What really motivated the embassy attacks?

Michael Rubin Resident Scholar, AEI
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The September 11 murder of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, a mob’s sacking of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and the attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo demonstrate the war against terrorism is far from over. Disturbingly, 11 years after al Qaida’s devastating attack on New York and Washington, neither the White House nor the State Department appears to recognize what the fight is about.

As protests erupted outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo, embassy public affairs officer Larry Schwartz tweeted — and then re-tweeted — a condemnation of the controversial film which initial reports suggested motivated the rioters. “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” the embassy’s feed declared. The Arabic tweets were even more fervent: “We vehemently reject the actions of those who abuse the worldwide right to freedom of expression in order to injure the religious beliefs of others.” It would be unfair to make Schwartz the fall guy. After all, the tweets — which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered deleted — were no outlier. Even before the smoke cleared from the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, President Barack Obama effused moral equivalency. “While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” he declared, “we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”

The idea that the riots were spontaneous shows detachment from the reality of the Middle East. Dozens of heavily armed and murderous Islamists sacking embassies are not flash mobs of teenagers converging on a mall food court. When I lived in pre-war Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Yemen, my students and colleagues often spoke of how they had been informed by government representatives where to board buses to attend “spontaneous” rallies to be held the following day.

The 2006 Danish cartoon crisis is a case in point. The Middle East erupted into protest not as the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published its cartoons, but rather three months later — and several weeks after an Egyptian and Indonesian paper republished without incident the controversial depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. Danish authorities later reconstructed what happened: After the cartoons’ publication, the Turkish ambassador in Copenhagen complained to Abdullah Gül, Turkey’s Islamist president, who in turn called his friend, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, head of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), an association of 56 majority Muslim states promoting Islamic solidarity. High on the OIC agenda is the imposition of international laws prohibiting criticism of Islam and speech offensive to Muslims. The cartoons provided an opportunity to translate contrived grievance into political concession. There followed an organized campaign to rally radicals. In the end, more than 100 people perished in the ensuing “spontaneous” violence.

The White House and diplomats may wish to believe a distasteful, provocative, and inflammatory film motivated the violence in both Egypt and Libya. It is comforting for politicians and officials to ascribe the root cause of Islamist terrorism to grievance because if grievance motivates terror, then resolving the grievance could provide the solution.

Islamist terrorism, however, has far less to do with material grievance than ideology. Obama’s serial dismissal of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jewish state’s security concerns suggest an assumption that Israel’s behavior — or perhaps its very existence — provokes Islamist terror. The problem with the belief that Israel represents original sin is that Islamist terror predates Israel’s creation and, indeed, the partition of Palestine. In 1946, the Military Intelligence Division of the War Department, the predecessor to today’s Defense Intelligence Agency, identified Muslim Brotherhood terror as posing a growing threat to the international order. Years later, Abdullah Azzam, a Muslim Brotherhood acolyte, would teach his student Osama bin Laden that Western culture was a deliberate plot dreamed up in the bowels of the Pentagon to separate Muslim youth from religion. Diplomats may accept the idea that Jihad is first and foremost about the struggle to better oneself and only violent in defense, but if the Islamists like Azzam, Bin Laden, and blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman believe they have been attacked by the likes of Beethoven, Britney Spears, and the Backstreet Boys, then they believe violence against the West is justified. Women’s rights? Justification for murder. Religious tolerance? An abomination justifying slaughter. Free speech? An excuse to kill. Simply put, when the grievance is Western freedom, there can be no compromise. It is time that President Obama and the men and women representing the United States abroad understand that.

The war on terrorism and, more specifically, the fight against Islamist radicalism, is an ideological battle. The United States, moderate Muslims, and those valuing freedom and liberty must triumph not only on the battlefield, but also in the classroom and on the airwaves. Alas, apologies and self-flagellation represent not a path to peace, but little more than preemptive surrender.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.