On the evening of September 11, 2012, America learned of the murder of its ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. In the transitional capital of Benghazi, Libya, armed hooligans stormed the American consulate and burned it to the ground. They also killed several other consulate staff members.
The cause of the attacks, many suggested, was a film trailer, titled “The Innocence of Muslims,” posted to YouTube, which defaced the Islamic religion and portrayed the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light. It was later discovered that a group affiliated with al-Qaeda carried out the attack on the embassy. Following this series of events, anger has spread across the Muslim world, from Tunisia to Qatar to Bangladesh and has left many wondering how the United States will respond.
Some politicians in the U.S. have blamed the Obama administration not only for its “tepid” response to the attacks but also for supporting the Arab Spring revolutions that led to the Islamization of certain countries’ politics. Nonetheless, it is vital that the U.S. government not abandon these young democracies to the forces of extremism. We must seek to understand why such anger has suddenly emerged and then must find a way to respond that upholds our values of free speech but also encourages tolerance and cooperation between cultures and religions.
The raids on the embassies are deplorable and inexcusable. They cannot be justified in any form or fashion but still must be understood. It is important to understand why images of the Prophet offend many Muslims. When Muhammad began preaching the series of teachings that would later become Islam, idol-worship was the dominant belief system in the Arabian Peninsula. Because of this, the Prophet forbade any visual representations of himself, be they negative or positive. Muhammad feared that if Muslims were allowed to draw or own statues of him, they would begin to revere him more than they would God, thus deifying him instead of using him as an example for righteousness. Today, Muslims also caution against assigning the Prophet physical characteristics, such as dark skin or a tall frame. If Muhammad were to be assigned characteristics associated with a particular race, then he would cease to be such a unifying figure for all races.
When a video entitled “The Innocence of Muslims” surfaced in the Muslim world, it sparked widespread rage and controversy. The amateurish video, in poor taste both culturally and artistically, depicts the Prophet as a savage, an oaf and a pedophile.
This week’s responses to the video hearken back to past protests against cartoons of the Prophet produced in a Danish newspaper in 2009. An old wound has been opened, and this time the scar will be deeper than ever.
The events of the past week exemplify the vindictive nature of extremists of all brands. An extremist in the United States uploaded a hateful film targeting the Muslim faith. Religious extremists in the Middle East reacted by killing diplomats, burning flags and storming embassies. But these people only represent a violent minority on the fringes of society. While the embassy smoldered in flames, ordinary Libyans unfailingly came to the aid of asphyxiating American diplomats. As this act of humanity displays, the vast majority of Middle Eastern people harbor no resentment against the West and by and large detest manifestations of extremism (even by members of their own faith). It is with this truth in mind that America should not sever relations with Arab countries, just as citizens of those countries should not attack American embassies because of an extremist video. Such violent, irrational responses not only obscure the road to peace but also grossly oversimplify the multidimensional factors contributing to these displays of anger.
The video may have sparked the flame of action, but it was not the only cause of the protests. The current violence is the result of decades of heightened frustrations over U.S. foreign policies. These policies, however, were geared towards oppressive Middle Eastern regimes that at times silenced extremist voices and thus caused the extremists to further radicalize. Because of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the constant, uncompromising support of Israel (given by people with no perceived regard for peace), the hypocritical yet strategic support of the oppressive Bahraini monarchy during the Arab Spring and the continued American drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan that have killed thousands of civilians, many citizens of the Middle East have been harboring ill-feelings for decades. However, with the demise or near demise of many former Arab regimes in countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the iron fist that once stifled free speech and dissent was lifted. We must remember that for many Arab Spring countries, this is the first real test of their fledgling democracies. Despite the resulting tensions, President Obama’s support of these uprisings was a step in the right direction, and to turn back now would only lead to disappointment and further the divide between the West and the Muslim world.
Looking forward, we as a society must understand that extremists do not represent the majority. While we must protect Nakoula’s right to produce such a video and his right to free speech, as proponents of religious tolerance we must condemn the video in the strongest terms. In the same way that tens of thousands in the Muslim world have come out to protest the manipulation and disfiguration of their Prophet’s message for violent political gains, we too must root out extremism and hate within our country. It is important to remember that we do this, not to appease the anger of Muslims around the world but to affirm our commitment as a country founded on the principles of freedom and tolerance. Looking inward as Americans is the only way to move forward from these events and begin reconciliation efforts with the Muslim world.
Iman Masmoudi is a three-year Upper from Charlotte, NC and Junius Williams is a three-year Upper from Newark, NJ.