Hisham Matar writes: Were the attacks on the United States Consulate in Benghazi, which killed the American Ambassador and three other diplomats, motivated by the film that the assailants, and many news networks, claim was their motive? Was it really religious outrage that made a few young men lose their heads and commit murder? Have any of the men who attacked the consulate actually seen the film? I do not know one Libyan who has, despite being in close contact with friends and relatives in Benghazi. And the attack was not preceded by vocal outrage toward the film. Libyan Internet sites and Facebook pages were not suddenly busy with chatter about it.
The film is offensive. It appears that it was made, rather clumsily, with the deliberate intention to offend. And if what happened yesterday was not, as I suspect, motivated by popular outrage, that outrage has now, as it were, caught up with the event. So, some might say, the fact that the attack might have been motivated by different intentions than those stated no longer matters. I don’t think so. It is important to see the incident for what it most likely was.
No specific group claimed responsibility for the attack, which was well orchestrated and involved heavy weapons. It is thought to be the work of the same Salafi, ultra-religious groups who have perpetrated similar assaults in Benghazi. They are religious, authoritarian groups who justify their actions through very selective, corrupt, and ultimately self-serving interpretations of Islam. Under Qaddafi, they kept quiet. In the early days of the revolution some of them claimed that fighting Qaddafi was un-Islamic and conveniently issued a fatwa demanding full obedience to the ruler. This is Libya’s extreme right. And, while much is still uncertain, Tuesday’s attack appears to have been their attempt to escalate a strategy they have employed ever since the Libyan revolution overthrew Colonel Qaddafi’s dictatorship. They see in these days, in which the new Libya and its young institutions are still fragile, an opportunity to grab power. They want to exploit the impatient resentments of young people in particular in order to disrupt progress and the development of democratic institutions.
Even though they appear to be well funded from abroad and capable of ruthless acts of violence against Libyans and foreigners, these groups have so far failed to gain widespread support. In fact, the opposite: their actions have alienated most Libyans.
Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was a popular figure in Libya, and nowhere more than in Benghazi. Friends and relatives there tell me that the city is mournful. There have been spontaneous demonstrations denouncing the attack. Popular Libyan Web sites are full of condemnations of those who carried out the assault. And there was a general air of despondency in the city Wednesday night. The streets were not as crowded and bustling as usual. There is a deep and palpable sense that Benghazi, the proud birthplace of the revolution, has failed to protect a highly regarded guest. There is outrage that Tripoli is yet to send government officials to Benghazi to condemn the attacks, instigate the necessary investigations and visit the Libyan members of the consulate staff who were wounded in the attack. There is anger, too, toward the government’s failure to protect hospitals, courtrooms, and other embassies that have recently suffered similar attacks in Benghazi. The city seems to have been left at the mercy of fanatics. And many fear that it will now become isolated. In fact, several American and European delegates and N.G.O. personnel have cancelled trips they had planned to make to Benghazi. [Continue reading…]