Reuters photo of U.S. Consulate burning in Benghazi, Libya

Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012 was a gorgeous sunny and crisp late-summer day in New York, just like that notorious Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, which had touched me directly; the smell of burnt plastic and other debris wafted by my Manhattan apartment at the end of a day that changed our world forever. This past Tuesday was the first 9/11 anniversary since I began blogging over six years ago that I chose not to post anything about it. But the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi pulled me back.

This is an evolving story, but after some confusion, it appears that the film that ostensibly sparked the violence now widespread in the Muslim world was made by a Coptic-Christian resident of California, originally from Egypt, who claimed initially to be a Jew from Israel. It was promoted by a Christian anti-Muslim activist and radio personality named Steve Klein. Regardless, the 13-minute trailer went viral via YouTube after being dubbed into Arabic.

Time cover, Sept. 24, 2012 issue (photo by Amr Abdallah Dalsh /Reuters)

This is how the film is described in the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz:

…. The film claims [the Prophet] Muhammad was a fraud. An English-language 13-minute trailer on YouTube shows an amateur cast performing a wooden dialogue of insults disguised as revelations about Muhammad, whose obedient followers are presented as a cadre of goons.
It depicts Muhammad as a feckless philanderer who approved of child sexual abuse, among other overtly insulting claims that have caused outrage. …

Obviously, Muslims have good reason to feel outrage. Yet most people in the Middle East have no concept that the United States government does not control the film industry or what is posted on the Internet. As hateful as this film is, it would almost certainly violate the First Amendment for the government to shut it down; YouTube itself would have to remove this offensive video.

But what can we say about the behavior of violent demonstrators, let alone Jihadists who may have used this as an excuse to launch a premeditated attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi? What should we say about people who express their indignation by violence against people and property? To raise such questions is to answer them.

Tragically, it is too easy within the Muslim world to rally people with a sense of grievance; however justified this may be at times, it is often outrage at events that are more complex than, or at odds with, what they view as the facts. As United Nations development reports on the Arab world have noted, most of these countries–to which we may add the impoverished Muslim countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, where most people are illiterate–are in dire need of development and education. These places could benefit from the Global Marshal Plan that Tikkun advocates—although this is not likely to happen without a substantial economic recovery in Europe and the U.S.

Jews fight for Muslim ruler at Higueruela, 1431

There needs to be a return to the great tolerant model for Islamic society represented by Al-Andalus, the Muslim-ruled domain of Spain where for much of its history (but not all) Muslims, Jews and Christians found a way to live together in peace and harmony. Mind you, a modern society needs to go beyond the protected but unequal status of dhimmitude provided to Jews and Christians in Muslim countries in those days, but such changes cannot be imposed from the outside. And it will not come via hatred and ridicule.

On balance, although one can certainly find plenty to argue with, U.S. foreign policy was more pro-Muslim than not: the U.S. helped the Afghans fight off the Soviet Union in the 1980s, liberated Kuwait and protected Saudi Arabia in 1991, intervened on behalf of Muslims in Somalia (where George H. W. Bush ordered troops to provide famine relief), President Clinton (belatedly) helped end the civil war in Bosnia and liberated Kosovo from Serbian domination, and Clinton (and to some extent W. Bush as well) attempted to meditate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The late Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was a much-respected presence in Libya, who had acted as a liaison on the ground for NATO’s air campaign that saved Benghazi from the massacre threatened by Qaddafi and went on to facilitate the overthrow of his odious regime.

Islamic-period garden in Granada

After being attacked in so massive and bloody a fashion as we were on Sept. 11, 2001, I fully supported the U.S. military role in helping the Afghan Northern Alliance to overthrow al Qaeda’s hosts and allies, the Taliban regime. I saw this as a just, limited and highly skilled application of force.

Tragically, the Bush administration was so intent on using the 9/11 terror attacks as cover for its plan to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq, that it did not pursue Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda (the actual perpetrators of 9/11) to their just end. And while the Bushies messed things up royally in Iraq, the neglected effort in Afghanistan gradually descended into an unwelcome occupation, as the Taliban began clawing their way back. What’s more, the Jihadi cause has metastasized into dangerous al Qaeda “franchises” in Yemen, Somalia, Mali and elsewhere, including even in northern Nigeria today—not to mention a nuclear-armed and increasingly unstable Pakistan at knife’s edge due to an internal Taliban insurgency.

An economic strategy such as the GMP may help, but we also need to acknowledge that hardline Jihadists are arch-reactionaries who actually oppose economic development and modern education (especially for women). Hence, during the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, Islamist rebels murdered Western aid workers, as powerfully depicted in the French movie I reviewed last year, “Of Gods and Men.”

My sense of President Obama is that he now regrets having doubled down (twice) to reinforce U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan. The announced 2014 exit goal for the U.S. and NATO forces appears agonizingly too far off, but it’s hard to conceive any President of the United States admitting failure by withdrawing immediately. Yes, although it’s a much smaller war by comparison, Obama’s Afghan strategy feels increasingly like “the decent interval” for the U.S. exit from Vietnam that Henry Kissinger negotiated in 1973; Saigon was overrun by North Vietnamese tanks two years later. I wish I had a happier sense of what’s in store for us, as we still live within the shadow of that fateful day, eleven years ago.


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