A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

When Ignorant Armies Clash

There is much we do not know about the attacks in Benghazi and Cairo. Who organized them? The presence of jihadi black flags is ominous. They do not appear to have been entirely what they purport to be: purely spontaneous outrage at a video no one has seen, or seen more than a trailer for.  It may well be that this was merely a pretext for attacking US Embassies on the anniversary of September 11.

What is clear enough is that the US Embassies found themselves caught, as it were, in the crossfire of two ignorant armies: rabid Islamophobes determined to attack the Prophet of Islam on the one hand, and the most extreme Islamists on the other, determined to avenge him. As is so often the case, the two extremes have more in common with each other than they do with the vast majority of Christians and Muslims and Jews in between. Both consider that there is a war to the death between Islam and the West. There is not, yet. And it is important for people of good will on all sides to prevent their vision from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some of the scurrilous charges being made against the Prophet are ancient slanders that are older than the Crusades; antiquity does not add credibility: they are as old as, and as false as, the blood libel against the Jews.

The First Amendment guarantees any bigoted American the sovereign right to parade his ignorance in public; I treasure the freedom, but that does not lead me to defend ahistorical rhetoric.

Just as we are not sure who organized the Embassy attacks (but there is little doubt about their intentions), it is also still not clear who is behind the video that provoked the outrage. A well-known evangelical preacher whose fame exceeds his minuscule congregation has said  he was going to distribute it but didn't make it; a report that a "Sam Bacile," first identified as an Israeli, was behind it, has evaporated. Many Egyptians are blaming a well-known US Coptic activist, but I won't name him as I don't want to add further fuel to a burning fire; I hope that it isn't true.

There is only one remedy for this clash of ignorances: one of the longstanding goals of the Middle East Institute has been to educate the US about the Middle East and the Middle East about the US. This tragic intersection of Western Islamophobia and radical Jihadi murderous outrage is a sign there is still a lot to be done, on both sides. We are still with Matthew Arnold on Dover Beach:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Thank you Mike. I agree with every word you wrote. This one is personal for me. As a young diplomat, I served two years in Benghazi, and I have known and admired Chris Stevens for over a decade. He was one of the best, very committed to improving US-Arab relations and very knowledgeable. He spent a good two days in the MEI Library preparing for his previous assignment to Libya.