Domestic and Foreign Extremists Behind the Cairo and Libya Attacks

09/17/2012 09:38 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2012
  • John L. Esposito Professor of Religion and International Affairs, Georgetown University

Once again extremists -- both the U.S.-based creators of the video, "Innocence of Muslims" and extremists in Cairo and Benghazi -- are the agents behind the latest flash point in a tragic 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and Cairo violence was reaction to a 14-minute, American-made anti-Islam video (alleged to be trailer for a film originally made in July).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, womanizer, 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?

Initial reports identified the man behind the film as an Israeli citizen who made a $5 million 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 U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed the ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three embassy staff members, and the Cairo riots that led to protesters intrusion into the US embassy grounds were the product of Salafist (religious ultra-conservatives) and militants in Libya and Egypt.

While both cases have significant differences, they 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 U.S. 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. As a result, terrorist groups, though still present and dangerous, are being marginalized and Salafists are less influential in elected governments.

Egypt is not Libya

Reports that emphasize the role of Salafists in both Egypt and Libya mask significant differences and reflect the fact that Salafi Islam is not monolithic. Salafists can be apolitical or political, non-violent or violent. The mass demonstrations in Cairo were led by the Nour and Asala Salafi political parties and were meant to portray them to the populace as the true defenders of the faith, the more authentic representatives of Islam versus the Muslim Brotherhood/Freedom and Justice Party dominated government of President Mohamed Morsi whose presidency has been more flexible and inclusive of all constituencies. The demonstrations turned ugly when a march became an unarmed mob that stormed the compound surrounding the United States Embassy in Cairo.

In contrast, the storming of the attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was not a spontaneous riot that 'got out of hand' but a well-planned attack by armed militants with anti-aircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.

Egypt's government called upon the U.S. to apologize and did not offer an official apology to the American government and its people for this inexcusable attack on a U.S. embassy.

In contrast, the Libyan government apologized to the U.S. 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. In Tunisia where Ennahda Islamists dominate the coalition government, Ennahda emphasized that it "strongly condemns the killing of the American ambassador in Libya and expresses its absolute rejection of such methods that contravene international law, diplomatic agreements, our ethics which respect treaties and our religion which forbids the killing of emissaries as stressed in the tradition of our Prophet peace be upon him."

While "Innocence of Muslims" did provoke outrage and demonstrations in the Arab world, it did much more. It demonstrated the dangerous potential of Islamophobic hate speech and its consequences: It played into the hands of Libyan terrorists; resulted in attacks on a U.S. embassy and consulate and the murder of U.S. diplomats, and is a potential threat to U.S.-Arab relations.