Less than one hundred hours after the eleven year anniversary of September 11th, Islamic fundamentalists have seized upon an anonymously-produced video that mocks Islam to fan the flames of anti-American sentiment all across the Middle East… in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Lebanon, and other countries.
The U.S. Department of State on Thursday issued travel warnings advising Americans against traveling to Algeria or Libya due to recent violence there, including the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.
U.S. embassies in Tunisia and Yemen have been attacked by angry mobs, although the fallout was limited to looting and some destruction of property because embassy personnel had been evacuated.
The German and British embassies in Sudan were also targeted by protesters there, although again, embassy personnel weren’t hurt.
Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which most nations recognize, embassies are considered inviolate, and the receiving nation is under obligation to protect them from damage or impairment of dignity.
The violent and disrespectful protests we have seen this week have unquestionably been in defiance of longstanding international law.
The White House said that President Obama had talked to the leaders of several of the aforementioned nations where American diplomatic facilities were coming under siege. The President spoke on Wednesday night with Mohamed Magariaf of Libya and Mohamed Morsi of Egypt about the video and the ensuing attacks on American diplomatic missions. Yesterday afternoon, the President spoke to Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi of Yemen.
Several protesters were injured or killed when they clashed with police deployed to protect the embassies, Al Jazeera reported.
A major reason why the U.S. and authorities in the Middle East are having difficulty calming down the protesters is that many citizens of countries like Libya and Yemen just don’t understand or appreciate what freedom of speech means.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees to all Americans the right to speak and publish freely; speech cannot be censored simply because a person or group of people finds it offensive or hateful. Similarly, the Constitution guarantees a free press, which means government can’t decide what gets published or broadcast (although executives at large media conglomerates in the U.S. do effectively serve as gatekeepers for their properties).
These freedoms are not available to people in the Middle East. Consequently, the continued availability of the trailer for the bizarrely-named film Innocence of Muslims has outraged adherents of the Islamic faith, because it offensively and inappropriately depicts the prophet Muhammad (محمد بن عبد الله بن عبد المطلب in Arabic) who is considered by Muslims to be the last of the prophets sent by God to the people of Earth. The trailer was actually first posted months ago, but it was not translated into Arabic at the time, which explains why it has only just sparked angry protests. Many protesters are blaming the U.S. government for the video, not realizing the government isn’t responsible for it, nor possesses the legal authority to prevent the video from being disseminated.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S.-based media have, however, been trying to ascertain the identities of the people who created the film.
A conservative Coptic Christian living in California who was previously convicted of fraud has been identified as one of the key people involved with the production and Internet distribution of the film.
Though we don’t know the identifies or true motives of these people, it seems probable to conclude – based on what we know so far – that they are a very small group of Christian fundamentalists whose objective was to provoke Islamic fundamentalists in the hopes of getting attention, or maybe just igniting conflict and chaos between Christianity and Islam. Unfortunately, the Islamic fundamentalists took the bait, perhaps not realizing that they were being played.
Hotheaded extremists causing trouble is not a new phenomenon; it’s been happening for centuries. It predates the founding of Christianity and Islam. But our world is more interconnected than it used to be. An insult – or a derogatory video – can now travel around the world in seconds. Speech is not constrained by distance like it used to be. At the same time, cultural barriers have remained. So it has become very easy for people to offend each other – even if they live half a world away. That is a very serious problem, because some people resort to violence when they get offended, as we have been reminded this week.