Domestic and foreign extremists behind the Cairo and Libya attacks

Religious extremists exploit underlying East-West animosity, fomenting mob violence for their own political ends.

Press conference about the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi
The Libyan government was quick to condemn the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi [EPA]

Once again extremists – both the US-based creators of the video, Innocence of Muslims and extremists in Cairo and Benghazi, and subsequently from the Arab world to Southeast Asia – are the agents behind the latest tragic flash point in death and destruction. 

The constructive role that social media played in the Arab Spring has been offset by a reminder of how the power of social media is global, can go viral, and become a vehicle of hate speech and violence. The ostensible trigger for both the Benghazi and Cairo violence was reaction to a 14-minute, American-made anti-Islam video (alleged to be trailer for a film originally made in July). Scenes from the YouTube video, Innocence of Muslims, portray the Prophet Muhammad as a buffoon, illegitimate (referred to as a “bastard”), greedy, bloodthirsty, womaniser, homosexual and child molester. It was meant to incite fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims and provoke Muslims – and so it did.

Who is behind the anti-Muslim video?

 A look at who made the anti-Islam video and why?

Initial reports identified the man behind the film as an Israeli citizen who made a $5m film bankrolled by 100 wealthy Jews and promoted by a network of right-wing Christians with a history of animosity directed toward Muslims. More recently, the man behind the film has been identified as a hardline anti-Muslim Egyptian-American Copt and convicted embezzler. In contrast, Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles declared: “We condemn this film… Our Christian teaching is we have to respect people of other faiths.”

Who is behind the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi?

The terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three embassy staff, and the Cairo riots seem similar but share in common the incitement and exploitation of popular outrage among many Muslims, as we have witnessed during the Salman Rushdie and Danish cartoons affairs. They exploit deep seated popular anti-American sentiment, based on decades of resentment over US and European foreign policies in the Middle East.  

The primary drivers or motives behind both attacks are political agendas reflecting the shifting political landscape in the Arab world. Here more moderate and flexible forces (both Islamists and secularists) are struggling to build emerging democracies.

Initial reports indicated that the mass demonstrations in Cairo were led by some hardline Salafists who see themselves as the true defenders of the faith. The demonstrations turned ugly when an unarmed mob, consisting of the kind of young hired thugs often used by the Mubarak regime at election time and during the Tahrir Square uprising against the opposition, stormed the compound surrounding the United States Embassy in Cairo. Subsequent days of rioting reveal similar scenes. In Egypt – as in Tunisia – demonstrators are often instigated by former government loyalists and other opposition to embarrass the current government leadership and spread chaos.

In contrast, the storming of the attack against the US consulate in Benghazi was not a spontaneous riot that “got out of hand” but a vicious attack by armed militants with anti-aircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades that murdered US diplomats.

The bad news has good news

The tragic events of the last week have strained relations, revealed deep seated pockets of anti-Americanism, outrage over the denigration of Islam and Muslims by a deliberately provocative and vulgar anti-Islam American made video. These protests – exploited by violent extremists – have spread from North Africa to Southeast Asia, often leading to mob violence and the death of innocent civilians, and have tested new Arab governments and their peoples. But the bad news also reveals good news if we look at responses from Libya and Egypt.

The Libyan government was quick to apologise to the US, as did many Libyans in Tripoli and Benghazi, who took to the streets in demonstrations with signs of apology and support condemning the attack and expressing their sorrow at the murder of Ambassador Stevens and embassy staff.

Initially, Egypt’s government was slower to respond. In contrast to Libya, President Morsi called upon the US to apologise and did not offer an official apology to the American government and its people for this inexcusable attack on a US embassy. Critics charged that this revealed the inability of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government to function by leading the country and establishing relations with the US. But on September 13, Khairat El-Shater, Deputy President of the Muslim Brotherhood responded:

“Despite our resentment of the continued appearance of productions like the anti-Muslim film that led to the current violence, we do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression.

In a new democratic Egypt, Egyptians earned the right to voice their anger over such issues, and they expect their government to uphold and protect their right to do so. However, they should do so peacefully and within the bounds of the law.

The breach of the United States Embassy premises by Egyptian protestors is illegal under international law. The failure of the protecting police force has to be investigated.

We are relieved that no embassy staff in Cairo were harmed. Egypt is going through a state of revolutionary fluidity, and public anger needs to be dealt with responsibly and with caution. Our condolences to the American people for the loss of their ambassador and three members of the embassy staff in Libya.”

Ennahda leadership’s response to subsequent violence and deaths in Tunisia echoed similar sentiments:

While we strongly condemn the repeated attacks on Islam and in particular on the Prophet peace be upon him, we stress the following:

-The need to work towards promulgating international legislation that criminalises incitement to hatred through attacks on beliefs.

-The need for condemnation of such deplorable attacks on faith and refraining from justifying them under any pretext, such as freedom of expression, while insisting on commitment to the limits of civilised and peaceful protest, as taught by the merciful example of the prophet peace be upon him.

-Strong condemnation of the exploitation by certain groups of anger at these provocative attacks in order to incite people and cause protests to deviate from their peaceful and civilised nature and the use of violence against those who are, religiously and legally-speaking, in a special state of protection as members of diplomatic missions.

Some charge that the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi (and most recently in Yemen) and angry demonstrations in the streets of Tunisia and elsewhere signal an Arab Winter not an Arab Spring, the failure of emerging democracies and the danger when Islamists come to power. 

As with the US and Europe, despite similarities, each country in the Arab world is distinctively different and must be considered separately. None are the same in terms of their populations, domestic politics, nature of their Islamic movements and parties, education and literacy of populations. 

Redefining the nature of Arab nation states and building strong civil societies after decades of authoritarian rule will not be easy. As with the experiences of America’s and France’s post-revolutionary periods, it will be a rocky road of trial and error, failures and success, with bouts of civil unrest, conflict – and, at times, violence.

John L Esposito is University Professor and Professor of Religion and International Affairs, Georgetown University. His recent books are The Future of Islam (with I Kalin) and Islamophobia and the Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century.