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The Real Meaning of the Middle East Firestorm

BU’s El-Baz on the Benghazi question

It started on Tuesday, September 11. Islamic militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades stormed the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, killing ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The violence, reportedly sparked by anger over a YouTube video that mocked the Prophet Muhammad, has since spread to 20 cities in the Middle East, and American and European diplomatic outposts have been attacked from Cairo to Jakarta.

Initially, the source of the video was shrouded in confusion. It was purported to be the work of an Israeli living in California, then it was attributed to right-wing Christians. It now appears that one of film’s makers was Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian from California who was once imprisoned for intent to manufacture methamphetamine and for fraud. Google, the owner of YouTube, defended its posting of the video, but blocked access to it in Egypt and Libya.

The true source of the Benghazi assault was also unclear. There is speculation that the attack had been planned in advance, with special meaning for the date: September 11.

As violence appears to wane, BU Today spoke with Egyptian-born Farouk El-Baz, a College of Arts & Sciences research professor of archaeology, a College of Engineering research professor of electrical and computer engineering, and director of the BU Center for Remote Sensing. El-Baz, who was science advisor to the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat from 1978 to 1981, is a frequent guest on National Public Radio, Public Radio International, and on NECN.

BU Today: If the U.S. State Department had previous knowledge of the defamatory film, as recent reports say, should it have acted in some way?

El Baz: I don’t think the State Department or anyone in United States could have expected that upheaval. The reason for the upheaval is that people in all Muslim countries know that their governments review and approve movies and show them before they are broadcast anywhere. Thus, they assumed that the U.S. government had approved that trailer. This is where the blame of America originated. To this day many ‘observers’ fail to mention this fact and relate it to the over-the-top reaction of simple people in these countries.

What brewing anti-U.S. resentments did this video trailer ignite? What are the roots of those resentments?

In the Middle East, it could be what is conceived as blind support of the state of Israel and the neglect of the Palestinian aspirations.

Farther east, it is partly the invasion of Iraq under the pretense of weapons of mass destruction and the long stay in Afghanistan beyond the defeat of the Taliban.

Do the protesters believe all Americans are anti-Muslim, or is it just a small minority who blame the United States as a whole for this isolated, malicious incident?

The blame is directed toward the U.S. government. That is why attacks are directed at embassies and not American businesses or individuals.

The mobs did not attack American tourists or any of the numerous American universities in the region. They attacked the embassies because those represent the American government, which to the protesters had approved that dreadful movie.

The protesters insist that blasphemy is a crime and should not be protected by free speech, but in the United States it is protected speech. How can we respond to concerns in a way that doesn’t further fan the flames?

We can at least explain that the U.S. government does not review or approve movies and considers this particular one insulting and atrocious.

How much of the unrest apparently triggered by the video has been percolating because of domestic problems like youth unemployment, corruption, and civil conflicts plaguing such nations as Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Sudan?

I think the dire social conditions and lack of employment had a great deal to do with encouraging the youth to gather and raise havoc; they have nothing to lose.

What do you think of President Obama’s and Secretary Clinton’s handling of the crisis? What could they have done differently or more effectively?

I think they both did as well as could be expected; I just wish someone had told them to stress the lack of a government stamp or seal of approval, since that is not known in those countries at all. A statement to that effect could have quieted down many of the demonstrations.

How well do western media portray the peaceful majority of the Islamic world?

There is a great deal of “ignorance of the other” on both sides of the ocean.

Should Google have taken down the video?

Yes, in the aftermath of the embassy attack and death of Ambassador Stevens.

Is there evidence that the attack was planned?

I do not know, but I don’t think so. The mob attacked the consulate building because it formally represents the USA.

What role did cultural differences play in the initial incident and the spread of violent demonstrations throughout the Arab world?

Very little; ignorance played a leading role.

How and why did anger spread so far and ignite so quickly?

Because Islam has not gone through questioning and a reformation the way Christianity did. God and his prophets (Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad) are not open to any ridicule, no matter what or by whom. Just their mention evokes attention and prayers.


22 Comments on The Real Meaning of the Middle East Firestorm

  • Annie on 09.18.2012 at 5:54 am

    Excellent. Excellent explanation. Clear and concise. I would be intrigued to read more interviews with El-Baz. Please consider. His direct insightful viewpoint is educational for me and hopefully for many.

  • Anonymous on 09.18.2012 at 7:34 am

    “Should Google have taken down the video?
    Yes, in the aftermath of the embassy attack and death of Ambassador Stevens.”

    Are people really that naive to think this was all because of a video? Why does the U.S. have to apologize for its CONSTITUTION and its freedoms? WHY? You don’t see Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews rage havoc because of a “video,” or do you?

    This was an obvious well coordinated attack, (coinciding with September 11th!!) these people HATE the U.S. and everything it stands for. It’s not just because of a video, yet our administration continues to funnel over billions upon billions of dollars to Arab, theocratic muslim countries. Meanwhile let us continue to apologize on behalf of the “religion of peace” while innocent Americans are dying overseas… …Sigh…

    “Because Islam has not gone through questioning and a reformation the way Christianity did……” blah blah blah…. excuses one after another…

  • Zina Nord on 09.18.2012 at 10:07 am

    Apology and explanation are a very small price to pay in an effort to stop the madness. Prof. El-Baz gave excellent insight on the subject. With all due respect, ‘Anonymous’ missed the importance of respect for cultural differences and practices. It is,indeed, unfortunate that ignorance always seems to play a leading role… everywhere…and in all areas of life.

  • anonim on 09.18.2012 at 10:10 am

    I disagree with some of the answers in the article, here is another perspective from the muslim world todayszaman.com/columnist-292530-global-operation

  • carra on 09.18.2012 at 10:27 am

    This article is bias, period. How can be BU publish something lke this is beyond me. This is obviously just one opinionfrom a very bias and blind man who is just supporting and justifying these hateful acts agianst the US, even though we are payng him and lives in this country. Shameful!! Could you publish tomorrow an interview with a real American?

    • joshtn on 09.18.2012 at 10:34 am

      Couldn’t agree more. Very well put!!

      • Reader on 09.18.2012 at 12:50 pm

        “There is a great deal of “ignorance of the other” on both sides of the ocean.”

        I’m seeing a lot of ignorance on our side in some of these comments on this page. There is no justification for the loss of lives in this situation but we need to learn more about the other. And I’m curious to find out how many of you know anything about Islam or the Muslim world or if you simply go off of the burbs on TV. How about a little effort in understanding other human beings? I am a “real American” and i would have responded in a similar way, with my brain and without hateful comments.

        Also, every article is biased. Maybe the best things to do is to take the time to read many biased articles to get a clearer picture of our world and fight ignorance.

    • Sane Student on 09.18.2012 at 12:57 pm

      Farouk El-baz has done more for America then all of the people commenting on this article. He’s a scientist who worked with NASA, an agency of the UNITED STATES government, in its scientific exploration on Apollo. So what’s a real American?

      Not only that, but he’s not an expert of Middle East and US relations. He’s just trying to provide some insight. You are commenting on ONE OF THE BRIGHTEST UNIVERSITIES IN THE COUNTRY. Yet, your comment is the epitome of stupidity in its highest degree. Your statements are HIGHLY flawed. Have you heard of ad hominem? It’s a fallacy.

    • Tara on 09.18.2012 at 1:05 pm


  • Paloma on 09.18.2012 at 11:32 am

    I understand that there is a lack of understanding about government involvement with or approval of YOUTUBE videos (it’s almost laughable to think of the government having an opinion on a video of, say, my kitty cat), but my question is, how did this low-budget, sorry excuse for a movie get so much attention? Out of all of the derogatory, insulting, hair-brained videos on youtube, someone got killed over THIS ONE???? That kind of ignorance blows my mind, and really makes me wonder if certain people were just looking for an excuse to start/continue an unnecessary fight.

    • Michael on 09.20.2012 at 9:01 pm

      PALOMA MUH GURLLLLLLL you literally stole the words out of my mouth when I watched the video on youtube I almost laughed it was so bad! It’s like crying over a crayon drawing by a kindergarten student depicting you as too fat.

  • Coming from a Muslim on 09.18.2012 at 1:01 pm

    I disagree to probably one answer and that is that Islam hasn’t gone through reformation and questioning. Religion is faith. Those who believe in it, believe it has come from God. So to say it needs reformation, then you are saying God didn’t know the future was going to change, that technology and people were going to change, but if you think of God as the higher being then isn’t he All-Knowing?

  • Anonymous on 09.18.2012 at 1:33 pm

    Why don’t we compare the .01% of Muslims globally protesting (about 9,000 people TOTAL as compared to the 1.5 BILLION Muslims around the world) to the Christian Crusades?

    • Bob on 09.18.2012 at 3:47 pm

      When were the Crusades??

      • Karina on 09.18.2012 at 6:52 pm


        • Michael on 09.20.2012 at 9:02 pm

          i think that was sarcasm…

  • Lara on 09.18.2012 at 7:47 pm

    Why are the writers for this article asking an Egyptian archeologist, and not a political analysis/international relations, about this issue? This is not to say that Mr. Farouk has nothing of value to share – he certainly does. But I have the feeling that the column writers assumed all Egyptians, whether trained in the international relations/political science fields or not, feel the same way about current uprisings in “the Middle East.” This is extremely problematic and simplifies the concerns and opinions of millions in Egypt. To make matters worse, Ms. Seligson and Mr. Jahnke now have readers at BU thinking that this one Egyptian’s perspective is the be-all and end-all of thinking in North African and the ME. Some more thoughtful selection of an interviewee on such a hot subject is in order, folks. I think an Egyptian or Libyan trained in analyzing political situations and world relations would have given a much more nuanced and detailed explanation to what is going on, not just an “it’s just ignorance” quip to dismiss things.

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