So it happened again, and on September 11 no less. A group of extremist Islamic terrorists, possibly Al Qaeda backed, attack the American Embassy in Libya, killing our Ambassador, Chris Stevens and three other diplomatic employees there. The alleged cause of the rage of the attackers is a film produced by a Sam Bacile (who’s identity is under scrutiny at the time of this writing), allegedly an Israeli Jew who believes that Islam is a cancer that must be wiped out. The attackers were enraged by the content of the film, which denigrated the Prophet Muhammad and insulted both the prophet and the religion of Islam. The attackers associated the film with America (it having been produced in this country). So in a summer where we’ve endured a series of mass shootings on our own soil, one by an extremist right here at home, we find ourselves confronted again with the reality of terrorism and its propensity to shatter the peace of our ordinary days without a moment’s notice.
When I first heard the news of the attack on the embassy and the death of Ambassador Stevens, I mourned the senseless violence and the loss of the lives of these American diplomats. I also worried about my Muslim friends in this country, who I feared would once again become the targets of the Islamophobia that has become endemic in our American society. The media coverage of the Libyan attack, with shots of burning cars and buildings with obscene graffiti and the American flag being torn to shreds and burned by angry Libyan mobs, does nothing to make life for American Muslims any safer. Politicians and religious leaders immediately condemned the attacks, including many Muslim leaders in this country, but I know that the subliminal message taken away by many a TV news viewer will cast all Muslims as suspicious, dangerous and undesirable. A hateful film ignites a violent response and everyone loses. While the filmmaker, under our American principles of free speech, is free to exercise his creativity in whatever distorted and perverse way he sees fit, such expressions of hate and disrespect only throw a match on the gas soaked rags of international tensions and racial and religious prejudices. And now the violence is spreading throughout the Middle East as more protesters in more countries threaten American embassies and engage in violence. Once again, violence perpetuates itself and everyone loses.
How ironic that religion, which actually is a source of wisdom and teaching about values such as compassion, respect, peace and understanding between and among the peoples of the earth, consistently becomes a flashpoint leading to acts of violence and hatred which are completely at odds with the fundamental principles of all the great religions of the world. “Blessed are the peacemakers” from Christian tradition. “Those who control their rage and pardon other people – Allah loves the good doers.” (Qur’an – Surat al Imran 134) - Islam. “Thus says the Lord of Hosts: render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another.” (Zechariah 7:9) People like this mysterious Sam Bacile, who prefer to vilify those whose religion is different from theirs, distort the very foundation of their own religious tradition. There is no room, even in a country that so reveres free speech, for the kind of hateful, vitriolic and disrespectful attacks on another religious tradition as was contained in the Bacile film. Just because our Constitution gives you the right to be hateful does not mean society should condone it. If ever there was a time to redouble our efforts to encourage interfaith dialogue and interfaith engagement, so that more people come to see the religious “other” as a friend and neighbor, now is that time.
Forgiveness is a virtue in all religious traditions and it is one that everyone on all sides of this terrible incident must put into practice. The angry mobs in Libya and Yemen and other countries must forgive the filmmaker, and the American public must forgive both the filmmaker and the killers of our diplomats. There is simply no other way to defuse this hostile situation and make room for peace and a hopeful tomorrow. Individuals here at home can pray for the dead and for their grieving families, while reaching out to Muslim neighbors in friendship and support during this frightening time. We can refuse to watch anti-Muslim clips on YouTube, we can refuse to forward Islamphobic e-mails, we can become a part of a discourse that leans towards respect for people of all religious traditions and come together as an interfaith community to condemn the hateful rhetoric that gave rise to the violence which we all agree is reprehensible. We must be vigilant within our own borders to be sure that the violence being done to Americans abroad does not translate into violence against American Muslims here at home.
We must become critical consumers of news and hold our media accountable for how they report on incidents like this so that no one religious or ethnic group becomes the scapegoat for the rage and fear gripping the general population. We must look at ourselves as a culture and a major power in the global community and accept responsibility for our actions in foreign countries that exacerbate tensions instead of relieving them. As this incident shows, that job is not limited to the diplomats. Anyone with access to a video camera and You Tube can undo years of diplomatic work with one ill conceived, disrespectful or hateful posting in a social media outlet or releasing a film that demonizes a religious tradition and its people. Terrorism is global and so is the “war on terrorism.” One person at a time, one community at a time we can combat the threat of terrorism by reaching out to our neighbors of different religious traditions so as to break down stereotypes, debunk myths and prejudices and form a more close knit interfaith community in towns, villages, cities and nations. There is no time like the present to listen to the great peacemaker, Gandhi and to work to become the change we want to see in the world.