Each year on the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 I pause and think about how much the world has changed since that heartbreaking day, and not so much for the better. This sentiment was illustrated with tragic clarity this year as I watched attacks on the American Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, and the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya . The results were immediately the death of the U.S Ambassador to Libya and three members of his staff, new protests in Yemen, and increased tension between the U.S. and the Arab world.
Conflicting reports suggest these riots were a reaction to a despicable anti-Muslim video, produced here in the United States and circulated on YouTube, or a meticulously planned attack by al-Qaeda that used the riots as cover. Either catalyst only demonstrates with greater clarity how much work is left to be done before we fully eradicate the prejudice and heal from the wounds inflicted 11 years ago.
Violence and hatred cannot be the basis for dialogue between the U.S. and the Arab world. Improved relations will be difficult until that is understood. At the same time, the anti-Muslim bigotry that has become all too pervasive in the United States is only amplified when it reaches the rest of the world and runs the risk of being perceived as the view of all Americans. That misconception is then used by those who seek to target Americans as a means of stirring up hatred among their followers.
The producers of this hateful anti-Muslim film knew full well that it would provoke anger in Muslim community. Make no mistake about it; those that used this crude film to stoke the uprising also knew they were inflaming the passions on the street. It is the world we live in that anyone with a video camera, a Facebook page and some time can have as much impact as a broadcast network.
We saw what hate brought on Sept. 11, 2001 and we saw what hate looked like when Terry Jones threatened to burn a Koran last year. We saw what hate leads to with the shooting at the Sikh Gurdwarain Wisconsin earlier this year. And we saw the result of that hate with this week’s tragedy.
The hateful film used as justification – or cover – for this violence is of little relevance to the vast majority of Americans and certainly does not represent the views of the U.S. government. It is no excuse for this week’s violence, but Libya is a nation that is emerging from years of dictatorship where the mere existence of a film can be mistakenly understood to have the endorsement of the state in which it was created. Those responsible for these deaths must be brought to justice, and going forward, anger should be expressed through means that lead to productive dialogue not deaths
The next time we mark the anniversary of Sept. 11, I hope we are able to look back at the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and his colleagues as a turning point in our interactions with one another. In the meantime, we will do well to intensify our efforts to promote respect for religious freedom and strive for interreligious understanding every day, which will helpcreate a new context for the inevitable misstatement or offensive remark that provides a framework within which the wrong quickly can be resolved.