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.
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.”