I’m not surprised that a film trailer which insults the Prophet Mohammed is being blamed for an assault on the US consulate in Benghazi which reportedly killed the US ambassador to Libya. When viewed through the prism of religious fanaticism, the deadly attack appears to be just another knee-jerk, emotional reaction to a slight against Islam.
If only it were that simple.
While the film is undoubtedly being exploited by religious opportunists to win popular support, it is NOT the spark that ignited the firestorm against western interests in Libya. If it was, a frenzied mob would have stormed the US consulate, not a well- trained, well-equipped militia. This attack was lucid and well planned—most likely in advance. Executing it during a wave of popular fury over a film trailer was merely good PR. Moreover, this was not the first time western diplomats in Libya have been targeted by extremists. Back in June, the British Ambassador to the country narrowly escaped with his life when his convoy was rocketed approximately three hundred meters from the gates of the consulate in Benghazi. A week before that, a bomb was lobbed at the US mission in the city.
Peel back the veil of religious indignation and the true motive of these assaults is all too clear. Islamic extremists in Libya want power and having lost out at the ballot box, their only recourse now is to seize it forcibly from the western-backed government in Tripoli.
If Gadaffi were still in charge, I wouldn’t worry about extremists taking over. A brutal dictator with an iron-grip on every aspect of public life could easily prevent his enemies from capitalizing on the attack in Benghazi. But Gadaffi is dead And the NFA, the coalition of elected parties that took power in Libya, is dangerously fragile, divided by tribe and ideology—not a winning formula for restoring security and stability.
In March 2011, I wrote a post blasting the short-sightedness of US-British policy on Libya, warning that if a post-Gadaffi power struggle were to ensue, the hard-boiled jihadists would emerge victorious. It was hardly an alarmist prediction. Islamists have a great track record of hijacking revolutions in the Middle East. Recently, the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt (albeit under the watchful eye of the military which has so far managed to keep any extreme fundamentalist leanings in check). The older and more cautionary example though is Iran. Contrary to popular belief, the Iranian Revolution was not driven solely by Islamists. The movement which overthrew the dictatorial Shah was comprised of both middle-class, democracy craving secularists and religious fundamentalist (the same opposition mix which 30 years later would bring down the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and of course, Libya). The first Prime Minister of post-revolution Iran was not an Islamist but a pro-democracy scholar who favoured rapprochement with the West. Sadly his tenure was cut short after students stormed the US Embassy in Iran and took the staff hostage—a spectacular attack which laid the foundations for the conservative, anti-western theocracy which rules over Iran today.
Right now, the radical Islamists in Libya lack a charismatic figurehead to corral the masses. But with YouTube and offensive film trailers, who needs one? If only Britain and the United States would have stayed out of Libya’s affairs and let the country sort itself out. Because the revolution we midwifed has every possibility of turning against us.