Posted by Amitabh Pal on September 12, 2012

The killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya is unconscionable.

The blame for the murders falls squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrators. It’s unclear to what extent reaction to the anti-Muslim movie was behind this attack, but I saw a couple of minutes of the trailer (the New York Times has linked to it) and the film seems to be painfully bad (with actors in brownface!), as well as a deliberate insult to Islam. Even then, so what?

Ironically, if the assailants in Benghazi were taking revenge against the movie, they were acting contrary to the very traditions of the religion they were claiming to defend. Forgiveness is a prized virtue in Islam, especially when Muslims are angry. The Prophet Muhammad, when he reentered Mecca, a hallowed event in Islam, set an example by declaring the whole of the city a sanctuary: “There is no censure from me today on you (for what happened is done with), may God, who is the greatest amongst forgivers, forgive you.” He is also said to have stated, “God fills with peace and faith the heart of one who swallows his anger, even though he is in a position to give vent to it.”

A related prized quality in Islam is mercy: God is “the most merciful of the merciful ones,” states the Qur’an. [7:151] “He is oft-forgiving, most merciful.” [39:53]

“Muslims are commanded to exercise self-restraint as much as possible,” states Abdullah Yusuf Ali, author of a respected translation of the Qur’an. “Force is a dangerous weapon. It may have to be used for self-defense or self-preservation, but we must always remember that self-restraint is pleasing in the eyes of God.”

By ignoring such precepts, the Benghazi attackers—if indeed engaging in retribution for the anti-Islam film—committed an outrageous act that has given worldwide fame to a little-known amateurish project.

Professor Juan Cole, an expert on the Middle East, provides some political context.

“The victory in the Libyan elections of nationalist rather than fundamentalist forces, and the rise to power in Egypt of the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood has marginalized the militant strain of Muslim activism,” he writes on his Informed Comment website. “One way the fundamentalist vigilantes can hope to combat their marginalization and political irrelevance in the wake of the Arab Spring is to manufacture a controversy that forces people to side with them.”

As Cole points out, the crowds in Libya and Egypt demonstrating against the United States were quite tiny, indicating their lack of popular support.

Professor Marc Lynch, author of a new book on the Arab Spring, similarly warns Americans not to generalize: “We should have learned after 9/11 to not let actions of small radical fringe shape our view of entire societies. Have we?”

The Obama Administration has thankfully not fallen into this trap, with both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasizing that Libyans helped defend the Benghazi consulate and aided in transporting Americans to a nearby hospital. And prominent Muslims here such as Ingrid Mattson, former president of the Islamic Society of North America, and Eboo Patel, head of the Interfaith Youth Core, have condemned the murders, showing that the worldview of the attackers has little resonance among Muslims in this part of the world.

Fortunately, even some Republicans are warning Americans not to paint with a broad brush.

“Despite this horrific attack, we cannot give in to the temptation to believe that our support for the democratic aspirations of people in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the broader Middle East is naive or mistaken,” Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham (along with Independent Senator Joe Lieberman) said in a joint statement. “We cannot resign ourselves to the false belief that the Arab Spring is doomed to be defined not by the desire for democracy and freedom that has inspired millions of people to peaceful action, but by the dark fanaticism of terrorists.”

Had Mitt Romney issued such a sensible statement, he wouldn’t be in hot water right now.

If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Rock Star and Activist Salman Ahmad Still Going Strong."

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