Looking at Libya, and at Ourselves

This morning, my friend and colleague, Haroon Moghul, wrote a piece on the violence in Libya and Egypt—exactly what we needed to hear based on the information we had earlier today. But it now appears that the attacks against American interests in North Africa had little to do with the racist, oddly pornographic film about Muhammad, but was part of a coordinated Al-Qaeda plot to avenge the death of one of their own.

We have become so conditioned to assume that Muslims are so sensitive to slights that they have no regard for human life—a contradiction I cannot understand—that we collectively assumed that the film was the proximate cause of the attack on the embassies. Many of us have argued, especially during the Danish cartoon crisis, that much of the outrage we see in the Muslim-majority world is geared to serving local political concerns, and are not representative of the larger population. As Haroon points out, these events were feared to be the sign of an Arab winter after the Arab Spring, and that the Arab world really was violently reactionary. 

Today’s events show us something else: rational actors, who died tried to protect the American who gave so much to them. There are numerous reports of Libyans dying protecting the compound where Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed, taking him to a hospital, and having both people on the street and the government of Libya saying this does not represent them. 

As Sarah Posner, Laura Rozen, Max Blumenthal, and Jeff Goldberg have all pointed out, the so-called “Israeli Jew,” who raised $5 million from 100 “Jews,” is probably a made-up identity that has nothing to do with Israel or Judaism. This use of a Jewish identity plays into another stereotype, that Jews and Muslims hate each other. It would have been easy to craft a story that divided Copts in Egypt from Muslims and Jews and Muslims because of these stereotypes. Although, if you actually watch the film, you see that it is filled with recycled anti-Semitic portrayals of the man interested only in money and “good” women. 

Instead of looking for “savages” over “there,” perhaps we should look at home. The creators of this film wanted it to create violence and almost seem to be proud that Al-Qaeda is using their film for propaganda. I firmly believe in free speech, including the responsibilities that come with it. But should we allow speech that instigates violence? The longer we sit with a story of what we think we know about violence and Muslims, the more violence we fail to perceive, right in our midst.