Religion as pretext or cause in attacks in Cairo, Egypt and Libya

REUTERS The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have … Continued


The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the United States on Sept. 11, 2012.

Religion has been used as an excuse for violence since the time of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), and perhaps even before. Religion, however, is never the full cause, nor the full excuse for “religiously motivated” violence; instead, it is very often an unholy mixture of religion and politics.

This seems very much the case in Libya as well as Egypt right now. The American ambassador to Libya, John Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed by a rocket outside the American consulate in Benghazi. This followed protesters scaling the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and attempting to burn the American flag.

The pretext for this violence? Reportedly, the flashpoint was a YouTube trailer of a “wooden,” amateurish movie by an Israeli filmmaker based in California. This film purportedly attacks Islam, and particularly the Prophet Muhammed, through insulting depictions. The filmmaker, Sam Bacile, admitted, “This is a political movie.”

Yes, it is a political movie, of course, but one that manipulates religious sentiment for the sake of promoting conflict. Indeed, there is an “Abrahamic religions,” that is, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, aspect to this blow up as the film was languishing and had played only once to a mostly empty theatre until “a controversial Egyptian Christian activist who lives in the United States, Morris Sadek, started promoting Bacile’s film.”

In the age of the Internet, obscure figures can incite such controversy and provoke violence. This incident bears a marked similarity, in terms of the use and abuse of religion to provoke conflict, to the incident of the “Koran burning” by Florida minister Terry Jones that started with a tweet.

Indeed, social media today is intricately involved in these kinds of explosions of violence, as well as political uprisings for increasing democracy and overturning dictators. The Internet is an enormous, new factor in both religion and politics.

The contemporary Middle East is undergoing a seismic shift, and a re-alignment of political identities. The hopes generated by the “Arab Spring” have now been tempered by the political realities of the “Arab Winter,” and political jockeying for power is inevitable.

The use and abuse of religion in an effort to gain power is inevitable when there is a political power vacuum. When long-time dictators die or are removed, there is a struggle is to fill the new political space that has opened up, and religion is a way to do that by appealing to established identities. It is significant, therefore, that those attacking the U.S. Embassy in Cairo are identified with the Salafist movement, an Islamic fundamentalist group.

View Photo Gallery: U.S. diplomatic compounds came under attack Tuesday in Egypt and Libya, where State Department employees were killed.

The use and abuse of religion for political gain is not the exclusive prerogative of those who live in the Middle East. Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, either intentionally or unintentionally, inflamed the situation, by “jumping the gun” before all the facts were known. He repeated the charge that it was a “disgraceful statement” to “apologize for American values” the next day, promoting a falsehood that somehow President Obama sympathized with Islamic militants.

The use and abuse of religion for political gain is alive and well in the U.S. and it is well to recognize and reject all forms of this kind of manipulation.

Instead, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in their statements Wednesday morning following the attacks showed the world how religious tolerance, and respect for people of all faiths, are American values, as is bringing those who perpetrate violence to justice.

The president said, “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.

It was left to Clinton, however, to tweet the key faith point: #Libya killings should “shock the conscience of people of all faiths.”

Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Related stories:

California man confirms role in anti-Islam film

Clinton condemns film as protests reach Yemen

Religious violence is all too real

  • Wes222

    Islam is political. It’s aim is the institution of sharia law. LAW, dude. Law.

  • Wes222

    Islam is a politics disguised as a religion. It’s aim is to control civil law – sharia law.

  • genericrepub

    The fact is that a those who wish to create a caliphate are seizing upon any emotion to get their way. Although the idea of Sunni, Shiite and other sects of Muslim faith coming together under one roof is as remote as Catholics and Baptists uniting, that is what these rabble rousers want, and they offer rewards in the afterlife. Christians simply look at insults to their faith as an element of something requiring a shake of the head and a prayer for the misguided soul who made the insult. Radical Muslims kill any person who is handy. Until moderate Muslims deal with the radicals who do acts of violence, its faith will remain a regional thing.

  • jesus the jew

    because the usa is a judeo-christian country the muslims will always hate us.. a moderate muslim is an oxymoron as hard to find as a unicorn

  • leibowde84

    Wow … you are nuts. I know tons of moderate-Muslims, and me being Jewish doesn’t stop us from being friends. Religion is not important enough to fight over. Even some young children in this country know that. The acts against the consulate were unforgivable, but they were committed by a bunch of crazies who were trying to pick a fight.

  • Catken1

    Gee. I know a whole bunch of unicorns. Who knew?


    Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses; but, properly used, religion is the METHAMPHETAMINE of the masses. (Paraphrased from Bishop K’taden Legume)

    Islam, christianity, shinto, confucianism, hinduism – all have used their rhetoric to whip believers into killing frenzies. It’s one of the things religion does best.

  • sonti

    Thanks for mentioning the Old Tetament though the Xtians soon caught up to their Elder Brothers!

  • sonti

    Jesus is venerated by the Koran ! Read the Koran and the history of the conversion of Christian and Iranian Lands to Islam in the first two centuries after Muhammed. It wasn’t done by force. It happened because of Democracy – just as an earlier form of Christian Democracy conquered the Roman Empire.

    Buddhism was propagated throughout East Asia without the use of force.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    This is a democracy which supports free speech (or at least we used to support free speech). If someone exercises their free speech rights to make a movie and someone else disagrees with that move, then those who disagree can exercise their freedom of speech to disagree. We do not need to apologize for our freedom of speech.

  • hradvocate

    This is also true of much of what calls itself Christianity these days — at least in the U.S. They long ago threw aside the teachings of Jesus in favor of their cult beliefs.

  • poitoueksophia

    Stop the obfuscation! Politics and poverty may be compounding factors, but these acts of violence did not follow the passage of unpopular legislation or the cutting off of benefits; they followed the release of a film which they feel was offensive to Islam. This is about religion Susan. There is no way around that.

  • kycol2

    “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.” — Robert M. Pirsig

  • yaoray

    Just as Christian religion has been used with violence, wake up.

  • Desertstraw

    What is wrong with denigrating the religious beliefs of others. I denigrate any religion that insists that the universe is only 6000 years old and was created in six days. I denigrate any religion that says that science is wrong or a waste of time because all truth is found in the bible. I denigrate any religion that justifies slavery because slavery is found in the bible. I denigrate any religion that says that Mohammed was taken from his bed one night by an angel, stopped off in Jerusalem for a brief visit, went on to heaven, and was back in bed at his usual rising time.

    Enough of this politically correct nonsense.

  • dvstllrd

    As an American liberal, I don’t tend naturally to xenophobia; we try to respect other cultures and be open to people who are different. But these certain Muslim societies have completely exhausted my patience and good will. Killing human beings because they come from the same country as a filmmaker you disagree with? These religious-freak-dominated societies are sick and dysfunctional. The fact that it is their youths rioting and murdering to defend their culture’s establishment religion boggles the mind. Normal, healthy, human youths should be fighting FOR freedom of expression, not against.

  • telemachus

    Cultural differences…

    To pretend that cultural differences don’t exist or are racsm is to deny reality.

  • BayouRod

    . “Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, either intentionally or unintentionally, inflamed the situation, by “jumping the gun” before all the facts were known.

    No he didn’t. The only people “inflamed” were the liberal media and the Obama campaign.

    Trying to blame Romney for a killing that took place before he even made the statement is idiocy.

    Where does WAPO get these air head writers? No wonder WAPO is losing subscribers. This article insults the intelligence of all normal people.

  • rrpopseal

    When a Baptist youth group from Kansas starts blowing people up to enforce their efforts to convert non-believers, I’ll stop calling Islam a violent superstition founded 1400 years ago by a known killer. Count on the politically correct janitors of the left to continue to sweep the truth about Mohammed and Islam under their multicultural carpet. CNN, New York’s mayor, and a host of other DHIMMI from the Dept. of State serve their Islamic superiors well………for now.

  • danaman

    Actually, he did, and lame attempts to describe it otherwise insults the intelligence of all normal people.

    See how easy that is?

  • sonofyork

    Is this really about religion? I think it’s about the cultural humiliation Middle Easterners feel because they’ve been surpassed and dominated by the West. Religion is what they say it’s about, but I don’t see why we have to believe them.

  • JustaDiver

    @AgentFoxMulder- That’s at the heart of the issue, I think. We are applying our Western values on non-Western cultures. To us, freedom of speech is so common, so sacrosanct that we do not understand that much of the world does not think the same way. Those nations do not have our Constitutional framing that includes that concept. They really don’t get it, which is a major reason that when something like this film is released these protests erupt into violence against an entire nation, rather than condemning the individual(s) who released the offensive material.

    Until we can articulate our viewpoint in such a way that we can start a conversation & gain some understanding on both sides, we will continue to completely misunderstand one another. The conversation does occurto a degree on a high level- between leaders, governments & ambassadors but I don’t think that it is trickling down to the rest of the nation/culture at all.

    Yes, I think it would be fantastic if other cultures would adopt our viewpoint but it will not happen until those other cultures gain some understanding of why we “allow” films such as these or someone’s right to burn the Koran (or the Bible).

    I remember when the sixties protesters were burning flags & how outraged most Americans were over those acts. Years (20+) later, I was witness to one man’s sheer anger at Abbie Hoffman because of his flag shirt & support of flag burning. It was visceral & raw. That gentleman, a Vietnam vet, was incapable of even speaking to Abbie without screaming at him. It was ugly to witness & when I thought about it later, heartbreaking because there was absolutely no way that they could ever reason together with that in the way.

    Am I expressing myself clearly? I honestly think that there is such a cultural difference that they do not understand us, nor we them. I am not condoning the violence, & especially the deaths that resulted from them. I’m only speculating on why it is so easy for some Muslims to become outraged over fi