Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Misunderstanding Plagues the US Embassy Protest over anti-Muhammad Film: A First-Hand Account

As clashes continue in the areas surrounding the US Embassy, I have had opportunity to publish my account and analysis from the original incident on EgyptSource. Please click here for the article in full, and excerpts follow below:

The sad spectacle on display at the US Embassy in Cairo on September 11 shows nearly everyone in a poor light. Sadder still is that most parties involved acted from a sense of virtue, but misunderstanding and prejudice corroded the good intentions.

I next proceed to describe some of the background events as well as the misunderstandings on the part of the US Embassy and US media. Next follows perhaps the most crucial observation I gained:

The stranger inference is that the embassy was not surrounded from the beginning. The protest was announced in advance, and yet Egyptian riot police were present throughout the demonstration. Yet it was the army, absent the entire time, which secured the premises.

The US Embassy complex is surrounded by a high wall lining almost entirely the adjacent street. The entrance is located in the center of the wall. Black clad police with helmets and shields lined the wall to the right of the entrance, but yielded the left side to protesters. Essam, an older Salafi protester, told me the police deferred to the ‘Islamists’ to keep the youth under control.

Next follows viewpoints expressed by some of the participants, including these:

Consistently the crowd shouted, ‘With our lives and blood we will redeem you, oh Islam.’ Muhammad, another son of the Blind Sheikh, explained, “For any offense against Islam, the Muslim has the right to defend himself against the one who says it, and this slogan displays his love of his religion.

“Everything has its time and place. It makes no sense to issue simple good preaching during jihad. If someone is attacking you, you resist and fight back, you do not just say a good word.”

Another participant in the protests, Mustafa, who had returned to Egypt after living fifteen years in Brooklyn, commented further. “Those Copts making this film should be killed.”

The sad fact is that so few involved in this episode, whether gathered at surrounding the embassy or abroad, exhibit a will to understand and appreciate the other. For his part, Muhammad Abdel Rahman acknowledged the legitimacy of debate. “A Copt in Egypt may stand publically and state he does not believe in Muhammad. But there is a difference between discussion and insult.”

Yet where is the line to be drawn? What Muhammad might allow Mustafa might murder. Both act from the virtue of principle, yet each is open to the condemnation of fellow Muslims. Such difference in interpretation is witnessed in all actors.

The transition to conclusion involves weighing each actor on the basis of their motivation from virtue, only to be spoiled by misunderstanding. Of course, the virtue of each may be completely false, which is also considered. I end looking ahead to tomorrow, a day seeming increasingly ominous:

The test will come on Friday, when Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have called for more demonstrations against the film. Meanwhile, their political arm the Freedom and Justice Party, described the film as “a failed attempt to stir strife between Muslims and Copts.”

These rallies will only cement the ill image many Arabs and Westerners have of one another. The former see the latter as irreligious libertines, while Muslims get labeled as oversensitive fanatics. It is a sad exchange, overcome only through awareness, acceptance, understanding, and respect. Will wiser heads prevail? Humankind is capable of great virtue, but it is easily marred.

Perhaps nothing of significance will take place, but the fear is that there is significant political capital to play with. Demonizing America has long been a feature of Egyptian domestic policy, even while official relations are maintained, even strengthened. President Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood again face the choice to imitate Mubarak, or change the political culture of Egypt.

But if they change, in what direction? Better, or worse?

Please click here for the full text.

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3 replies on “Misunderstanding Plagues the US Embassy Protest over anti-Muhammad Film: A First-Hand Account”

In my opinion, in their virtue and their quest to defend Islam, these people do God a disservice. Since when does God need defending? After all, the Qur’an consistently states that God needs no help from anyone, and that God is All-Sufficient. To me, humans rising up violently to defend a perceived slight against God makes God seem small, as if God can’t take it, or deal with it by Himself.


Well stated. My main point is to try and find the decency – and honor it – among an otherwise indecent scene. I may be off base, as the article notes, but I hope the effort keeps them human in the midst of easy demonization.


What is happening is rage for the sake of rage. It makes Muslims feel good; it gives them respect they cannot get other wise.

The big issue — one that Muslims will not touch — is that the material for these anti-Islam movies comes directly from the Quran and especially the hadith. If critics of Islam want to paint Islam, Mohammed and Muslims as violent and evil, they simply dig up passages from Islam’s own writings — and these are the same reliable sources that Muslims endlessly quote (just that they are selective about which verses they use).

Muslims refuse to consider any criticism, of Islam, even when those criticisms are fully justified. It is easier to do hate and rage than to justify many of the things in the Quran and hadith. There is no hope for peace. Our values are different. It is gonna get ugly..


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