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.