Video of a Dying Ambassador
As video emerges of the dying U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, being dragged out of a window, and as Western interests around the world continue to be attacked, it is easy to conclude that Muslims are holding us—‘The West’—accountable for a farcical YouTube video badmouthing Mohammed, seemingly orchestrated by a Coptic Egyptian residing in the U.S.
The problem with this conclusion, and the reason we need to question its accuracy, is that it is posed on both a hypocritical and flawed premise.
In the same way we believe Muslims are holding ‘The West’ responsible for the video of Mohammed, we too, in echoes of previous behavior, are holding the actions of a few Muslims as representative of Islam.
On September 12, BBC stated that the U.S. Ambassador to Libya had died after an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The article asserted that armed men had stormed the Benghazi consulate “amid uproar among Muslims over a film produced in the U.S. said to insult the Prophet Muhammad.” Four days later, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, told Fox News that the violence was triggered by the anti-Muslim video and was not a pre-planned attack. “…What sparked the recent violence was the airing on the Internet of a very hateful, very offensive video that has offended many people around the world,” she said.
Such statements make tenuous and convenient connections about motives that play to our aforementioned conclusion, with little regard to accuracy, clarity or reason (especially in light of recent reports suggesting an elaborately planned ambush in Benghazi). After all, the recently released video of Ambassador Stevens appears to show Libyans at the scene trying to save his life and rejoicing at signs of vitality.
Similarly, a few days after the attack on the Benghazi compound, insurgents in Afghanistan executed a brazen and extremely successful attack on British-run Camp Bastion that left two marines dead and caused over $200 million in damage. The Taliban were quick to link the attack to the anti-Muslim video, and media outlets alike were quick to buy the motive. Experts, however, quickly pointed out the impossibility of such a sophisticated attack being planned in the short space of time following the video controversy.
The kneejerk conventional wisdom assumes these events are tied solely to the video and not representative of other frustrations. We are quick to accept claims that spectacular attacks like those in Libya and Afghanistan are in retribution for a ten-minute YouTube video while seemingly ignoring alternative explanations: gross misfortune, a significant anniversary, a ten-year war, and decades of Western interference in the affairs of the Islamic world.
Even Sydney-based fundamentalist sheikh Feiz Mohammed, best known for issuing controversial and extremely anti-pluralistic statements, condemned the global violence while linking it to the political arena, saying to an Australian newspaper that he believed the anger stemmed from Muslims’ larger grievances: “problems, turmoil, devastation in the Muslim lands. And I think this creates a powerful emotion and their blood is running high…and they accidentally deliver this emotion in an incorrect way. I think all this goes back to the global problem.”
This is not to deny that the video depicting Mohammed as a philandering murderer is a travesty of respect, not to mention acting and production, but rather to suggest that those Muslims who hold all Western interests as valid targets of retribution for the video alone are few and not representative of the masses.
Instead, the acts of increasing aggression by certain Muslims are more likely representative of a larger issue: a fundamental frustration on behalf of certain Muslims that the outside world does not sufficiently respect their prophet, and an outside world that simply does not care. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, the Mohammed video and subsequent events per se do not tell the whole story. The issue is one of genuine respect. Given the recent firestorm over French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon depiction of Mohammed, it appears likely this debate will remain on the table for the foreseeable future. So the next time individuals in the West publically insult Islam’s most sacred prophet, what message will we take from the reaction?
Michael McGirr is a dual-degree Master of International Affairs student at SIPA and Sciences Po. This article originally appeared in the September 25, 2012 issue of Communiqué.