Tragic Violence in Libya: No Excuse for Perpetrators—or for Provocateurs

With the tragic killing of the American ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and several of his staff as a consequence of an attack on a US consulate in Benghazi (where the Libyan revolution, that we supported, began, I might add), and the nearly simultaneous storming of the US embassy in Cairo, maybe we’re now thinking: is it Iran all over again? Has the Arab Spring turned into an anti-American winter?

I remember thinking, about Western intervention in Libya, that this all had a familiar ring to it. But perhaps this time would be different, many of us hoped. How, though, one conflict can escape the reality of its conditions and not realize certain consequences is beyond me. If you overthrow a dictatorship that has suffocated the political, social, and cultural life of a country for decades you invite some measure of anarchy, especially when the forces that overthrow that dictatorship are divided amongst themselves.

Certainly, the New York Times is correct to point out that such violence only indicates the continuing unpopularity of America in much of the Middle East—we would do well to consider how America’s government’s policies become hopelessly imbricated in the actions of anti-Muslim bigots here and in Europe. But this violence isn’t a simple response to American policies (nor is this evidence of a congenitally Islamic inability to accept criticism), and cannot be dismissed as such.

There are a few points to keep in mind as we try to understand how an amateurish fourteen-minute film produces such a dramatically disproportionate and wholly offensive counter-reaction.

First, the storming of the US embassy in Iran was quickly hijacked by the hardline Ayatollahs who used confrontation with America as a pretext to seize control of the Iranian revolution and crush one-time revolutionary allies, such as liberals, Islamic socialists, Marxists, and plain old nationalists of uncertain ideology. Of course, the Shah of Iran, like the latter-day Qaddafi and Mubarak, were dictatorial and repressive heads of state supported by us, but that doesn’t mean that the Ayatollahs didn’t strategically use anti-American sentiment to bolster their own power and sideline their enemies.

There is no one comparable to the Ayatollah Khomeini in either Egypt or in Libya. In Libya, government forces even battled the attackers who torched the US consulate; Libyan government officials, many of whom began their revolt in Benghazi and knew Christopher Stevens, promptly issued an apology to the American people. We should thus consider how local forces might use anti-American sentiment strategically, and understand the difference between anti-American sentiment and the ends towards which it is put. So far, these attacks seem to be outbursts of anger, and not directed acts of political intrigue.

Second, it is depressing how easily anti-Muslim sentiment can trigger violent response—among a minority of Muslims. Certainly it deserves noting that violence in Libya and Egypt against our country was the action of a minority, but the minority that is willing to resort to violence, spectacle, and brutality always looms larger in the mind than the quiet majority. The fact that many, if not most, Muslims may be offended by anti-Muslim screeds and yet not resort to violence or even make any kind of protest will likely be ignored. (I, for example, find the film in question—on which more below—to be disgusting, but I never bothered to write anything on it until now.)

Third, certain patterns remain in effect even eleven years after the September 11 attacks. This is also depressing. The attacks on the US Consulate in Libya and the US Embassy in Cairo were allegedly in response to the aforementioned short film that links contemporary Muslim violence against religious minorities to a caricature of Islam’s last Prophet (not, as the Times put it, its “founding” prophet—Islam’s founding prophet would be Adam, as in the Adam of Adam and Eve.) This film was produced by a man who calls Islam a “cancer,” and was promoted by Terry Jones, who seems to best love undermining his country’s soldiers and diplomats time and again.

Consider for a moment: How do we think this kind of film plays out in the minds of those to whom American foreign policy seems wrapped up in anti-Muslim sentiment? (Consider, for example, how the fate of Adnan Latif is read across the Atlantic.)

Terry Jones, mind you, is the same pastor who made a public spectacle of burning a Qur’an; he also reportedly hanged President Obama in effigy. Consider him a political actor who exploits anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world to dramatically complicate our government’s policies, and thus hurt President Obama. He has an amazing ability to insert himself into controversies or create them, and then cause endless headaches for our government, not to mention throwing away the billions upon billions of dollars that our government has spent.

That the majority of Americans want to have nothing to do with Terry Jones or fringe anti-Muslim films is likewise clearly lost on some Muslims, for whom the spectacle of violence against Islam—burned Qur’ans at a Florida church are inseparable in the minds of some from insults against Islam wrapped into techniques of torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib—is cause for violent action. This is reprehensible, and clearly and openly un-Islamic. The Prophet Muhammad is famous in the Islamic tradition for being “a mercy to all the worlds,” so kind and gentle that he once rent his own garment—no small thing for a man who lived most of his life in severe poverty—so as not to wake up a cat that had fallen asleep on his arm.

Further, the absurdity of trying to defend the honor of Islam by engaging in behavior that only encourages the further mockery of Islam’s most important figure shouldn’t even need to be pointed out. But there you have it. Worse still, time and again such behavior leads to disastrous consequences for Muslim communities and individuals. Worse still, the reprehensible actions of the few target and often kill the best people. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was well liked in Libya, and a veteran of postings across the Middle East. He was the kind of person the American government is lucky to have on its side. (I remember, some years back, that a famous Muslim filmmaker, who had made the first big-budget movie about the Prophet Muhammad, was killed by al-Qaeda in one of its typical indiscriminate attacks. He was attending his daughter’s wedding.)

But in mourning Stevens’ loss, and the loss of other of our diplomatic staff, we should also consider the childish behavior of some Americans that contributes to such heartache. Pastor Terry Jones’ burning of the Qur’an last year led to riots and deaths in Afghanistan, not to mention his foolishly endangering the thousands of troops, diplomats, and other Americans still stationed there. His promotion of this latest film has now contributed in some way to violence in Libya and Egypt, and that includes the death of one of our best ambassadors.

We are on the precipice of war with Iran. The Middle East is deeply unstable, and we are unfortunately caught up in much of that uncertainty. This is not the time for inflammatory action; there are anti-democratic forces in the region who would relish the chance to create or exploit controversy and use it, on the Iranian model, to further their suffocating ends. In light of that, we should ask: What is Terry Jones doing, as much as we should ask, what are Islamic extremists doing?

When you know an action will lead to a violent counter-reaction, the victims of which are your fellow Americans, what does it mean when you continue to engage in it, and with a sick kind of enthusiasm? (Muslim extremists regularly engage in actions that bring harm upon their fellow Muslims, and seem to think nothing of it.) Does Jones selfishly think himself the only brave American, naively upturning delicately constructed foreign policy and difficult questions of strategy and policy, in the name of some kind of stand for freedom? That is too easy an excuse.

moghul@gmail.com'

RD Senior Correspondent Haroon Moghul is a Fellow both at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Haroon is completing his doctorate at Columbia University and is the author of The Order of Light (Penguin, 2006). He's been a guest on CNN, BBC, The History Channel, NPR, Russia Today and al-Jazeera.