Center for Strategic Communication

 by Jeffry Halverson

With all the very serious problems facing Egypt, the region, and indeed the world today, what brought out thousands of Egyptian protestors in Cairo on September 11, 2012? A thirteen-minute Islamophobic online video produced by a group of US-based Coptic Christians. But Coptic officials in Egypt, understandably fearful that Muslim anger might turn against them yet again, quickly issued a statement condemning the activities of Copts living abroad in producing such projects. Meanwhile, the US Embassy, as protestors scaled its walls and tore up the American flag on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, issued a statement rejecting anyone who abuses the freedom of speech to insult the religious beliefs of others. The offending film (which we have been unable to find online) reportedly depicts the Prophet Muhammad engaged in sex acts, ordering massacres, and as a false prophet. Egyptian media has apparently been referencing the project for several days and denouncing it.

Protest at the U.S. Embassy in Egypt. Photo by al-Ahram.

An early report on the protests by Reuters and published on Egypt’s al-Ahram Online, accompanied later by photos of events, stated that protestors tore down the US flag and held up shreds for cameras to show to the rest of the world. The protestors then replaced the US flag with a black one adorned with the shahadah (statement of faith) written in white Arabic calligraphy. This particular flag is a favorite of Salafis, including the varieties that cooperate with or makeup the current incarnation of al-Qaeda.

I seriously doubt that these protestors were outright extremists. More likely, they were bored unemployed Salafis looking for an excuse to act “righteous” and get some media attention. But the act of raising such a banner at the US Embassy on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in which some 2800 people (including American Muslims) were slaughtered in such horrific fashion is profoundly inexcusable. Crude and childish are also appropriate descriptions. It should also be noted that the US-based Copts that created the producers of the offending film deliberately chose to release their film on 9/11 in order to “commemorate” the tragedy.

After these events are circulated in the US media, the response by certain factions in the United States will undoubtedly be equally provocative. I wouldn’t be surprised if a crowd of self-described “patriots” gathered to burn a Qur’an or effigies of the Prophet or recirculate those old Danish cartoons that caused such trouble previously (including riots and deaths). This is all part of the extremist self-perpetuating project. An American “war on Islam” does not exist, yet these provocative actions (including the production of the insulting film itself) and the response they receive are creating such a “war” (in the broadest sense of that term). This is an example of “false-consciousness.” It’s when people do things to allegedly resolve a grievance, but are actually perpetuating the grievance themselves through their efforts to somehow resolve it. It’s a real challenge, especially for those tasked with governing and making the world more livable for everyone.

At the end of the day, turning the other cheek is probably the most strategically effective (albeit difficult) response for everyone involved. Or, if my cultural reference to Christian scripture seems inappropriate here, let me cite the Qur’an: “The recompense for a bad action is one equivalent to it, but whoever forgives and put things right – their reward is due from God.” (42:40) Amen to that!

Editor’s Update — Sept. 12

The New York Times has published an article giving more details about the protest and the film, including the expansion to Libya and a link to the film. The Times reports that the film was not produced by U.S. Copts, as originally reported, but by an Israeli-American real estate developer from California (the post above has been updated accordingly).  It also reports that Terry Jones of Quran burning fame has had a hand in publicizing the film and spreading the controversy.

Spencer Ackerman at Wired also has a post about flack in the social and mainstream media being taken by the State Department over the diplomatic response to the incident.  Nina Shea of Freedom House has called for Egyptian Ambassador Anne Patterson to resign.

Editor’s Update – Sept. 13

Confusion and rumor surrounding the origin of this film continues.  Yesterday, Jeffry Goldberg at The Atlantic posted a story about his efforts to learn more information about “Sam Bacile” the supposed producer.  He spoke with Steve Klein “a self-described militant Christian activist in Riverside, California” who served as a consultant on the film.  He quotes Klein as saying there are no Jews associated with the film and that “nobody is anything but an active American citizen. They’re from Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, they’re some that are from Egypt. Some are Copts but the vast majority are Evangelical.”  Goldberg adds “I haven’t seen any proof yet that Sam Bacile is an actual Israeli Jew, or that the name is anything other than a pseudonym.”  Meanwhile, the Huffington Post reports that AP believes it has identified the producer as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a California Coptic Christian.

Spencer Ackerman reports in Wired about growing doubts that the Benghazi attack was a mob reaction to the Muhammed film.  Instead it appears to have been a pre-planned and coordinated attack, with the battle lasting 5 hours.  Libyan security forces and “sympathetic militia” fighters are said to have assisted in countering the attack.