I woke up with a jarring headline splashed across my computer this morning: U.S. embassy and consulate attacked in Egypt and Libya. One, and then four, Americans confirmed dead.
Reports spilled in quickly, and by now the internet is filled with news on the violence.
From what I've read, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in an assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Religious extremists are being blamed for the violence. In Cairo, just a few hours earlier, protestors entered the U.S. Embassy security compound and tore down the American flag, replacing it with the Salafists' trademark black banner.
As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama have made abundantly clear, there is no excuse for this type of violence. But there were some fuzzy motivations behind the attack: mobs in both Cairo and Benghazi were protesting a newly released film deemed offensive to Islam and the prophet Mohammed, "The Innocence of the Muslims." The Washington Post and other news outlets are also reporting that Middle East analysts think this may have been a more organized and coordinated attack — not just a spontaneous reaction to the online video.
The movie trailer is easily available on the internet, but it's most certainly not worth watching — the poorly made, amateur film uses neophyte actors and a blue screen to depict the Prophet Mohammed as a fake who toggles between sexual partners and abuses his authority. It's an uneccessary and offensive movie, and I'd speculate that it was only made to provoke Islamic communities.
Sam Bacile, a self-described Israeli Jew, may have produced the film (though some sources now say "Sam Bacile" is a pseudonym and that the film has no ties to Israel). The Wall Street Journal quotes Bacile — or someone posing as him — calling Islam a "cancer." One of the film's supports told the Journal that the violence the movie incited in Egypt is "further evidence of how violent the religion and people are." Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the deeply flawed film incited precisely the reaction the filmakers wanted and expected.
So far, the outcry in Tunisia, my home for the semester, has been much more subdued. Indeed, the tranquil picture at the top of this page was taken while protestors were again at the Egyptian embassy on Wednesday. Tunisia's population overwhelmingly practices Islam, a religion that does not take kindly to aggregious attacks on its prophet. One hundred protestors stood in front of the U.S. Embassy today to pray and wave signs, but there was no comparable violence. Of course, the students in my program are still being cautious, and my academic director has warned us to avoid the embassy, American research centers, and Avenue Bourguiba (the central boulevard in Tunis). Particularly because Al Jazeera and other sources are reporting that 100 unnamed, mysterious Jews financed the project, there's some concern that the film might incite some sort of anti-Semitic response. Since nearly all of Tunisia's Jews -- including me -- will come together in just a few synagogues this week for the High Holidays, there is sure to be quite a bit of extra security at all American and Jewish institutions in the country in the coming weeks.
Until this afternoon, I have never once felt like my American citizenship made me at all unsafe in Tunisia. I've only been here a few times, but I've already been able to successfully navigate through Salafist street protests, French wine and cheese parties, and a dozen other religiously and ethnically sensitive situations. Though I can't claim to "know" Tunisia in any meaningful way, it seems like violence just shouldn't happen here.
So, while I might be a bit more cautious in the coming days, I'm still going to try to participate as much as I can in my community here. The events of the last few days have only confirmed to me that we must find ways to build stronger connections between the so-called Western and Arab worlds. Unless we can build more shared experiences and common ground, I fear that we'll only devolve ever further into this useless cycle of violence, hatred, and mistrust.