging security institutions. But video of the assault on the consulate there shows no signs of any security effort at all, and the results were pure tragedy.
That the US ambassador was murdered on a visit to Benghazi is part of a sad irony that will probably be played up in the US presidential race in the days ahead. The city was the center of the uprising against Qaddafi, and was saved from being overrun by Qaddafi's forces in March 2011 by US, French, UK, and other Western countries that pounded his armored column from the air. I was in Benghazi on the night the UN Security Council authorized force against Qaddafi, and witnessed the first cheering crowds I'd ever seen in the Middle East waving American flags.
But many Libyans are not just devout in their faith, but jingoistic in their approach, and eastern Libya has seen its share of religious violence. In February 2006, a mob attacked the Italian consulate in Benghazi after an Italian far-right politician wore a t-shirt with one of the Muhammad cartoons and burned it to the ground. Events in Benghazi are a reminder that gratitude in international politics is a short-lived phenomenon that decisions should never be based on.
Libyan deputy Interior Minister Wanis al-Sharif told a press conference in Tripoli that Qaddafi loyalists were responsible for the attack, which involved a well-armed militia, though he admitted to government security failings. Is he right? There are plenty of armed Islamist groups in the area who fought against Qaddafi who could have carried out the attack, and the 2006 attack on the Italian consulate developed into a general anti-Qaddafi protest, with many of the figures involved in the uprising against Qaddafi in 2011 present at the 2006 attack.
So far, there is no broader violence. But that could change.
In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, a man whose power is entirely owed to the billions of dollars spent by the US and NATO allies to install him and by the blood of the thousands of US, UK ,and other foreign nationals who have defended his government, wanted to make sure that Afghans were aware of the movie. His government issued a statement calling the film "inhuman and abusive." Could there be attacks on US troops or foreign staff over this in Afghanistan? That's sadly possible.
On April 2011, roughly 20 United Nations staffers were killed in the northern Afghan city of Mazir-e-Sharif after a compound was overrun by Afghans angry at Jones's first publicized Quran burning. In February and March of this year, six US soldiers were killed by Afghan soldiers and police in the aftermath of US soldiers dumping Qurans into a burn pit at Baghram airbase.