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Protests and death in Middle East spark debate over religious tolerance, free speech

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 9:48 p.m. MDT

Egyptian protesters chant anti-U.S. slogans during a demonstration in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012 as part of widespread anger across the Muslim world about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad. (Nasser Nasser, Associated Press) Egyptian protesters chant anti-U.S. slogans during a demonstration in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012 as part of widespread anger across the Muslim world about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad. (Nasser Nasser, Associated Press)

Government officials aren't certain an anti-Islamic film that sparked protests in Egypt and Libya is the motive behind an attack in Libya that left the U.S. ambassador and three other diplomats dead.

But an amateur YouTube video made in the United States that ridiculed Islam's Prophet Muhammad and sparked protests in Egypt and Libya the day of the attacks has fueled an ongoing debate over the conflicting Western values of free speech and religious tolerance.

U.S. officials were still investigating late Wednesday whether the attack in Libya was a terrorist strike planned to mark the 11th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Initial reports were that both the Libya and Egypt events had been motivated by anger over the movie "Innocence of Muslims."

Former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told CNN that the United States should seize on the violence spurred by the film “to teach the Muslim world about freedom,” specifically about freedom of speech.

Yemeni protesters climb the gate of the U.S. Embassy during a protest about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad, in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Dozens of protesters gather in front of the US Embassy in Sanaa to protest against the American film Yemeni protesters climb the gate of the U.S. Embassy during a protest about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad, in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Dozens of protesters gather in front of the US Embassy in Sanaa to protest against the American film "The Innocence of Muslims" deemed blasphemous and Islamophobic. (Hani Mohammed, Associated Press)

"His remarks, echoed by other conservatives on Wednesday, signaled something of a divide in reaction to developments in Libya and Egypt between the political right, which stressed freedom of speech, and the left, which added condemnation of those behind the anti-Muslim film," CNN religion editor Dan Gilgoff reported.

"Gingrich criticized statements from the U.S. government that he said went too far in condemning and apologizing for the anti-Muslim film."

A statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo said it "condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims."

"Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."

Early Wednesday, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the killings but also said religious beliefs should be respected.

A Yemeni protestor, center, destroys an American flag pulled down as other hold a banner in Arabic that reads, A Yemeni protestor, center, destroys an American flag pulled down as other hold a banner in Arabic that reads, "any one but you God's prophet" at the U.S. Embassy compound during a protest about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad, in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Dozens of protesters gather in front of the US Embassy in Sanaa to protest against the American film "The Innocence of Muslims" deemed blasphemous and Islamophobic. (Hani Mohammed, Associated Press)

"Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation,” Clinton said. “But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."

The two-hour movie that sparked the protests came to the public's attention in Egypt after its trailer, which many have reportedly found offensive, was dubbed into Arabic and posted on YouTube.

A man identifying himself as Sam Bacile, a 56-year-old California real estate developer, said he wrote, produced and directed the movie.

National Public Radio tried to sort out the fact and fiction behind the filmmaker and the film's promoters.

"The bottom line is that we know very little about 'Sam Bacile,' the man who says he produced the film and who says Sam Bacile is his name," NPR reported.

Regardless of who made the film or whether it was the motive behind the attack in Libya, the video apparently ignited strong reaction by devout Muslims in Egypt and Libya. Other media depictions of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, favorable or insulting, have in the past resulted in violent protests by Muslims in the Middle East.

An Egyptian woman holds a black flag with Islamic inscription in Arabic that reads, An Egyptian woman holds a black flag with Islamic inscription in Arabic that reads, "No God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet," in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. An Israeli filmmaker based in California went into hiding after his movie attacking Islam's prophet Muhammad sparked angry assaults by ultra-conservative Muslims in Egypt. Arabic on the wall reads, "anyone but God's prophet." (Nasser Nasser, Associated Press)

"Violence over depictions of the Prophet Muhammad may mystify many non-Muslims, but it speaks to a central tenet of Islam: that the prophet was a man, not God, and that portraying him threatens to lead to worshiping a human instead of Allah," CNN said.

The report quoted Akbar Ahmed, who chairs the Islamic studies department at American University, that the strong reaction is rooted in Islam's prohibition against idol worship.

“The prophet himself was aware that if people saw his face portrayed by people, they would soon start worshiping him,” Ahmed says. “So he himself spoke against such images, saying ‘I’m just a man.’ ”

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, senior religion editor for the Huffington Post, called making a film like "Innocence of Muslims," which depicts Islam's founder as a fraud, is "akin to shouting fire in a movie theater."

"Sam Bacile and his Islamohating cohorts appear to have created a symbiotic relationship with the violent Muslim extremists — each give the other a sense of self-righteousness and victimhood with a perfect circle of destruction."

But James Joyner, managing editor of the Atlantic Council, wrote in The National Interest that the right to free speech — no matter how offensive that speech may be — trumps the reaction it might provoke.

"We’re a country that recognizes the right of citizens to burn our flag in protest, understanding that the very fact that doing so outrages so many Americans demonstrates how powerful a form of speech it is."

And American Muslims are fearing a backlash here to the latest violence aimed at Americans.

Religion News Service reported that American Muslims condemned the violence in Egypt and Libya "but remain concerned that the deaths could rekindle anti-Muslim sentiment just as post-9/11 resentment was starting to ebb."

Some Muslims said the violence was not spontaneous, but rather orchestrated by Islamic fundamentalists, RNS reported.

"This is no coincidence, and I suspect the work of the public relations units of sophisticated terrorist groups who have been spoiling for a fight,” said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University. “It might be time that religious leaders in the Muslim world desist from playing the blasphemy card if they do not wish to hand a victory to provocateurs who are hell-bent on destabilizing their societies.”

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