How A Hate-Driven Anti-Muslim Film Led to the Death of Four U.S. Diplomats

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.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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13 Responses to How A Hate-Driven Anti-Muslim Film Led to the Death of Four U.S. Diplomats

  1. Mike Jackson says:

    An excellent, thoughtful, and clarifying piece in the midst of much confusion, and mistrust, let alone posturing.

  2. Carole Donnee says:

    I wonder if the actual outcome is what
    the cowardly Director intended, he should
    Stand up and take his bow, then face those
    he intended to incite on their soil. The “rev”
    also, should man up, these people should be
    Held accountable for their intended chaos.
    The fact that the republican candate fell flat on his face should not come as any surprise
    to any, as he will continue to show his colors.

  3. Pauline Coffman says:

    A butterfly, huh? Nice.

    Pauline Coffman


  4. Art Preisinger says:

    I wonder if Bibi will seize the opportunity to hint that Iran may be behind this bloody reaction to an Israeli-American (?) film.
    Anything to get us into war with Israel’s latest enemy.

  5. AWAD PAUL SIFRI says:

    Thank you for an excellent review and commentary, Jim.
    I do not normally dwelve into “conspiracy theories”, as such, but I worry much more about the overall picture and the twisted strategies employed.
    I do not think that every incident is “planned”, by any means. Some may happen “naturally”, while others are part of the flow into a new river-bed the course of which has been redrawn and re-carved, by parties that desire permanent control of the Middle East region.

    I see these latest tragedies and events not as isolated incidents, but rather as knee-jerk or “delayed”-reactions, to the course of the imposed Neo-Con “current” to redraw the borders of the Middle East, in order to convert the region into weak, dependent, mini-states, comparable to the tiny states in the Arabian Gulf, which can then be easily manipulated and managed by the old Colonial clique.

    The Neo Cons started in 1991 and 2003, by dividing up Iraq, followed by Sudan, Libya, Yemen. Currently, the major offensive is to break down Syria, Lebanon, and Iran into small incoherent mini-states.

    The country that follows will be Egypt, the most populous Arab country in the Middle East/North Africa region. Unlike other countries that have an obvious mosaic of diversity, Egypt is relatively homogeneous. The “Achiles Heal” of Egypt is more recent tension between the Coptic Christian minority, vs. the Muslim majority. Neo-Cons and their US allies amongst the “Fundamentalist Zionist-Christians” and right-wing Israelis, and others (UK, France, Russia) are playing their respective roles in dividing up the Arab World into vulnerable tiny client states.

    The tragedy is that tens of thousands are being killed, mostly innocent civilians who only want to live decent lives in peace and harmony.

  6. Robert Assaly says:

    This article unfortunately misses the fundamental notion that Christian ethics account for the butterfly effect: what we freely choose has unseen, unmeasurable and often unsavory consequences.

    Romney condemns Obama for “apologizing …. for American values.” Obama responds by upholding American values for the whole Arab world to see: sending drones — death machines to inflict capital punishment upon the unconvicted and often innocent civilians.

    Meanwhile back at the ranch, “Hilary … described those responsible for the death of four U.S. diplomats as “a small and savage group,” while Obama is “pledging that “justice will be done”.” Accordingly, the drones should be bombing California, where the perpetrators openly run their (Christian ?) jihadist hate camps.

    But American values of free speech forbid this, while in Canada the American visitor Ann Coulter, permitted to speak freely on radio and t.v. in the US, chose to cancel her talk at a bastion of free speech — a university (Ottawa, in sight of Parliament Hill). The Rector had publicly warned her that free speech outside of the US doesn’t permit hate speech.

    Hilary has the audacity to boast that the unfortunate deceased Ambassador was in Libya upholding American values in working with the then rebellion, ignoring that this support allowed tens of thousands of Arab deaths, injuries, and tortured (see the UN Sec-Gen comments only on Monday), more than Qaddafi could have achieved in his sickest dreams. Then she asks, “How could this happen in a country we helped liberate in a city we helped save from destruction?”

    Are there no US agents elsewhere? Do we see American butterflies connected to the hurricane off the coast of Syria?

    Perhaps American-style “liberation” is not a shared value. I leave below a beautiful prayer from the Sabeel Centre for LIBERATION theology on this matter, proclaims the value of non-American life, “whatever their religion or creed.”

    Allow me then to suggest that the butterfly might be each ballot cast by well-meaning Christians for Obama, whether in favour of his manifestation of American values or conceding that his cynicism is somehow a lesser evil and itself not a butterfly.

    From Sabeel:

    We pray that all people of goodwill around the world will be aware that there are forces of evil at work to create tension and enmity between the different religious communities.

    Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, together with Friends of Sabeel around the world strongly condemn the intentionally provocative film and its denigrating portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad. We categorically reject such vehicles as instruments of division and demonization.

    We pray for calm and a cessation of violence in the wake of the reaction to this unfortunate film, and ask that potentially incendiary situations across the Middle East and Islamic world might be transformed into opportunities for respect of persons, whatever their religion or creed.

    We reject all forms of violence, including verbal and other abusive reactions that will only inflame additional cycles of violence. We pray for the families of the US Ambassador and all those killed in Libya, whether their senseless death was provoked by the film or for political reasons.

    May the God of peace bless the peace-makers throughout the region, that their efforts will be multiplied a hundred-fold.

  7. Scott Patton says:

    From the point of view of a progressive Christian:

    I believe that no political group can claim perfection, but I am struck by the statement “This stubborn refusal by Romney [to back down from his initial reaction to the attacks on U.S. embassies… Romney attacked President Obama for “apologizing” for what Romney termed, “American values”] suggests that he is locked into a playbook of the U.S. Christian right wing…”

    I don’t think US citizenry as a whole is aligned with the “Christian right wing,” but our media portrays the group vigorously, and we (progressive Christians) certainly don’t get this attention. With conservative Christians receiving such play on the airwaves, internet, and print, people can be easily led to perceive that all religion is bad, because religions seem to be in endless conflict and indeed to be the source of that conflict, and so often the conflict is violent. So people who turn to religion often opt for a group that seems strong, a valiant defender, such as those who teach separation and fear of others and trust in our strength of arms and rhetoric. Is it possible to consider that in faith, perhaps we don’t need an Earthly defender, that God is indeed our defense and strength?

    I offer a metaphor of cream in coffee. If the coffee and creamer sit side by side, neither changes. It takes interaction of the two, and both are transformed by the interaction. That is a good argument for progressive Christians to “come out of the closet.”

    I am with Desmond Tutu that goodness is stronger than evil, and love is stronger than hate. I read once that Einstein was exploring love as the fabric of the universe, and was looking for a one-inch equation, similar to relativity, that would demonstrate it. I choose to reap the fruits of my faith; I believe that God is love and is really capable of handling it all, and keeps care of us — no matter what happens, God will care for us.

  8. frank scott says:

    whether real or possible political manipulations figure in this matter we should all understand that we cannot murder people, with impunity, in far away places, and not expect actions to be taken in retaliation…in this case, we are lucky that the deaths were of conscious promoters of american power in the middle east, unlike the unlucky innocents sacrificed on 911 and in so many foreign locations…

    unless we stop our government from conducting the savage attacks it considers “democratic” that take lives in so many places, under the guise of fighting a terrorism it is responsible for creating, we can expect more, not less such retaliatory attacks on representatives of our government and hope – and pray, if we are religious – that only they and not more innocents will pay the price of our systemic contempt for human life that stands in the way of western, especially american and israeli, pursuit of profit.

  9. Gene Herman says:

    The middle east would be a whole lot calmer if there was a just and peaceful resolution and a sovereign state for the Palestinians.
    Well past due.
    What goes around comes around…N. B. Nakoula, no doubt is a dead man walking

  10. HOW can so many on this wesite think that “true Christians” are all Democrats and that “most Republicans” are extreme right wing? We are divided immediately if we begin with that assumption. It is not true.

    It takes almost nothing for a radical Muslim to respond violently to defend
    the Prophet. For them, it is true devotion, even though the reaction is extreme and cruel in others’ eyes. But there are moderate, wise, loviing voices in Islam. This site is currently showing pictures of some who want to be careful and compassionate, who want to reach across the divide. In so doing, they make themselves targets of unthinking hatred. We need to know that, before Muslims do any act, they are asked to begin with a prayer of dedication: “In the name of Allah (translated: “the God”), merciful and compassionate.” There ARE Muslims who do that, who try to live that way. I know them.

    I know many beautiful, deeply devoted, loving Muslims here in the USA and abroad as well. Some of them are married to Christians, and they honor
    each other and respect each other’s religion.

    Hateful acts cannot be answered by hate.

    I don’t know if there are leaders anywhere who can effectively stand up for
    such values. But I ardently and trustfully hope that they will emerge. It is critical to remember: it is not all up to a wise and charismatic leader. No one can do anything without those who strongly support them. No one
    can suceed alone except those who destroy.

    Who is wise? Who is Foolish? Can we – do we – know?

    Is anybody praying for their enemies? – Not telling God what to do to them,
    but praying that the Holy Spirit will infect and pervade us all, guiding us and
    working in and through us in our decision making?

  11. flowergirl89 says:

    I think the spiritual leaders in the world are trying to make us see we are all one and interrelated, including our eco system and economy. Shame the one that tries to separate us all and show our differences and separateness, is the way to stop them. The so called reverend that burned the Quran should have gotten lots of messages that what he was doing was shameful, and ignorant. It is like a child that knows no better than to make fun of someone different, knowing nothing of the thing they are making fun of.

  12. UmerSultan says:

    Reblogged this on The Sultan's Corner and commented:
    James Wall explains how it all happened.

  13. Excellent post Jim, especially in highlighting Cole’s and Shukrallah’s analyses. With that in mind, I would suggest changing the title “How A Hate-Driven Anti-Muslim Film Led to the Death of Four U.S. Diplomats”, to something that is more aligned with their statements. That is, these analysts rightly note that it is a symbiotic relationship between hate-mongers on both sides. The extremist filmmakers depend on the reactions of extremist militants and vice versa; the title of this post suggests a certain one-sidedness that lead to this tragedy.

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