More than 100 years ago, Mark Twain said: “A lie will go round the round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”
The world received a chilling 21st century update of that aphorism last week, as a plot that would have stretched credibility in a satire unfolded across the globe, leaving embassies attacked and an American ambassador dead, and sending shockwaves through a US presidential election just 51 days away.
At issue was an amateurish 13-minute series of video clips – part high-school play and part porn production, it seems too much to call it a “movie” – posted on YouTube.
It sparked protests at American embassies in Egypt and then Libya, where they were used as pretext by al-Qaeda to launch rocket-attacks that killed American ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others. To add intentional insult to injury, it all occurred on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Amid the fog of war, Mitt Romney’s campaign fired off a press release saying: “It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathise with those who waged the attacks.”
The condemnations came even from the Right side of the aisle. President Barack Obama responded by saying that Governor Romney had “a tendency to shoot first and aim later”.
This foreign policy crisis has drawn attention away from Romney’s trump card of the economy and towards one of the president’s core strengths. Polls show that voters trust the man who ended the Iraq war and presided over the killing of bin Laden more than the former governor of Massachusetts when it comes to foreign affairs, especially because Romney has failed to lay out a differing vision from George W Bush.
This is not the ground on which Team Romney wanted or expected to fight – their candidate infamously declined to mention the continuing war in Afghanistan in his nomination address. But this unwelcome September surprise reflects the realities of the office – foreign policy is the primary responsibility of the president.
And even though President Obama has been given the opportunity and the obligation to express decisive presidential leadership, this is a volatile moment, rife with risks.
But the presidential-level political escalation was comparative child’s play. To date, 11 US embassies have been attacked and British, German and Swiss embassies also targeted as proxies. American Marines and warships have been dispatched to the region.
It is easy to look at all this and conclude that the Arab Spring was sham, a moment of hope manipulated by Islamist radicals. No one must be happier than Bashir al-Assad, because international attention has moved away from his slaughter while concerns about just who might take his place now seem more rational.
But in truth we are still learning to navigate the complicated tributaries of globalisation, and this is a cautionary tale about the power of otherwise obscure fanatics to spur violence half a world away, encouraged by their opposites.
Initially, it was widely reported that the offending film, Innocence of Muslims was the “$5 million” production of one “Sam Bacile” an “Israeli Jew” with some “100 Jewish donors”. Cursory investigation proved that it was the media and the Arab street that were being taken for imbeciles.
It now seems that “Sam Bacile” is a California-based, Egyptian-born, Coptic-Christian con-man named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who had previously been convicted on bank-fraud charges and charged with intent to manufacture methamphetamine.
A non-profit company, Media for Christ, based in Duarte, California, took out the permits to produce the film. Its owner is Joseph Nassralla Abdelmasih, who I saw speak at a rally against the so-called Ground Zero mosque. His film used notoriously anti-Islamist activists like Steve Klein as consultants and the Koran-burning Florida pastor, Terry Jones, was enlisted to promote it.
The actors in the film were apparently unaware of it’s ideological intent, and the amateurish overdubs add credibility to their claims.
The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg summed up the whole affair this way: “A group of Christians, smearing Muslims, libels Jews.” It was murderously effective.
And so we are left to wrestle with the question of how to put this genie back in the bottle. It seems almost too late for the truth to have resonance. When CNN’s Ben Wedeman spoke to protesters in Cairo, cameras caught this dispiriting exchange: “It’s not possible that President Obama, with all his intelligence agencies, didn’t know about this and stop it from coming out in the open,” shouted a student named Ashraq. “It’s clear, Obama is guilty! Obama is guilty! Obama is guilty!”
What we have here is failure to communicate. Civil society cannot be created without civic structures, and Ashraq’s screams were consistent with his understanding of life under the Mubarak regime – omnipresent intelligence agencies must have known of the film and approved its contents.
He has no experience of the concept of freedom of speech.
Perhaps even more concerning is the way extremists have learned to echo one other across our global village. We face the prospect of rabid anti-Islamist activists posting intentionally offensive clips on internet sites that are then trolled by radical Islamists looking to incite their followers to violence.
It is a sick, symbiotic relationship: tribal identities caught in a defensive crouch, lashing out at the 21st Century world that promises their extinction.
The real geo-political fault line of our times is not Left versus Right or even West versus East, but freedom versus fundamentalism. Those who believe that all Muslims are bad or all Muslims are good reflect the same sickness – and the challenge for the rest of us is to present an example of fearless pluralism that makes the haters in this world look small, weak, and definitively on the wrong side of history.