The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi Tuesday night, that claimed the lives of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, may only be the beginning of more widespread unrest among Muslims worldwide, according to some experts.
The outrage, sparked by the provocative movie about Muslim Prophet Muhammad, is likely to be exploited by the more radical Islamist political forces that have emerged in the region since the Arab Spring uprisings, according to Middle East expert, professor James L. Gelvin of UCLA.
The attacks took place amid protests over the U.S.-produced film considered insulting to the Prophet Muhammad. There were also protests in Tunisia and Egypt. Protesters scaled the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and took down the American flag, replacing it with a black flag.
“While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants,” President Obama said in a statement in the Rose Garden following the attacks.
Obama promised there would be retaliation for those who killed Stevens.
“Make no mistake. We will work with the Libyan government to bring justice to killers who attack our people,” he said.
Ambassador Stevens died in a prolonged siege on the consulate by armed mobs using RPGs and grenades.
Three other American staff, including foreign service officer Sean Smith, and several Libyan security guards, also died in the attacks that lasted about five hours.
The incident drew global condemnation and was denounced as “cowardly” by Libya’s interim President Mohammed el-Megarif.
Stevens was described by Obama as a brave and exemplary U.S. representative who helped Libya steer itself through the rebuilding process after last year’s civil war.
“As ambassador in Tripoli, he has supported Libya’s transition to democracy. His legacy will endure wherever human beings reach for liberty and justice,” Obama said.
Gelvin thinks the attack may only be the start of an international storm, something akin to what happened after the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, which led to worldwide protests and unrest. Just like that crisis, this may also take a long time to burn itself out, he said.
“This is symptomatic of something that has been going on, but it will also provoke further outrage,” Gelvin said, referring to how the United States has been losing goodwill in the area, while radical Islamist Salafists have been gaining ground in the post-Arab spring political landscape.
“The political field has expanded and there are more people competing, among them the Salafists. They have been taking on social issues like the restoration of Shariah [Islamic law] and put them high on their agenda,” Gelvin said.
“They are in battle with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and with the moderate Islamist party Ennahda in Tunisia. Now they can show themselves as defenders of Islam against the West and mobilize the population.”
While it was thus no coincidence that these events took off in the Arab Spring-countries, Gelvin believes that the conspicuous timing with the anniversary of 9/11 was just that, a coincidence. The 14-minute trailer of the film “Innocence of Muslims” had been available on YouTube for a while, but only recently had the English-language clip been given an Arabic dubbing. According to Gelvin, a pivotal event may have been when it was very recently aired on the Salafi TV station Al-Nas in Cairo.
The two-hour movie was reportedly produced by an Israeli-American named Sam Bacile in 2011, who is now said to be in hiding. Although the film may be obscure, the tropes it uses, depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud and a womanizer, are very old and common, according to Gelvin.
“They have come out of the West and have resonated with Muslims since the very beginning of Islam, and so they are bound to have a certain provocative effect,” he said, comparing it to certain recurring anti-Semitic imagery.
That violent attacks took place in Libya is also not surprising, as the country has been experiencing serious security problems since the fall of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi. In the civil war, hundreds of thousands of small arms were looted and thousands of criminals were released from Gadhafi prisons and are still on the loose.
“We are now looking for a conspiracy, but this may very well have been popular. There are just so many weapons floating around in Libya,” Gelvin said.
He does not think the incident will affect U.S. foreign policy in the region, and this was also the message from president Obama, who said that the attacks would not break the bonds between Washington and Libya.
The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning Wednesday, encouraging U.S. citizens to depart by commercial air, and if not, to limit nonessential travel within the country and make their own contingency emergency plans.
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