By now, everyone has heard the news about the tragic and senseless loss of life at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the equally disconcerting breach of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt.. As news continues to pour in, it is important to try and avoid knee-jerk reactions that oversimplify a tragedy with dynamic and complex causes.
While the attacks in Egypt and Libya are being linked to an Islamophobic film (specifically its fourteen minute trailer posted on YouTube), the fact that the film has been out for months suggests the true cause goes deeper. Tuesday's attacks occurred on September 11, a day with obvious symbolism. That there was such a response in Egypt and Libya, but not other Muslim states further suggests a level of coordination and planning. Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example, are two countries that often erupt in anger at perceived insults against Islam, and yet – knock on wood – no attacks or demonstrations have taken place in response to the video. The ‘film’ may have been the spark, but it is likely an excuse to act out against the United States for any of the myriad reasons groups like the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigade – the primary suspects of the attack in Libya – cite when targeting the U.S.: transgressions against Muslims the world over, meddling in local affairs, killing of a prominent cell leader, and so on. The timing and location of the attacks makes it clear that this was not a spontaneous eruption of violence.
The attacks are not a ‘failure’ of the Obama administration’s Middle East policies. Nor do they suggest that NATO involvement in the Libyan uprising was a mistake. It is not surprising that the violent attack occurred in Libya rather than Egypt, where both the government and security services are stronger. Libya is still very much a state in flux, flush with weapons and tribal grievances, and in a part of the world that is no stranger to terrorist groups or religious fundamentalism. That the Libyan government moved so quickly to denounce the attacks on the U.S. Consulate should be seen as a positive sign that the country is keen on managing positive relations with the U.S. rather than embrace the brand of radicalism many feared it would.
Even more troubling is the video itself. It is being reported that the film was made by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who tried to hide his real identity by using the pseudonym‘Sam Bacile.’ It seems to be a case of fundamentalist cowards on one side hiding behind the First Amendment, and fundamentalist cowards on the other side using the movie as an excuse to lash out against the U.S. while hiding behind their religious interpretations and sensitivities.
This is not about failed policy. This is not about First Amendment rights. This is about the convergence of domestic politics in the U.S. and the Middle East, where small elements within both attempt to bring the rest to their knees through violence and hate, without which their views have no power. This is about four people being killed by those who mask politics with religion. And that, ultimately, is the real tragedy.