Words Matter: Exploiting American Values in the Name of Extremism

Sep 14, 2012

A look at the roots of the violence erupting in the Arab world in a commentary from Lawrence Pintak, the founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at WSU and a leading Middle East scholar.

Words matter. So do images. But never in history have they mattered so much, so quickly, to so many people.

And never have they been so lethal – or easy to manipulate.

Make no mistake, much of this past week’s tragedy was the result of conscious manipulation and exploitation: By the shadowy producers of “Innocence of Muslims,” the film that sparked the violence. By Muslim extremists in the Middle East and Islamophobes here in America. By political leaders on both sides of the world.

And of course the media made it all possible. Because while the spark may be set in social media, it still takes mainstream media to fan the kind of flames we see across the Middle East today.

So what exactly happened here? Well, as far as we can tell, the tragic Benghazi attack appears to have been a carefully planned assault, perhaps using the cover of other protests. But for the violence in Cairo, Yemen and elsewhere, it’s not really about the U.S. Not at root anyway.

This is Egyptian politics layered onto regional Islamist politics, with the U.S. as the bogeyman.

Our story so far: A Muslim-hating guy in California and a collection of shady characters with extreme right wing credentials produce a fourth-rate movie in the U.S. insulting the Prophet Muhammad. And when I say insulting, I mean vile. The film shows once in a California theater. A few clips – some dubbed into Arabic – are posted to YouTube.  And no one cares.

And then an Islamist pan-Arab satellite channel airs the clips and the you-know-what hits the fan. When reached by American reporters, the producer claims to be a Jewish Israeli real estate developer named Sam Bacile who is trying to show the truth about Islam. The AP and other outlets report his name and background as fact. We now know that was just a smoke screen: His real name is reportedly Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian Coptic Christian with a reputation as an extremist and, according to law enforcement, a criminal record.

But the damage has been done. By the time we learned the truth, the embassies had been stormed and extremists on both sides were calling for blood.

Which appears to have been the whole point of the charade. As a man named Steve Klein, who claims to be a consultant on the film, told one reporter: "We went into this knowing this was probably going to happen.”

It’s a classic tactic. Bait the hardline Islamists into anti-American violence and you feed anti-Muslim anger. That, in turn, potentially destabilizes the new Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo, which is the goal of some extremist Copts, who are a Christian minority in Egypt.

Back in the early ‘80s, scholars started talking about the so-called CNN Effect. The idea that because they were watching world events play out live on TV, policymakers were forced to respond before they had time digest the implications and formulate cogent strategy. In short, they ended up shooting from the hip before they had all the facts – much as President Obama accused Mitt Romney of doing this week.

In the context of Arab politics, the wrong words – or images – are welcome fuel for the fires of extremism. We saw it with a comment from then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice about the ‘birth pangs of a new Middle East’ at the height of the 2006 carnage in Lebanon, in the violent upheaval tied to publication of insulting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and in numerous other examples where words and images led to violence and death.

This isn’t about freedom of speech or American values, as some were claiming this week. It is about cold, cynical manipulation of American ideals – manipulation that threatens – and possibly claimed – the lives of the very people who represent those ideals to the world.

For the moment, the extremists have the upper hand. Serious questions have been raised about the Egyptian regime’s failure to adequately protect the embassy, but the bottom line is that the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government is now on the defensive. In Egypt and across the region, hardline Islamists have a new excuse to flex their muscles because American values have been exploited in the cause of extremism.

Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and author of The New Arab Journalism: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil and Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam and the War of Ideas.