A film depicting Prophet Mohammed in an unfavorable light triggered the worst anti-Western unrest in the Middle East since the Mohammed’s cartoons controversy in 2005.
Protests Across the Middle East
The trailer for “Innocence Of Islam” was first posted on YouTube in early July 2012. The English-language original was then dubbed into Arabic and reposted on YouTube by an unknown helpful hand, where it was spotted by an Egyptian cleric who railed against the blasphemous portrayal of Prophet Mohammed on his TV talk show. From there, the clip went viral across the Middle East.
Coincidentally or not, the first protests erupted in Egypt and Tunisia on the anniversary of 9/11 attacks. In the most shocking incident, armed men attacked the US consulate in Libya’s second city of Benghazi, causing the death of US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Ironically, Benghazi is the cradle of the US-backed 2011 revolt against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.
In the following week, protests targeting US embassies spread to Tunisia, Sudan, Yemen and Morocco, while protesters in Lebanon chose to vent their anger at a KFC outlet in the capital Beirut.
To be sure, these were not mass rallies. While most Muslims would agree on the offensiveness of the movie (and most people anywhere would say it was a pathetic piece of filmmaking), the protesters that attacked the embassies numbered in their hundreds.
Are the Protests Spontaneous?
No, this wasn’t a simple knee-jerk reaction to anti-Islam propaganda. It’s worth remembering that Quran and the hadith, a collection of sayings attributed to Mohammed, contain no clear passages that would sanction violent retribution against Muslims or non-Muslims accused of insulting the prophet.
Rather, the protests were organized and spearheaded by ultra-conservative Salafist organizations that advocate a strict implementation of Islamic Sharia law. Equally hostile both to US government and liberal Muslims in their own countries, various Salafist groups have boosted their public profile in countries affected by the Arab Spring protests, leading campaigns on cultural issues such as the sale of alcohol and women’s dress code. What better occasion to drum up public support than a blasphemous movie produced in the US.
Among Arab countries undergoing political transition from decades of dictatorship, Libya appears the most fertile ground for extremist groups, due to a weak central authority and abundance of weapons and unruly armed groups. The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi has been blamed on shadowy militant groups operating in the city – with little popular support, but plenty of weapons.
Are Protesters Targeting the Film or the US?
But let’s not diminish the violence as a manipulative scheme by a handful of fringe religious nuts. With depressing ease, some people in the Middle East jump to the bait dangled by Islamophobes in the West, who seem to be doing their best to give local extremists a voice on the street.
Counter-protests were held by Libyans denouncing the mobs and public and religious figures elsewhere in the region appealed for calm. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that the incidents dealt a tremendous blow to US attempts at restoring its image in the region. The protests were clearly much more than an expression of aggrieved religious feeling, they targeted the symbols of US government which some blamed for not preventing the production of the movie.
US backing for the Libyan uprising and (belated) support for anti-government protests in Egypt in February 2011 did little to change the overwhelmingly negative perception of US foreign policy in the region. There is little reason to think this will change anytime soon.Go to Current Situation in the Middle East