The wave of violence that engulfed the Muslim world in the aftermath of the release of a video insulting Prophet Muhammad has receded. But there is far more to this sad episode than meets the eye.
The history of the video belies a murky origin and suggests a deliberate attempt to fan the flames of outrage. Questions also swirl around the Sept. 11 attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other American officials were killed. There can be no good answers.
The protests that began that day were triggered by a movie, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which was released in the U.S. last year. Excerpts were uploaded to the Internet during the summer, but the troubles began when an Arabic-dubbed version of those excerpts was released early this month. Those film clips — like the entire film — mock and vilify Muhammad as a womanizer, a buffoon and a child molester.
The history of the film is murky, to say the least. The cast and crew say they filmed an entirely different movie, with a different title and story; one expert has concluded that all references to Muhammad were overdubbed in post-production.
When the furor broke, it was reported that the producer was a 52-year-old Israeli real estate developer living in California. Investigation revealed that he was neither Jewish nor Israeli, but rather Mr. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian immigrant from Egypt living in California, who had served time in prison for manufacturing methamphetamine and later for bank fraud.
Mr. Nakoula has gone silent, so it is difficult to know why he made the film. Nevertheless, the individuals who are promoting his film have a history of deliberate provocations of Muslims and denigration of their faith. It seems fair to assume, then, that this entire project was intended to inflame sentiment throughout the Islamic world.
It worked. There were protests from Australia to Tunisia, with casualties reported in Afghanistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, Sudan and Yemen. Nineteen countries in all have been affected. A suicide bomber in Kabul brought the worldwide death toll to more than 30. An insurgent group on Afghanistan claimed responsibility for the attack and said that it was intended to avenge the insult from the film.
In addition to the deaths, several hundred people have been injured in bloody protests throughout the Islamic world.
The demonstration scenes were most horrific in Benghazi, Libya, where a mob stormed the U.S. consulate in that city. The consulate itself was relatively unprotected — it lacked some reinforced security measures that are found in many other diplomatic facilities — and external security was provided by local police, rather than U.S. Marines, as is sometimes the case. Ambassador Stephens himself was traveling with a light security detail.
After demonstrations broke out in Cairo, triggered by the news of the anti-Islamic video, crowd gathered in Benghazi. They quickly escalated to violence that included heavy weapons and rocket propelled grenades. A group stormed the gates and breached the consulate compound, setting fire to the building.
American diplomats attempted to flee, and the ambassador and another staffer, Mr. Sean Smith, were lost in the confusion. Mr. Stevens was later discovered alive by Libyans in the consulate, and taken to a hospital, where he died of smoke inhalation. Mr. Smith and two U.S. soldiers were also killed.
It has been suggested that the attack on the compound was premeditated. After all, the events occurred on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 attacks on the U.S.
One eyewitness has said the attacks did not start out peaceful before escalating, but began with a full assault on the compound. The use of heavy weapons also suggests premeditation.
Ms. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has argued that the attacks were not planned; Libyan government officials insist otherwise.
There is now speculation that al-Qaida was behind the attack. U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged that justice will be served on those who killed U.S. personnel.
In a telling comment on the state of U.S. politics, this incident has become a cause celebre. Mr. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for the presidency, has charged that the U.S. invited the attacks by appearing weak.
After Mr. Stevens was killed, Mr. Romney alleged that the U.S. State Department, in a tweet from the Cairo Embassy, had apologized for actions related to the attack. In fact, the Cairo tweet was sent before the Benghazi attack, and was consistent with U.S. communications that have been sent in similar circumstances.
The message is clear: The U.S. neither supports, nor is it in any way associated with, the offensive film, and Muslims should not give in to the urge to commit violent acts.
The Obama campaign team has argued that Mr. Romney’s statements showed a naivete and a dangerous disregard for the facts. Even when the timeline was made clear, Mr. Romney stuck to his assertion that the U.S. had apologized for its role in the attacks.
The U.S. Congress has launched an investigation into what transpired in Benghazi and why:
Why was the ambassador traveling with such a light security detail, and had the U.S. been warned about a possible attack?
Ultimately, who was behind this scurrilous film and why?
What was it intended to do?
All of these questions must be answered, but it is unlikely that the results will be satisfactory. This is a genuine tragedy.
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