Posted by on September 12, 2012 in Blog

On the afternoon of September 11, a far-right political party and its affiliated football club – spurred on by Salafist Leader Wesam Abdel-Wareth – stormed the Cairo embassy walls, ripped down the U.S. flag, and replaced it with an Islamic banner.

Many watched these developments with increasing trepidation – especially given the day of the attack – and worried about the effects it would have both in the United States and across the Arab world.

The source of the mob’s anger was Innocence of Muslims, a poorly-shot film featuring American actors in brown-face, and depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a "womanizer, pedophile and fraud." The few available clips are so patently absurd that the video could quickly be dismissed as laughable were it not for the realization that this crisis would almost certainly result in the loss of lives.

Hours later, these fears were confirmed when another small group attacked the U.S. embassy in Libya with mortars and small-arms fire and killing four embassy personnel, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. This loss of life is unacceptable, and the mob mentality present at both attacks is a real danger to the security, stability, and diversity of countries still recovering from horrific political violence.

Unfortunately, the crisis also feeds directly into the agenda of Islamophobes here at home, who will be quick to use these events as a justification for their vilification of the Muslim faith as inherently violent and anti-Western. Some of these same individuals, however, likely played a role in the initial germination of the conflict by helping to fund, produce, and disseminate a film with the clear and expressed aim of inciting some sort of reaction.

Sam Bacile, the Israeli filmmaker ostensibly responsible for Innocence of Muslims (UPDATE: his true identity has been confirmed as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula), has referred to Islam as a "cancer" and openly stated that he hoped the film would be "provocative." Bacile was also aided by Morris Sadek, a Egyptian Copt who has condemned the Egyptian revolution, supported Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in his campaign against "the Muslim Brotherhood and other terrorist groups killing in the name of Allah," and recently claimed that "my enemy is the God of Islam." Sadek has been roundly condemned by the Coptic community in Egypt. The infamous Pastor Terry Jones is also rumored to be involved in the distribution of the film.

These individuals, along with countless others who helped raise over $5 million for the film, dub it into Arabic, and distribute clips widely across the internet, are constitutionally entitled to these actions, and that liberty should be protected. But perfectly legal actions can also be morally reprehensible, as was Pastor Jones’ previous attempt to burn Qurans on the anniversary of 9/11. Fully aware that their actions might lead to controversy, violence, and possibly death, they were happy to slander and demean others for cheap personal gain, and this mentality was rightly condemned by President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and diplomats within the Cairo embassy itself.

The criminals who spurred the mob violence in Egypt and Libya are in many ways the flip side of the same coin; individuals who were happy to slander, exaggerate, and incite at will if it served their own demagogic purposes. We have written before about the symbiotic relationship between extremists in the Middle East and their far-right counterparts in the U.S., and it is deeply unfortunate that such behavior is often rewarded instead of condemned.

Equally reprehensible is the use of the tragedy for cheap political gain. Some political figures, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have derided the U.S. Embassy in Egypt for tweeting – before and during the attacks – that “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others…as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

Attacking the very people who were attacked by protestors is odious enough, but the accusation that the condemnation of hate speech is somehow akin to "apologiz[ing] for American values and the right of free speech" denigrates the spirit of tolerance, and needlessly portrays the conflict as a zero-sum game between “us” and “them” when in reality no such dichotomy exists.

It was likely this mentality that led the Daily Caller to post photographs of the Ambassador’s body in the arms of a Libyan man with the sensational headline:"DRAGGED THROUGH THE STREETS." President Obama claimed earlier today that the Libyans were actually carrying the Ambassador to a hospital to receive treatment.

The anti-Muslim rhetoric surrounding the attack is also the likely cause of an attack on a mosque in the French city of Limoges, which was smeared with excrement earlier today.

Meanwhile, fanatics in Egypt and Libya are using these statements to further foment anger at the U.S., Arab Christians, and other targets, fueling a deadly spiral that could easily unravel the delicate balance in these already-fragile states.

Without responsible leadership, the anger is likely to rise on both sides, and violence will not be far behind. As a society, we must acknowledge that protecting free speech and condemning hate speech are not mutually exclusive. We must also work toward a more stable, more prosperous Arab world, where disenfranchisement, repression, and poverty provide ideal circumstances for mob violence and misdirected rage.

Individuals in the US embassy in Egypt should be applauded for standing up for these principles:

We must also honor the legacy of the four Americans and ten Libyans who lost their lives defending the embassy, and strive for a more open and mutually-respectful interaction with the rest of the world. We must bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice, but we must also take great care not to conflate their actions with the Arab or Muslim people as a whole. We must condemn these attacks unequivocally, but should acknowledge that political marginalization of average citizens creates fertile conditions for demagoguery and mob violence. And we must roundly denounce the creation of the vile film that prompted it, even while defending their right to produce it.

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