Even in the highest levels of United States government, the cause of the demonstrations in the Middle East — and the killing of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya — following the online release of a trailer for a cheaply made film mocking the Muslim prophet Mohammed has been a quagmire of contradictions.
J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three members of his staff were killed during the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. By Sept. 20, intelligence reports were still murky, with President Barack Obama asserting the attacks arose after outrage expressed for The Innocence of Muslims. But the next day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the killings a terrorist attack.
On Oct. 3, the Middle East Studies program at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences held a panel discussion to help put the tragic deaths, protests and inflammatory film into context.
“The temptation for anyone watching the news about that video, and the riots and protests against it is just to react,” said Kevin van Bladel, associate professor of classics at USC Dornsife. “Our panel’s message was different: Don’t just react, get informed.”
Van Bladel said he wanted students to hear directly from experts and have an opportunity to ask questions.
“One of the main functions of the humanities and social sciences is to provide understanding — of cultures, people and events,” he said. “The Middle East Studies program is here to help our students and our society achieve that understanding for a region terribly misunderstood for lack of contextualized information.”
Panelists included Laurie Brand, Robert Grandford Wright Professor and professor of international relations; Sherman Jackson, holder of the King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture, and professor of religion, and American studies and ethnicity; and Fayez Hammad, lecturer of political science and international relations, all of USC Dornsife.
Philip Seib, professor of journalism and director for the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, with a joint appointment as professor of international relations at USC Dornsife, was another panelist.
Though the discussion was titled “Outrage in the Middle East: The Video Incident,” Brand quickly pointed out that the outrage was not as widespread as reported in mainstream media.
“The impression in the media was of huge angry mobs rising up across the region,” Brand said. “There were angry, and in a few cases, violent protesters. But outside of Libya, no Americans were killed. Any casualties were among the local population.”
Brand noted that in Libya, a few days after the killings, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Benghazi against Al Qaeda-style radicalism.
“First, while the loss of life all around is terrible, the numbers of people actually involved in these demonstrations was quite small,” Brand said. “Tens, hundreds and, in a couple of cases, perhaps thousands, but those were largely peaceful demonstrations. In comparison with the sizes of the populations, these were small and limited.”
Brand analyzed the responses to the film in the context of domestic political developments in a few countries where demonstrations were the largest.
To make sense of the way these demonstrations and government responses unfolded, she said, one must first understand the ongoing processes of political transition unleashed by the Arab uprisings in spring 2011.
On Sept. 13 in Yemen, protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy, and on Oct. 11 in a drive-by shooting, killed Qassem Aqlani, the Yemeni chief of security for the U.S. Embassy. Brand said these protest acts were part of an ongoing power struggle in Yemen between the former president and his successor.
Soldiers of two units under the control of relatives of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh allowed hundreds of protesters through checkpoints around the embassy, Brand said.
“They broke through to the inner building, ripped plaques and lettering from outer walls and tried to smash secure glass doors,” she said.
Current Yemen President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi has promised an investigation into the incident.
In Libya, the Salafist militia group Ansar al-Sharia, the lead suspect for the attack on the U.S. Consulate, may share a similar ideology with Al Qaeda — members want to establish a strict version of Islamic law — but its ideology differs from Al Qaeda. Like many other small, loosely formed militias that can be found in other areas of the world, Ansar al-Sharia doesn’t appear to be focused on achieving a strategic objective outside the areas they inhabit or want to inhabit, Brand said.
The ideology is more focused on local issues and domestic policy.
“Instead, they are effectively looking to fill a vacuum left by an absent or ineffective government, outside of al Qaeda’s immediate reach, and trying to carve out a space that they can lay claim to,” Brand said, using what the Taliban did in Afghanistan in the early 1990s as an example.
“And as I said earlier, there were massive demonstrations against Ansar al-Sharia,” she said. “The people of Benghazi actually drove them out in the aftermath of the attack on the consulate.”
Egypt and Tunisia are also in periods of political transition and unrest, Brand said.
“In order to understand the way that some of this anger was expressed and the way it was dealt with by the local governments, we have to keep in mind that all these governments are going through political transitions,” Brand said. “As part of the transitions, you have competition for political power between important groups and the battles are not over. So the reaction to the film figures into this and has played an important part in the last few weeks.”
Jackson noted that Salafi groups played a major role in bringing out demonstrations against the film in Egypt. The term Salafi has been used since the Middle Ages, but it has become associated with strict and puritanical approaches to Islam. In the West, Salafi Jihadis advocate violence against civilians as a legitimate expression of Islam.
“It was a Salafi preacher who publicized the film in Egypt,” Jackson said. “A Salafi preacher produced a video with an hour-long tirade against the film. There were other groups that had nothing to do with this and were opposed to the demonstrations. They said the demonstrations were a bad idea and that they violated Islam itself by attacking embassies.
“So we have to be careful about this whole Salafi thing. The rise of these extremist movements tells us something very unsettling about what has taken place in Egypt,” Jackson said, adding that his experience with Egypt goes back 30 years.
“These extremist groups were unheard of then,” he continued. “They are new on the scene, and they represent a damning indictment of the religious establishment in Egypt itself. The religious establishment has lost much of its authority and that has opened the way for some of these other groups to come to the fore.”
Hammad said that in order to understand the reaction to this film, people must look at a framework of hostile engagement between two groups and their contexts. One group resides in the Muslim world and the other in the West (the United States).
“We could anchor this framework based on the saying of Umar bin al-Khattab, the second caliph after the prophet,” Hammad said: “Terminate a falsehood with your silence; Do not blather so as to attract the attention of the gloaters.”
The blatherers are a small minority of Muslims who mostly did not see the film, ignored numerous pleas to withhold violent protest and did not heed the advice of Umar bin al-Khattab. They operate within a larger context of regional anti-Americanism, which stems from U.S. wars and interventions, U.S. support for authoritarian regimes and the U.S. role in the nonresolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The group of gloaters reside in the West (including the United States), who gloat at the images of Muslims who, as televangelist Pat Robertson once said, “go crazy when Islam is insulted” because “Ishmael, the Bible says, was a wild donkey. And apparently that spirit has pervaded these people.”
The gloaters are the interlocutors of the first group who are ignorant about and intolerant toward Arabs and Muslims. This group is at the forefront of those who oppose allowing Muslims to build houses of worship in the United States, in effect denying them their First Amendment rights. They are also at the forefront of pushing for more U.S. military engagement with the Arab and Muslim worlds.
After the discussion, which included a Q-and-A session, USC Dornsife senior Julia Mangione said she attended the panel after hearing news reports about the demonstrations and killings.
“I didn’t know how to interpret it,” said Mangione, an international relations major. “It was important for me to understand why people are reacting the way that they are.”
After listening to the panelists, Mangione now believes the protests may have occurred with or without the video.
“This event was so valuable because it gave students a different perspective than what we’re seeing on the news,” she said. “It was nice to get the academic perspective on this from experts who really know what they’re talking about.”
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