Righteous Religious Indignation in Cairo

There are conflicting reports coming out of Egypt and Libya tonight on the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Benghazi.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, drawing upon reports from Reuters and AFP, stated one U.S. official was killed and a second injured in the attack on the Benghazi consulate,while the Washington Post, citing the Associated Press, reported that no one was inside the Benghazi consulate when the attack occurred.

The protests, coming on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 bombings, are being described in most press accounts as being driven by religious fervor. The New York Times reported:

The protest was a result of outrage over a movie being promoted by an anti-Muslim Egyptian Christian campaigner in the United States, clips of which are available on YouTube and dubbed in Egyptian Arabic. The video depicts Muhammad as a fraud, and shows him having sex and calling for massacres. Muslims find it offensive to depict Muhammad at all, much less in an insulting way.

And the ABC noted:

Reports suggest both incidents were sparked by anger over a film which was produced by expatriate members of Egypt’s Christian minority resident in the United States.

Reports said the Cairo protesters, numbering nearly 3,000 were mostly hardline Islamist supporters of the Salafist movement.

A dozen men scaled the embassy walls and one of them tore down the US flag, replacing it with a black one inscribed with the Muslim profession of faith: “There is no God but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God.”

The New York Times added a bit of context about this black flag, stating: “The flag, similar to Al Qaeda’s banner, is popular with ultraconservatives around the region.”

Religion, then would seem to be one of the forces driving the attack — though some Egyptian Christians with whom I was in contact via email today suggested the attacks were driven by Egyptian domestic political considerations. Their argument was that the Salafist parties — the hardline Islamist groups that are junior coalition partners with the Muslim Brotherhood government — are seeking to incite the “Arab Street” to pressure the government to adopt a stricter Sharia law-based government. Religion, this line of thinking believes, is a tool for political ends.

I have no knowledge as to the truth of these assertions, but the first day reports out of the Middle East have noted the religious and political nature of the protests.

The Washington Post reported:

Many of the protesters at the U.S. Embassy Tuesday said that they were associated with the Salafist political parties Al Nour and Al Asala. Salafism is an extremely conservative branch of Islam.

Protesters condemned a video clip that depicted the prophet Mohammed in a series of humiliating scenes. A controversial Cairo television host, Sheikh Khaled Abdallah, aired clips from the video on an Islamic-focused television station on Saturday, and the same video clips were posted to YouTube on Monday. Depicting Mohammed at all is considered deeply offensive by Muslims. Some protesters said that the movie had been created by Egyptian-American Coptic Christians, though its provenance online was unclear.

“We are speaking out and will never be tolerant toward any curses for our prophet,” said Moaz Abdel Kareem, 37, who had a long beard typical of followers of the Salafist movement and was carrying a black flag.

Congratulations to the Post — and the wire services — for being on the scene and doing  a great job in explaining what is taking place.

I would note that the prohibition against the portrayal of Mohammad is a Sunni Muslim tradition and not practiced by the Shia.  My colleagues and I at GetReligion have written extensively about reporting on images of Mohammad. Articles on Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, South Park, and the Jyllands-Posten cartoons have raised questions about the quality of reporting and unwarranted suppositions about Islam. I hope we will not see these same mistakes in this news cycle.

While the press has done a great job so far, I would not say the same about the U.S. embassy press people in Cairo. Their response to the violation of American sovereignty, the raising of the al-Qaeda flag at the U.S. embassy and destruction of the American flag by the Salafist protestors on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 was to send out this tweet:

We condemn the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims

An extraordinarily feckless statement — even by the standards of the State Department.

I do hope that in the days to come the press continues push, seeking to unravel the political and religious dimensions of this story.

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  • The Old Bill

    Who exactly tweeted? Who is authorized to tweet on behalf of the embassy? And who thought this message was a good idea? I understand that sometimes it’s best to hunker down and keep quiet. But this? Does the State Department suffer from Stockholm Syndrome? Where were the grownups?

    • Darren Blair

      I know.

      They’re afraid of Muslims having their feelings hurt?

      As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (better known as the Mormons), I’d *love* to know what this person’s stance is on all of the anti-Mormon hate speech that goes on here in the USA and in Europe.

      Even the mainstream media is going to length to find justification for Mormon-bashing. Remember ABC’s faux scandal about Romney embezzling money from Bain on behalf of the church? The reality of the situation was that Romney regularly paid tithing out of his pay and bonuses, and because his paycheck was so large his tithing checks were large, too.

  • suburbanbanshee

    And what’s the name of the film? Seriously, I haven’t seen the movie named in any news report, not even so much as a first initial followed by dashes. If it’s an unmentionable in family papers swearword, that should be mentioned.

    • deacon john m. bresnahan

      The Moslem terrorists seem to be winning in their efforts to control freedom of speech and press with regard to anything negative –even if possibly historically true– about Mohammed. This can be seen in the groveling American first response to the threats and violence directed against American embassies. It can also be seen in what appears to be censored, careful coverage of the story in the American mainstream media including leaving out even the name of the film in question. In the meanwhile the on-going negative treatment of Christ, Christianity, and God by some elements in our country–from the Democratic Party Convention to some of the media’s cheerleading for it— “courageously” moves forward.

    • John Pack Lambert

      According to wikipedia the film is called “Innocence of Muslims”. From what I have read so far the claim that the film is in any way connected with any Copts anywhere seems to be false. The filmmaker is a 56-year-old real estate developer named Sam Bacile who NPR said is ” a California real estate developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew.” see http://www.npr.org/2012/09/12/160987602/anti-islam-filmmaker-in-hiding-after-protests?utm_source=NPR&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=20120903 for the full article. However Israeli officials deny any knowledge of Bacile and there is no known record of him being a citizen of Israel. Yet NPR also describes his speech as “accented”. He may be a native of Russia or some other country who was resident for a time in Israel, and he may have changed his name one or more times, so if people do more digging. Terry Jones seems to have been promoting this film, but I have not seen any indication that that combative pastor of a Florida micro-Church had any role in making the film.

  • Ben

    The tweet (and press release) from the Cairo embassy came before the actual protests in anticipation of them, for what it’s worth. The story has significantly escalated, however, with the killing of a US ambassador in Libya.

  • Are prohibitions against portraying the image of Mohammad a Sunni tradition, or is it specific to certain cultures within Sunni Islam? I’ve seen images of Mohammad from Turkish and South Asian sources, which (I believe) would be Sunni.

  • Passing By

    Here’s the entire statement of the Cairo embassy, from which the tweet appears to have been taken:

    U.S. Embassy Condemns Religious Incitement

    September 11, 2012

    The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others


  • John Pack Lambert

    The New York Times wording makes it seem that maligning Muhammad in a portrayal makes it a doubly egregious act. However, if the reason behind the ban on portrayals of Muhammad is considered, that is to prevent idolotry focused on Muhammad, it would seem that while positive portrayals are theologically suspect, the negativity of a portrayal would negate the presence of the portray at all, and thus be less theologically wrong than a positive portrayal.

    It is obvious that the Muslims who go to arms over this issue do not interpret it that way, but this should lead to a questioning of their actual embracing of the original doctrine.

    Also, has anyone ever bothered to look into why it is acceptable for Salafist Muslims to repost insulting portrayals of Muhammad so that more people can embrace the anger. I think this is a question someone should confront those who repost to stoke anger with.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Based on the NPR report on Bacile the maker of the film, Bacile claims it was entirely financed by Jews, and no Christians, whether Copts or any other type, seem to have had a role in its creation. Thus the claims in Egypt that this is the work of expatriate Copts seems to be purely done to advance a plan of denyeing rights to those Copts who have not clued into the message that they are supposed to leave Egypt. At least that seems to be the message that the Salafists want to send to the Copts, to complete the removal of non_Muslim minorities started when the Nasser government pressured out the Greeks, Armenians and Jews, all three identifiers being essentially similar ethno-religious names.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The NPR article had this line “Though Bacile was apologetic about the American who was killed as a result of the outrage over his film, he blamed lax embassy security and the perpetrators of the violence.” The undertext seems to be that Bacile is to blame. That is just rubbish. I am tired of the media attempting to absolve those who do killing of blame. Among other things, the message is extremely insulting to Muslims. The media essentially seems to say Muslims have no choice but to react. That is just rubbish. If it were true there would have been attacks in a lot more locations than just Egypt and Libya. The attacks in Erypt and Libya only have this film as a catalyst, the cause is much different.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Well, the issue seems to be more complexed. Here http://religionclause.blogspot.com/2012/09/mystery-surrounds-true-identity-of.html is a Religion Clause peace that covers the possible issues. It turns out that Bacile may in fact be a Coptic Christian, although if he says he is a Jew does not make him a Jew by some people’s definitions? That said the other interesting development is that there may not be a film at all. There is clearly a trailer, but it may be a false trailer with no full film to back it up. I am not sure that really matters, but does bring into question other claims, such as the 100 financial backers.