Sam Bacile Film Sparks Egypt, Libya Protests: New Arab Democracies React to Free Speech With Frightening Violence


The anniversary of 9/11 saw violent demonstrations in Egypt and Libya against a video that protestors say insults the Prophet Mohamed. An attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya left three American staff member dead and reports have since claimed that the U.S. ambassador to the country has also been killed. In Egypt, protestors stormed the embassy, climbing over the compound walls and tearing down the American flag. Meanwhile, the video itself remains largely an afterthought on both sides. One young person who attended the protests in Cairo, where the American Flag was replaced with a black flag similar to that of Al-Qaeda, told the media that "many of the people here haven't even seen the movie. Most people came out to protest just because they heard that a video insulting the prophet was made in the U.S." The video and its fallout have added to an already tense situation in Egypt and the West and contributed to heightened fears among Americans of an increasingly hostile Middle East that since the Arab Awakening has seen the rise of several Islamist governments.

But the United State's official reaction belied the anger that many no doubt have felt as the events unfolded on a day where Americans remember the killing of thousands in the World Trade Center Attacks. President Obama condemned what he called "senseless violence" in Libya he also affirmed that the United States "rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others." 

The statement released by the U.S. embassy in Egypt denounced the video and the abuse of free speech to insult religion. A similarly thoughtful reaction came from Egyptians such as Wael Ghonim who urged Egyptians to express their support in a different way. 

Ghonim, a prominent activist in Egypt wrote:

"Attacking the US embassy on September 11 and raising flags linked to Al Qaeda will not be understood by the American public as a protest over the film about the prophet. Instead, it will be received as a celebration of the crime that took place on September 11."

Two videos appear to have sparked the initial outburst, one of which was produced by a young American named Sam Bacile. The film, which was dubbed into Arabic and played on Egyptian media and YouTube, apparently depicted the Prophet Mohamed as a "fraud, womanizer, and madman in an overtly ridiculing way, showing him having sex and calling for massacres."

The video sparked further tension because of an apparent connection with Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-born Christian who lives in the U.S. and is known for his anti-Islamic views. A second video, posted by Pastor Terry Jones, shows an effigy being hung next to a sign that reads "international judge Mohamed day." Jones goes on to accuse the Prophet Mohamed of murdering thousands, among other crimes.

The fact that these protests and attacks occurred on the anniversary of 9/11 should serve as a reminder of the continually growing rift between the Muslim World and the West and the vastly different view of the day which marked the beginning of a new era in the history of the West and the Arab World. In the West, a war on terror, and for many, a war on Muslims began in the wake of the attack.

Islamophobia is at an all time high and skepticism and distrust of the US is equally rampant. A recent Pew poll found that 75% of Muslims in several countries believe that Arabs were not involved in the attacks in September 2001.

Last year, a poll conducted ahead of 9/11 showed that one third of Americans believe that Muslims are more sympathetic towards terrorists than Americans and 20% of New Yorkers said they had a negative opinion of Muslims because of 9/11.

Neither extreme in this case can be defended. The misdirected violence that has left four dead cannot be justified even in the face of an offensive and misguided action that denigrates Islam. For our own part, this action represents only one in a series of acts of religious intolerance, brought on largely by the belief that Islam and terrorism are connected, a view that has been reinforced by government officials, authors, and others in the war on terror.

The widespread belief that 9/11 was orchestrated by the United States represents a serious barrier in rectifying our relations and the anti-Islam sentiments that have prevailed in the West continue to damage our reputation and the prospects for cooperating with new governments and Islamist movements that have taken center stage after the Arab Awakening.

As we watch in disbelief of the violence that surrounds these events and that surrounds September 11 we should applaud the administration for speaking out against intolerance and look for the voices abroad calling for dialog and restraint. The killing of the US Ambassador and three others in Libya is so contemptible because it scapegoats American officials for the actions of a few and because the attackers responded to intolerance with violence. We should make every effort to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice but to call for further violence or for sanctions against Libya or Egypt is to make that same accusation of collective guilt and to trade aggression for ignorance.

The danger, in cases of extremism, is that we marginalize the voices that should be the loudest: the voices calling for calm, respect, and mutual understanding.