If you don’t understand what’s happening in the Muslim world, you’ve probably been following the US media.
There certainly are people in this country who are naïve on the subject of terrorism, and play down the menace of Islamist terrorist movements to a ludicrous extent. I am certainly not one, and have published fairly extensively on the reality of such groups and the means needed to destroy them. But having said that, I am also aware of the outrageous bias that often surfaces when media outlets cover Islam, and when they treat that whole complex and wildly diverse religion as essentially part of the terrorist continuum.
I make this point because of an extraordinarily important recent story that made very little impact in US media. Although it did receive some coverage, it has subsequently dropped from memory, and even well-informed people know nothing about it.
As is well known, on September 11 this year, terrorist groups attacked the US mission in Benghazi, killing ambassador Chris Stevens and several other Americans. The whole affair has become a political scandal because of the administration’s alleged failure to foresee and prevent such an atrocity. But that is not my concern here.
What happened after the attack? According to some conservative sources in the US, triumphant mobs wandered over the burning embassy, shouting “Allahu Akbar!” And after that… well, the action turns to diplomatic channels, and how the affair surfaced in candidates’ debates.
According to a wide variety of Western news sources, though, this is what happened on the ground. On the night of the attack, Libyan crowds were appalled to hear of violence against the ambassador, who had become a popular hero as a leader against the Qaddafi regime. They rushed to the mission and searched for survivors. Finding Stevens wounded but still alive, they celebrated what looked like his miraculous escape, giving praise to God by crying “Allahu Akbar!” Desperately trying to save his life, they rushed him to hospital, but of course he died.
Popular fury simmered for several days until on September 21-22, the people of Benghazi organized en masse to avenge the crime. On Friday, the Muslim holy day, they demonstrated in their thousands against the fortified encampments of terrorist groups, urging them to “Go back to Afghanistan!” and “No more al-Qaida!”
The following day, direct action escalated. Bearing patriotic banners – some demanded “Justice for Chris” – several thousands marched against the well-armed stronghold of Ansar al-Sharia, the militia believed responsible for the September 11 outrage. Carrying swords against the terrorists’ Kalashnikovs, they nevertheless routed the militants, who fled ignominiously. One by one, they stormed and purged the camps of the various hard-line militias. And on each occasion, the demonstrators gave God the glory, with mass cries of “Allahu Akbar!” At least eleven demonstrators lost their lives, and many were wounded.
In other words, far from acquiescing in the crime, a large body of patriotic Libyans – overwhelmingly conservative and traditional in their Muslim religious outlook – laid their lives on the line to drive out terrorism. As Max Boot remarks, this is to say the least a heartening sign for the nation and the region. Actually, it’s the sort of ending you wouldn’t dare invent for a film.
So why didn’t we hear more about this story? My suspicion is that it just runs too flatly against the received narrative of Islam, in which conservative Muslims are either overtly or covertly terrorist supporters, and any signs of hope come from Westernizers, “modernizers,” and secularists.
I’ve no idea what will happen to Libya in the long term, or how the Benghazi events will shape politics. But any retelling of the Benghazi story demands that we pay full attention to its two halves, the original crime, and the prompt and effective punishment.
On a related topic, my recent book LAYING DOWN THE SWORD compares violent and bloody texts in the Bible and the Qur’an. I recently spoke on this topic in Dallas’s Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels, and you can see the whole presentation online here.