THE NATION (Blog)
This article was originally published at the DailyWildcat.com and is re-posted here with permission.
Rage was in the air.
On television screens in coffee shops and households across Egypt, a video played that mocked the most revered man in Islamic culture, the Prophet Muhammad. Al-Nas, a TV station based in Cairo, broadcasted the clip to castigate the film’s producers. It didn’t take long to see a reaction.
Quickly, the scene shifted from a nation overcome by anger to protestors discharging anti-U.S. chants against a backdrop of torched American flags. From Morocco to Libya, all the way down to Indonesia, the Muslim world was set ablaze.
Islam prohibits depictions of the Prophet Muhammad as a preemptive measure against idolatry. “Innocence of Muslims,” the video mired in global controversy, is thought to be the work of an Egyptian-born man living in the U.S. The film was produced last year but only started making headlines after it surfaced on the Egyptian airwaves earlier this month.
“It’s been completely blown out of proportion,” said Leila Hudson, a University of Arizona associate professor of Middle East history and anthropology. “Those trying to provoke a Muslim response or the Islamic extremists who inflame the excitable segments of their parties are interested in the same thing: challenging the relationship between the United States and the new Arab governments.”
Presumably the most prominent victim thus far has been Christopher Stevens, the former U.S. Ambassador to Libya who was murdered at the consulate in Benghazi. In a statement, Libyan ambassador to the U.S. Ali Aujali condemned the violence and wrote that Stevens served “with great distinction and all Libyans owe him a debt of gratitude for his years of service in support of Libya.”
News outlets have reported that Al Qaida may have orchestrated the attacks, though a conclusive answer has yet to be drawn.
David Shellouff, a Muslim University of Arizona graduate student studying education whose family is from Benghazi, recalled his response to the news of Stevens’s death: “As an American I was upset, and as a Libyan I thought, ‘What a disgrace to our name,’” he said. “His death bothers me the most, second to that is Libya’s reputation being soiled. Before, people would tell me things like ‘Libyans are awesome! We hope you get freedom.’ Now, we’re just the country that killed the ambassador.”
In response to the murder, pro-American protests sprouted up across the country, as did Facebook pages like, “I am Libyan and I reject the killing of U.S Ambassador Chris Stevens.” One user wrote, “I apologize on behalf of my family, my friends for this shameful, unpardonable, and deeply insensitive event of a small group of criminals.”
Hudson, who also directs the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts, emphasized that the violent reactions were emanating from the fringes—not the majority—of Middle Eastern society.
“These things are amplified and simplified by visual media and so they look much more pervasive than they actually are,” she said. “A viewer doesn’t see the underlying complexity of a huge political system with millions of participants and a multiplicity of different positions.”
Many students who consider themselves to be well informed on the Islamic community, both in Tucson and abroad, are not surprised the film incited such a powerful response, but agreed the extent of the reaction was unnecessary.
“It’s extremely insulting and provocative,” said Samy Ayoub, a Muslim University of Arizona graduate student studying Islamic Law, in response to the video. “But I think the best option is to ignore it and move on.”
Ayoub, who was born in Egypt, added that the channel that circulated the video did so for political reasons, as evidenced by the channel’s decision to broadcast it around the anniversary of 9/11. The channel intentionally provoked a hostile reaction and should be held accountable, he said.
One of the most troublesome aspects of the film’s fallout is the level of hate the protestors are directing at Western symbols, as well as their inability to distinguish between the American people and the actions of a filmmaker, said Charles Mink, a graduate student in the UA School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Both may be evidence that the protests aren’t really about a movie.
“It’s an excuse for some individuals to do what they want to do anyway, which is to protest U.S. foreign policy,” he said. “The disproportionate reaction we see occurring in the Middle East is clear evidence to me that what’s going on is really not about a video.”
Mink, a former interrogator in Iraq, said President Obama made the correct decision by sending a team of Marines to protect the embassy in Libya, but at this point, that should be the extent of US military action.
“As long as we have good faith assurances from the Libyan government that they’ll handle the issue, I think the U.S. has done enough,” he said. “If it becomes clear that the Libyan government is not doing what it promised, then we discuss other options.”
Ammar Gwesha, a former UA student currently working at the University of Tripoli in Libya, wrote that he was disturbed by the violent responses to the video, in particular the death of Stevens.
It was a promising sign to see thousands of Libyans counter-protesting the violent demonstrations, Gwesha said. He added that he was shocked by some of the online comments he’s seen about Libyans since the protests began.
He cited one that said: “The international community should not have interfered when Gaddafi was attacking civilians. Gaddafi should have been allowed to wipe them out. Those people do not deserve freedom.”
His response to such hostile statements is “one picture,” he wrote, attaching an image of Libyan protestors with a sign reading, “Sorry people of America this not the pehavior of our ISLAM and profit (sic).”
Shellouff echoed the sentiment.
“As a Muslim, you’re raised with a million stories of how tolerant and patient the Prophet Muhammad was to people who mistreated him,” Shellouff said. “If you really want to honor the Prophet, act like him.”