On Sept. 12, the day after Islamist militants attacked a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, killing ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, local Libyans gathered for a public demonstration.
Libyan families waved signs in Arabic and English reading "Benghazi is against Terrorism," "Thugs and killers don't represent Benghazi nor Islam," "Chris Stevens was a Friend To all Libyans." One photo captured a young boy holding the handwritten sign "Sorry People of America this not the behavior of our ISLAM and Profit." A similar demonstration soon gathered in Tripoli. The tone at both rallies was positive and pro-American, but there was a second, subtler message being sent to the United States: We're on your side, not theirs.
So little is known yet about what's behind the explosions Monday at the Boston Marathon that any conclusion, including terrorism, would be premature. But that fear has been an early reflex not just in the United States but half a world away in the Middle East. There, a number of observers are expressing sympathy – recall that pro-American solidarity rallies were held throughout the region after Sept. 11, 2001 – and, at times, a sense of dread.
As a Libyan Twitter user named Hend Amry wrote, "Please don't be a 'Muslim.'" Her message was retweeted by more than 100 other users, including well-known journalists and writers from the Muslim world.
Jenan Moussa, a journalist for Dubai-based Al-Aan TV, retweeted the message "Please don't be a 'Muslim'" and added that the plea was "The thought of every Muslim right now." Moussa's message was forwarded more than 200 times.
Nervana Mahmoud, a U.K. citizen who writes often on the Middle East, wrote, "Fact: Terrorism has no religion, race, or nationality. Standing against terror should unit us all. #BostonExplosion #BostonMarathon"
A Dubai-based social media consultant named Iyad El-Baghdadi tweeted, "Went to my 'Islamists' list; good to know that most comments are sympathetic. Only a couple crazies out of 200-something. #BostonMarathon"
People in the Muslim world are often keenly aware of the American reflex to associate bombing attacks on U.S. citizens with Muslim extremists. A certain routine has emerged, in which some Muslims seem compelled to make clear that they denounce the violence and consider it a violation of Islam -- often even before the attacker's religion is determined.
"As a Marathoner and Human being, I'm devastated. Prayers to the victims," Qasim Rashid, the chairman of the Muslim Writer's Guild of America, tweeted. "Whoever the culprit, no religion justifies this act of violence. We must remain united against extremism."
Last July, a few hours after a gunman had opened fire on a Colorado movie theater, killing 12 people, a friend from the United Arab Emirates told me he'd been glued to the U.S. TV reports, watching with fear and sympathy. He said he was deeply bothered, but not surprised, when an anchor reported that the shooter had been captured and was "not a Muslim."
There will be displays of true sympathy from the Muslim world regardless of the religion of those responsible for the fatal blasts in Boston -- as there were after both Sept. 11, 2001, and the deadly December school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Should the incident turn out to have even the slightest connection to a professed observer of Islam – a possibility that, according to Moussa and others, some Muslims are dreading – those gestures of support may look something like the handmade posters in Benghazi last September, a declaration of solidarity and a gentle reminder that Muslims despise terrorism just as much as anyone else.