The violence looked spontaneous; it was anything but. Instead it was the product of a sequence of provocations, some mysterious, some obvious. It seemed to start in the U.S., then became magnified in Egypt and was brought to a deadly and sorrowful climax in Libya — all on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. The cast of characters in this tragedy included a shadowy filmmaker, a sinister pastor in Florida, an Egyptian-American Islamophobe, an Egyptian TV host, politically powerful Islamist extremist groups and, just possibly, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Libya. The instigators and executors didn’t work in concert; they probably didn’t even know they were in cahoots. Indeed, some of them would sooner die than knowingly help the others’ causes. Nonetheless, the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was the result of a collective effort, with grievous consequences.
As the Obama Administration struggles to contain the fallout of the killings — and even to piece together exactly what happened — there’s an increasing apprehension that this attack may herald a new genre of Middle East crisis. The Arab Spring replaced the harsh order of hated dictators with a flowering of neophyte democracies. But these governments—with weak mandates, ever shifting loyalties and poor security forces—have made the region a more chaotic and unstable place, a place more susceptible than ever to rogue provocateurs fomenting violent upheavals, usually in the name of faith.
Collectively, these hatemongers form a global industry of outrage, working feverishly to give and take offense, frequently over religion, and to ignite the combustible mix of ignorance and suspicion that exists almost as much in the U.S. as in the Arab world. Add to this combination the presence of opportunistic jihadist groups seeking to capitalize on any mayhem, and you can begin to connect the dots between a tawdry little film and the deaths of four American diplomats.
Start with the filmmaker behind Innocence of Muslims, a purported biopic of the Prophet Muhammad that, according to some accounts, sparked the demonstrations in Cairo and Benghazi. He goes by the name Sam Bacile, but almost nothing is known about him. Or even whether he exists. Some reports suggest the name is a pseudonym.
There have been other films about the Prophet, but since Islamic traditions forbid any depiction of Muhammad, Muslim filmmakers tend to focus instead on his contemporaneous followers and foes. In the 1977 film The Message, for instance, Muhammad remains always off camera and is never heard, but other historical figures (including his uncle Hamza, played by Anthony Quinn) address him.
The film made by Bacile makes no such concessions to Muslim sensibilities. Indeed, showing Muhammad is the film’s only innovation. The accusations it makes about him are rehashed from old Islamophobic tropes; the script is clunky and the acting high-school-ish. The movie was apparently made last year, and although the filmmaker claimed to have spent $5 million on it, the production values suggest a much more modest budget. Before going into hiding in the wake of the violence in Cairo and Benghazi, Bacile (or someone pretending to be him) defiantly told the Associated Press that he regards Islam as “a cancer, period.”
The film was screened in Hollywood early this year but made no waves whatsoever. Bacile then posted a 14-min. series of clips on YouTube in July; that too got no traction. But it caught the attention of Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-American Copt in Washington, D.C., known for incendiary anti-Muslim statements and blog posts. In early September, Sadek stitched together clips of the film and posted them on an Arabic-language blog. He also sent a link to the post in a mass e-mail. In the meantime, the film had attracted a singularly unattractive fan: Terry Jones, pastor of a church in Gainesville, Fla., who is notorious for burning the Koran and performing other Islamophobic stunts. He promoted the film online and added fuel to the flames by posting his own YouTube video, calling for the “trial” of the Prophet, for fraud and other supposed crimes. Jones’ video features an effigy wearing a demon mask and hanging from a noose.
Soon after that, the thread was picked up in Egypt by a TV host every bit as inflammatory and opportunistic as Jones: Sheik Khaled Abdallah of the Islamist satellite-TV station al-Nas. Supported by unknown backers, the channel traffics in demagoguery and hatemongering. Abdallah is its star. In previous broadcasts, he has called the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring “worthless kids” and condemned newspapers that don’t support his views. But he reserves his harshest criticism for the country’s Coptic Christians, who make up about a tenth of the population.
For Abdallah, the fact that a Copt was promoting an anti-Muhammad film endorsed by the Koran-burning pastor was too much. On his Sept. 8 show, he broadcast some of the clips, now dubbed in Arabic. In one scene that was aired, “Muhammad” declares a donkey the “first Muslim animal” and asks the creature if it likes the ladies. Abdallah’s show, complete with the offensive video, was also posted on YouTube, and it has attracted over 300,000 views.
Abdallah’s show was a dog whistle to the Salafists, a fundamentalist Islamic movement that makes up the second largest faction in the Egyptian parliament. For months, organized Salafist groups had been protesting in small numbers in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, calling for the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik currently in a North Carolina prison, convicted for plotting a series of bombings and assassinations in the 1990s. They were joined on Sept. 11 by prominent leaders like Nader Bakar of the Salafist Nour Party and Mohammed al-Zawahiri, brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s longtime deputy and now head of al-Qaeda.
The leaders had left by the time the mob attacked the embassy and took down the U.S. flag, while Egyptian security forces, hopelessly outnumbered, mostly just watched. The crowd eventually dispersed. Afterward, some Salafist leaders said the flag was snatched by members of a soccer-hooligan group known as the Ahli Ultras.
Not far from Egypt’s western border, in the Libyan city of Benghazi, on the anniversary of the 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center, the Muhammad movie had provoked another mob of several hundred mostly Salafist protesters to gather at the U.S. consulate. Many witnesses have since fingered a group known as Ansar al-Shari‘a for organizing the protests; the group denies it.
Ambassador Stevens, visiting from Tripoli, was an unlikely target. He had worked closely with the leaders of the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi and was well liked by most Libyans. But some reports now suggest that lurking amid the mob was a more malevolent force: members of the local chapter of al-Qaeda.
Only the previous day, Ayman al-Zawahiri had issued a new videotaped statement from his hideout, confirming the death of his Libyan deputy Abu Yahya al-Libi in a June U.S. drone strike and calling for him to be avenged. Reports from Benghazi say armed jihadists infiltrated the protesting crowds. An al-Qaeda-affiliated group known as the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades is suspected to have carried out the attack. The White House was still scrambling a day after the attack to piece together what happened and whether it could have been prevented. A senior Administration official said the Benghazi attack was “complex” and “well organized” but would not comment on reports that it was planned in advance by militants using the protest as a diversion.
The terrorists struck twice: one set of grenades forced consulate staff to flee the main building while a second targeted the building to which they were evacuated. The attack did not appear spontaneous or amateurish. Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith and two others were killed. The ambassador was declared dead from smoke inhalation.
If Muslims responded violently to every online insult to their faith, there would be riots in Cairo and Benghazi every day of the year. The Internet is full of malefactors who constantly say, write or broadcast appalling things about Islam. (And there are plenty of Muslim Web nuts who vilify other belief systems.) It is the outrage machine, manned by people like Bacile, Jones and Abdallah, who push matters into anger overdrive. They know the outcome of their efforts will be violence and subversion. These men are enabled by media — mainstream and fringe alike — that give them air to bloviate and a political culture that makes little effort to take away their oxygen.
Before the Arab Spring, this chain of events would likely have been stopped early. Dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Gaddafi either blocked Internet access to prevent their people from seeing inflammatory material (among other things) or used their security agencies to crack down on protests long before they could reach critical mass.
But democratically elected governments don’t have recourse to such draconian methods. Still unused to power, they are unsure how to deal with angry demonstrations, especially when they are mounted by powerful religious or political groups. The tendency has been to look the other way and hope the demonstrators run out of steam.
It doesn’t always work. The Salafists in Libya were emboldened by the failure of the government in Tripoli to crack down on them when they recently desecrated Sufi shrines. The Minister of the Interior (he has since resigned) said he didn’t want to risk the lives of his security forces in order to apprehend the culprits. “The Libyan authorities have been irresponsibly lazy in confronting this threat,” says Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “They have a choice to make. Are they going to be a country connected to the outside world, or are they going to allow a small number of people in their midst to make that impossible?”
At least Libya’s President Mohamed el-Magariaf swiftly apologized to all Americans for the attack on the consulate and promised to hunt down those responsible: 24 hours after the attack on the embassy in Cairo, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy had not issued a similar statement. When he finally did, he seemed less concerned with what had happened at the embassy and more with the affront to the Prophet, which he condemned “in the strongest terms.” The Muslim Brotherhood, on its Twitter feed, condemned the Benghazi attack but made no mention of the one in Cairo.
The Egyptian government’s almost insouciant response, hardly in keeping with the country’s status as the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, will rankle both President Obama and his domestic critics. In the hours after the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, Republicans piled on the President, questioning the wisdom of his outreach to Islamist political forces like the Brotherhood. Even political allies were moved to wonder whether Egypt could really be a reliable friend.
Morsy’s silence has been interpreted by Egyptian analysts as a reluctance to prod the Salafists, whose help he may need to get anything done in parliament. But other political figures were equally pusillanimous. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent liberal secular leader, tweeted, “Humanity can only live in harmony when sacred beliefs and the prophets are respected.” That kind of timidity empowers not only the Salafists but also instigators like Abdallah and his American counterparts.
For an understanding of what can happen when the industry of outrage is allowed to function without check, look at Pakistan, where hatemongers continually stoke anger not only against faraway foreigners but just as frequently — and with more deadly results — against their own people. Minorities like the Ahmadiyya sect are an easy target for extremist TV hosts like Aamir Liaquat Hussain, a former Minister of Religious Affairs. On his show broadcast by Geo TV in 2008, guest scholars declared the Ahmadiyyas “deserving to be murdered for blasphemy.” Soon after, two members of the sect were killed. Hussain was forced to apologize and leave Geo but has since returned to the station.
Other Pakistani provocateurs target the Shi‘ite community, which makes up 10% to 20% of the population. Militant groups with links to political parties as well as the country’s all-powerful military are frequently behind violent attacks against Shi‘ites. Criticism of such groups is often denounced by extremist preachers as blasphemy, which is punishable by death under Pakistani law.
When Salman Taseer, the governor of the country’s largest province and an outspoken critic of the blasphemy law, was killed by his bodyguard last year, the murderer was declared a hero by many. Munir Ahmed Shakir, the influential imam of Karachi’s giant Sultan Mosque, is just one of many who have pronounced as “non-Muslims” all those seeking to amend the blasphemy laws.
The new normal in Egypt and Libya is not as perilous as in Pakistan. Not yet. But as the fledgling democracies of the Middle East struggle to cope with the genies unleashed by the Arab Spring, you can count on the industry of outrage to work overtime to drag the Middle East in that direction.
— With reporting by Ashraf Khalil/Cairo, Jahanzeb Aslam/Islamabad, Aryn Baker/Beirut, Vivienne Walt/Paris and Massimo Calabresi, Mark Thompson, Elizabeth Dias and Jay Newton-Small/Washington