by James M. Wall
Leave it to Juan Cole to come up with just the right metaphor to interpret the events in Libya and Egypt this week.
Cole knows the Middle East and he has the writing skills to clarify the complexities of the region and how they interact with U.S. politics as they unfold.
Cole is a public intellectual, prominent blogger (Informed Comment) and essayist. He is also the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.
After reflecting on the chaotic series of events that began with a clumsy, fraudulent YouTube preview of an anti-Muslim film produced in California, Cole offered “the butterfly effect” as the metaphor which explains how a small film led to the deaths of four U.S. diplomats in Libya, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens.
Cole begins his blog posting:
The late science fiction writer Ray Bradbury authored a short story about time travelers. They were careful, when they went back to the Jurassic, not to change anything, but one of them stepped on a butterfly. When they got back to the present, the world was slightly different.
When scientists studying complexity put forward the idea that small initial events could have large effects in non-linear, dynamic systems like the weather, they chose the term ‘butterfly effect.” One of the images students of weather instanced was that a butterfly flapping its wings might set off minor turbulence that ultimately turned into a hurricane.
Cole’s butterfly metaphor begins this narrative describing the death of four U.S. diplomats, with a man initially known as “Sam Bacile”, who claimed to have directed the film, The Innocence of Muslims. The Associated Press traced the history of this “Sam Bacile”, and discovered that he most likely does not exist. The false name is a persona used by a convicted Coptic Egyptian fraudster, Nakoula Bassely Nakoula.
The AP found that Nakoula had both Coptic and evangelical Christian associates in the shooting of the film. One of his associates was Steve Klein, who is, as Cole explains,”a former Marine and current extremist Christian who has helped train militiamen in California churches and has led ‘protests outside abortion clinics, Mormon temples and mosques.'”
Cole suspects “that most of the Egyptian Copts involved are converts to American-style fundamentalism”. The Egyptian Coptic church has roundly condemned the film.
Nor is this the first time that western anti-Islam sub-cultures have found ways to attack Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.
In a perceptive analysis of the effects of the trailer (apparently no one has even seen a longer version, which suggests it does not exist) for the hate-driven film on the politics of the Middle East and of the U.S. presidential race, the Cairo-based English-language web site, Ahram Online, made the connection between the dregs of western culture and the impact these dregs make on Islam. Al-Ahram Online is published by Al-Ahram Establishment, Egypt’s largest news organization.
Chief Editor of Ahram Online, Hani Shukrallah, wrote after the Egypt and Libya uprisings:
We need only recall the 2005-6 Danish cartoons episode. The insignificant Danish newspaper that triggered the hullabaloo had been transparently out to trigger a reaction from Muslims, and a reaction it got. Nor do I have the least doubt that the [Florida] Christian fundamentalist preacher who publicly set a copy of the Qur’an on fire was also deliberately out to goad Muslims into a reaction.
The obvious, outward motive of such attempts is not difficult to discern: to show Muslims as irrational, violent, intolerant and barbaric, all of which are attributes profoundly inscribed into the racist anti-Muslim discourse in the West. And, it’s a very safe bet that there will be among us those who will readily oblige.
I can guess at two additional motives, one of an immediate, narrowly targeted nature, and the other considerably more general and strategic in nature.
America is hurtling towards presidential elections in which Barak Hussein Obama is running for a second term. For large sections of the American Christian Right (closely allied to rightwing Zionism), Obama is, if not the anti-Christ, then at the very least a Muslim mole planted in the White House.
For his part, Obama, from the very start of his presidency, had set out to douse the fires of the “clash of civilizations”, then still raging courtesy of Messrs Bush and Bin Laden, among others. An editorial in the New York Times commenting on Obama’s famous address to the Muslim world from Cairo University, lauded him for having “steered away from the poisonous post-9/11 clash of civilizations mythology that drove so much of President George W. Bush’s rhetoric and disastrous policy.”
To reignite “the clash” in some form serves to bolster the American Right as a whole, the American Christian Right (which is a mainstay of the Republican Party) in particular, while at the same time undermining Obama, who at best had acted to bring this clash to an end, and at worst is “a bloody Muslim” himself.
A much broader motivation, which does not exclude Obama as target, is to tarnish, even to deny the very existence of an Arab Spring.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney has refused to back down from his initial reaction to the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. In his immediate response to the news, Romney attacked President Obama for “apologizing” for what Romney termed, “American values”.
This stubborn refusal by Romney suggests that he is locked into a playbook of the U.S. Christian right wing, no matter how much the main stream media scolds him for making political comments at the time of an international event that led to the death, in Libya, of the U.S. ambassador and three other staff members. Which leads to the further suspicion that this Romney is not his father’s son in neither political sagacity nor the ability to exercise national leadership at home or abroad.
President Obama responded to the attacks by pledging that “justice will be done”. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described those responsible for the death of four Americans as “a small and savage group”. Obama also said the U.S. would cooperate with Libyan officials in bringing the members of that “small and savage group” to justice.
The Washington Post has reported that “senior U.S. officials and Middle East analysts raised questions Wednesday about the motivation for the Benghazi attack, noting that it involved the use of a rocket-propelled grenade and followed an al-Qaeda call to avenge the death of a senior Libyan member of the terrorist network.”
The uprisings were apparently also timed to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary. Advance planning, which U.S. officials are assuming, should help in the search for those responsible for attacking the U.S. Benghazi consulate. The deadly attack, according to Libyan officials, may have been planned to operate under the cover of citizens’ protests.
In Tripoli, Libya’s capital, the Libya Herald reported:
Libya today denounced the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US embassy staff.
Speaking at a joint press conference in Tripoli, both Prime Minister Abdurrahman El Kib and Mohamed Magarief, president of the General National Congress, expressed sorrow for what they called “a criminal act”.
To return to Juan Cole’s analysis, the “butterfly effect” began with the appearance of an insignificant movie preview in California, which was ignored by everyone until the film was translated into Arabic and put on YouTube.
Immediately, social media had the expected impact the makers of the film intended. The insult to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad reached a world audience.
After tracing in considerable detail his analysis of the journey of the initial flapping of the butterfly wings to the death of four U.S. diplomats, Juan Cole offered this word of hope:
So the Butterfly Effect set off by a low-budget bad propaganda film gotten up by two-bit frauds and Christian supremacists, and then promoted by two-bit Egyptian and Libyan fundamentalists, has provoked some squalls and cost the lives of four good men.
The storm provoked by this butterfly has revealed character on an international scale. The steely determination of an Obama to achieve justice, the embarrassing grandstanding of a Romney, the destructive hatred of a handful of extremists in Cairo and Benghazi, and the decency and warmth toward the US of the Libyan crowds, all were thrown into stark relief by the beating of the butterfly’s wings.
In the end, the violence and extremism of the hardliners on both sides is a phantasm of the past, not a harbinger of the future. The wave of democratic politics sweeping the region has left the haters behind, reducing them to desperate and senseless acts of violence that will gain them no good will, no popularity, no political credibility.
In less than two months, American voters will have their moment to choose between two visions of how to respond when “violence and extremism” strikes.
The picture above of Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama is by Evan Vucci of the Associated Press.