The tragedy is that the equivalent of a tiny corner shop, or a small business working from home, can today retail religious hatred to a global market. There will be no shortage of entrepreneurs who will advertise the product, manipulate the market to their advantage. Omar al-Bakri sent out six million emails in case nobody had noticed the Danish Cartoons. The fact was that at first they hadn't. A nasty little film, a burning of the Qu'ran, an offensive cartoon, goes viral and the virus is lethal.
Benghazi saw one of the worst crowd attacks in Libya after the publication of the Danish cartoons. The staff of the Catholic Church hid and narrowly escaped with their lives, fleeing to Tripoli. Colonel Gaddafi had ruthlessly eliminated organised Salafi and potential jihadist groups in the capital but had never been able to bring Benghazi under full control. It was no surprise that the beginning of his end began there.
It is also no surprise either that Benghazi was the location in which jihadists have been able to stage a lethal attack under the cover of a popular protest about a film denigrating the Prophet. Libya's borders are porous and weapons are available in abundance as the Mali tragedy has illustrated. Revolutions notoriously suck in groups that thrive under conditions of the break down of law and order and the state's loss of a monopoly on the means of coercion. But this time it has cost the lives of US embassy staff including the ambassador.
US warships and allegedly drones have been dispatched in a show of strength. Or is it a show of weakness? Because it is very hard to see how the sheer military might of the United States can defeat the asymmetric warfare of this kind of terrorism. If ever the cliché of winning hearts and minds was appropriate it is here. The religiously inspired conflict of the 21st. Century will ultimately be won not with bombs, drones and guns, but values and ideas. The battle field will be not only between but within different faiths.
Perhaps the jihadists know this. The targeting of a diplomat and an embassy, whose core business is in the realm of exercising soft power, rather than military power, seems like a change of focus from attacking churches. In the minds of the perpetrators it is no such thing. Huge pieces of the real world are lumped together into a binary opposition between them and us. That lies at the heart of a religious mindset that is far from being the preserve of one religion alone.
What has brought this mindset to the fore today? The most obvious answer is a fundamental inability to deal with the world we live in, a world notable for its religious pluralism and its secularity. And, of course, secularity was historically the product of the need to deal socially and politically with religious pluralism. In this sense the jihadist is quite right: they are intimately linked.
For this reason US foreign policy, democracy, other faiths, moral decadence, a sense of humiliation, government betrayal, become this monster called "the West" that must be slain. There may be no way to unpick this unholy conflated idol. But there certainly is a way of saying that this violence in the name of God is wrong. The word that comes to mind is blasphemy, the abuse of the name of God.
Is this at root a failure of religious leadership? To the degree that it would be hard to say that any faith community has fully come to terms with the secular and religiously pluralist world, the answer has to be yes. The number of religious thinkers, theologians, and spiritual figures who have gone back to the basics of their faith to ask what it might mean to be faithful to it in the context of religious pluralism and secularity is very few. Interfaith dialogue can too often be a facile search for commonalities rather than a loving quest for the understanding of the particularity of each faith. And that, of course, requires an open mind.
Into the vacuum comes the simple jihadist answer to the question, keep your mind closed, cherish our perverse interpretations of scripture to the death, reject and destroy them. Destroy the other. The Benghazi killings are a call to action both to religious leaders and to organisations like the Tony Blair Faith Foundation who believe there is another potent message and that what young people learn about faith and religion matters, and that we walk away from this challenge at our peril.
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