By Ernest Corea
Eleven years after the murderous events that made “nine-eleven” an universally recognized description of a date of tragedy, another 9/11 has seen actions that caused destruction, public commotion and tragic loss of lives.
This year’s disturbances which began in Egypt and Libya took the form of violent demonstrations directed at American diplomatic staff and institutions. The demonstrations have spread across a wide swath of countries – at least a dozen according to some reports – in Africa and Asia.
The continuing murderous mayhem was a reaction to a video, Innocence of Muslims, reportedly made in the US by independent film-makers. The video is an appalling piece of anti-Islamic agitprop. It depicts Prophet Mohamed as “a womaniser, buffoon, ruthless killer, and child molester.” In the view of several million Muslims who object to any representation of the Prophet Mohamed, it was likely to be treated as a deliberate provocation – and as we now know, it was.
Death of a Friend
The first deaths of Sept. 11, 2012 occurred at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, and three other embassy personnel – two of them, former Navy Seals – were killed in what appeared to be a well-planned raid by an attack squad armed with guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other deadly weapons. These are likely to have been part of the booty looted from armouries maintained by Muammar Gaddafi’s troops. An unconfirmed number of Libyans died in their efforts to repel the attackers.
The murder of Ambassador Stevens caused highly emotional reactions in Washington, where he was considered an exceptional diplomat, who had earlier served as a Peace Corps volunteer; and in Benghazi where he was a popular and respected figure.
He was recognised as a friend who had worked hard to save that city and people when they were threatened with destruction “like rats” by Gaddafi. He added his experience and talent, as well, to assist the Libyans as they struggled to establish stability and progress following the end of Gaddafi’s regime.
The Washington Post reported that in a telephone conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Libyan President Mohamed Yusufal-Magariaf offered his condolences on the death of Stevens and his colleagues, and expressed his “appreciation for cooperation between the US and Libya in the wake of the attack.” Four suspects have since been taken into custody. The FBI is assisting Libyan law enforcement officials conducting the investigation.
Several heads of government or foreign ministers in the Middle East made statements of regret at the continuing violence, and reaffirmed their commitment to fulfil the internationally recognised obligation of a host country to protect diplomatic institutions and personnel operating within their countries. Unless this obligation is fulfilled, as a matter of mutual responsibility, civilized conduct between nations will collapse and be replaced by chaos.
Egyptian President Morsi, after a baffling period of silence, regained his capacity for speech, condemned the attack on the US Embassy in Cairo and pledged that US diplomatic personnel and property would be safeguarded. Several skirmishes between demonstrators and Egyptian police have since been reported.
Attempts to trace the origin, financing, motivation, and so on of the video that caused a catastrophic response reminded this writer of Churchill’s comment of long ago that the Soviet Union is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The circumstances surrounding the production and dissemination of Innocence of Muslims have been similarly difficult to penetrate and sort out.
Initial public reports said that the video was made in California by a dual citizenship Israeli financed by Jewish donors, but that assumption soon proved to be false. Thereafter, interest was centred on an even more interesting question: Does such a video exist?
Some reports claim that an English-language version of Innocence of Muslims exists, and that it was viewed in Hollywood by a small audience of around ten guests. But – the mystery deepens – it was not called Innocence of Muslims. The full-length video was said to have been screened under the title Innocence of Osama bin Laden.
Actors hired to participate in the film have since said that there was no mention of Muslims in their film which was titled Desert Warrior. Was this simply a “working title” which could be changed as the film developed – a common practice – or a deliberate act of deception? If it was the latter, this suggests that the entire enterprise was a “black operation” from the very beginning.
The possibility that that the fake title was one of many deceptions was strengthened when some of the actors claimed that chunks of what was in the original production have been erased and language of which the actors were unaware dubbed in. All of which suggests that there was some deliberate if heavy-handed planning going on with destructive mischief as its goal.
As part of the planning, a 14-minute trailer with Arabic language dubbed in was posted on the Internet in July 2012. On the eve of September 11, it was circulated via YouTube in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Disgusting and Reprehensible
Central to the continuing speculation about the video is the role (or lack of a role) played by a California-based member of the Coptic Christian church which was established in Egypt by St. Mark, one of the original disciples of Jesus Christ. The suspect has been questioned by local police.
In recent years, Coptic Christians in Egypt have experienced many difficulties and, on some occasions, been the victims of violence. It is difficult not to consider the possibility that the film-production exercise was an attempt by disappointed and disaffected Copts to “get their own back.”
In this connection, it should be noted that the Coptic Church in Los Angeles has disassociated itself from all aspects of the provocative video.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton considers the trailer “disgusting and reprehensible.” Speaking to a visiting Moroccan delegation, she said: “The US Government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and messages. But there is no justification – none at all – for responding to this video with violence.
State Department Press spokesperson Victoria Nuland urged all media professionals who attended her daily press briefing to spread Clinton’s word as widely as possible for the benefit of those who do not understand that the Government had no connection whatsoever with the bigoted and demeaning film.
Inquires will probably determine over time whether the film was created in secret because it was deliberately designed to serve as an act of provocation. Inquiries will also show, perhaps, whether the film was locally inspired and financed i.e. within the US, or whether support and encouragement came from abroad.
There are issues that need to be sorted out in the countries affected by violence, as well. One of these is the long-term need to help their people understand how freedom of expression operates in a democracy.
Leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood appear to understand this, as its Deputy President Khairat El-Shater explained in a letter to the New York Times. He said:
“Despite our resentment of the continued appearance of productions like the anti-Muslim film that led to the current violence, we do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression.”
Unfortunately, the point he made was addressed to the wrong audience. The Times and its readers know full well that all speech – even disgusting and reprehensible speech – is protected under the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Egyptian demonstrators or their mentors screaming for the repugnant film-clip to be censored and its creators punished, do not.
Those who live under threat of censorship or have experienced penalties for dissent need a practical manifestation in their own societies of how free speech can and should be protected – by being granted that protection themselves.
Also at play is the likelihood that the new 9/11 includes aftershocks of the political earthquake that rocked the Middle East and destroyed some dictatorial regimes.
Meanwhile, the responsibility for defusing the violence falls squarely on the shoulders of the governments in those countries where the violence erupted and, in some cases, is continuing. That is not a responsibility that can be assumed by any other country. However, this is by no means an easy task, given the despicable nature of the provocation.
Before the Arab Awakening, at least some of the affected governments would simply have sent their official goons out on to the streets to impose law-and-order. Today’s leaders, knowing that their people, having fought for the right to dissent and demonstrate while in opposition, cannot now, in nascent democracies, be subdued by ugly shows of force.
So they need to strengthen their backbones, and mobilise all the instruments of democratic persuasion they can muster to restore normalcy. If they do not, the societies they seek to rebuild will eventually collapse and they will themselves be reduced to footnotes on the pages of history.
The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.