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What Happened in Cairo

3:00 PM, Sep 12, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
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Yesterday, on the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an Egyptian mob stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo, pulled down the American flag and burned it. In its place, they raised a black banner inscribed with the shehada ("There is no God but Allah, Mohamed is the messenger of Allah"), a pennant typically associated with al Qaeda.

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The timing and symbolism are significant. They are designed to anger the American public and unnerve an American president in the middle of an electoral campaign. The key uncertainty is whether they are meant to build support for Egypt’s new president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, or to undermine him.

Protesters claimed they were moved to act because of a film that portrays the prophet of Islam unfavorably. The Obama administration’s response was defective, to say the least. Taking the protesters' pretext at face value, the U.S. embassy in Cairo’s Twitter feed was set to automatic apology yesterday. “Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy,” read one, as the mob outside seethed.

The embassy also issued a press release—condemning “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims”—so abject that the White House felt compelled to put distance between itself and its diplomats under siege. An administration official told Politico that, "The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government.” However, the secretary of state’s comments yesterday on the matter are barely distinguishable from those the administration disavowed: “The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” said Hillary Clinton. “Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.”

The movie in question, “Mohamed, Prophet of the Muslims,” was originally shot in English and, according to the New York Times, was financed by an Israeli-American living in California, which now seems to be inaccurate. Some earlier reports, citing the Egyptian press, claimed that the film was made by two Coptic Christian émigrés, looking to foment sectarian tension back in their homeland, in tandem with Terry Jones, the publicity-seeking Florida preacher who burned a Koran back in 2010 against the objections of then defense secretary Robert Gates.

However, what role Jones really had in the film is still unclear. The Times claims that the “video gained international attention when a Florida pastor began promoting it along with his own proclamation of Sept. 11 as ‘International Judge Muhammad Day.’” However, it was not until sections of the film were dubbed into Egyptian colloquial dialect and shown on an Islamist-oriented channel on Egyptian TV that it incited the passions of local viewers. The movie is a garish, adolescent riff on Muslim history and doctrine that portrays Mohamed as an oversexed, polyamorous and none-too-bright brigand whose revelation consists of an admixture of mangled Christian and Jewish doctrine. Those offended by Mel Brooks’s portrayal of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments will really be upset by this parody.

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