Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Extremists and leaders incite violent protests

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst, and Jennifer Rowland, Special to CNN
September 13, 2012 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Yemeni protesters gather around fire during a demonstration outside the US embassy in Sanaa over a film mocking Islam on September 13, 2012.
Yemeni protesters gather around fire during a demonstration outside the US embassy in Sanaa over a film mocking Islam on September 13, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen: Violence against U.S. over film is part of a pattern of incidents
  • He says Christian and Muslim extremists have incited deadly protests for years
  • Bergen: In several cases, the words of political leaders have helped spark violence

Editor's note: Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst, is director of the national security studies program at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that seeks innovative solutions across the ideological spectrum, and the author of the new book "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." Jennifer Rowland is a program associate at the New America Foundation.

Amsterdam (CNN) -- On November 2, 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was bicycling to work in Amsterdam when he was shot eight times at close range. He died instantly, but in a fit of rage, his assailant, Dutch-Moroccan Mohammed Bouyeri, also attempted to cut off his head with a machete.

Bouyeri killed van Gogh because of a short film he had recently produced with Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali that criticized Islam's treatment of women.

The film showed verses of the Quran projected onto the bodies of several naked young women. It was a film designed to provoke. And it did. Ali subsequently went into a self-imposed exile in the United States.

News: Six things to know about the attack

Now, seven years later, a short, amateurish film entitled "Innocence of Muslims," purportedly created by Sam Bacile in the U.S., portrays the Prophet Mohammed as a philandering child molester. ("Sam Bacile" appears to be a pseudonym.)

Terry Jones, a Christian pastor based in Florida who has a long history of making incendiary statements about Islam, is promoting "Innocence of Muslims." Jones also recently called for an "International Judge Mohammed Day" to be held on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, this past Tuesday.

News about the film has sparked outrage in the Muslim world. Mobs have attacked American embassies and consulates in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three of his staff members were killed in what appears to have been a well-organized attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday. The attackers may have used the opportunity presented by the film protests to mount the assault.

These attacks came after the accidental burning of Qurans by U.S. soldiers at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in February sparked massive protests across the country, resulting in the deaths of at least 30 Afghans and six U.S. soldiers, all of whom were shot by men in Afghan security force uniforms.

Opinion: Survivor of 1979 consulate attack -- Libya an eerie echo

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

And these are just the latest in a series of violent reactions to the perceived disrespect of the prophet and the Quran by Westerners -- sometimes intentional and sometimes unintentional -- that, in an increasingly globalized world of almost instantaneous communication, has intensified significantly during the past several years. And Muslim extremists as well as Christian fundamentalists in the West have increasingly intentionally amplified this trend.

Politicians and the media in the Muslim world have also played an important, though perhaps unintended, role in stirring up violence in the wake of a number of these perceived attacks on Islam.

A YouTube video of "Innocence of Muslims" that provoked the Libyan mob to attack the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was initially published in July, but it was not until versions of it dubbed in Arabic appeared online and were broadcast by religious Egyptian news channel al-Nas that protests sprouted in Egypt.

A May 2005 Newsweek article claiming that American soldiers at Guantanamo had flushed a copy of the Quran down the toilet went unnoticed for nearly a week before Pakistani politician Imran Khan pointed the article out in a news conference. More than a dozen people were subsequently killed during protests in Afghanistan. (Newsweek later retracted the story.)

Similarly, when Jones burned a copy of the Quran at his church on March 20, 2011, two weeks went by without any incident. But then President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan made a speech calling for his arrest. Within 24 hours, protesters stormed the United Nations compound in Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan, killing seven foreign employees, and demonstrations across the country killed more than a dozen other people.

In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, setting off a wave of protests and attacks over the next several years in which as many as 200 people have been killed.

In 2008, for instance, al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Danish Embassy in Islamabad, which killed a half-dozen bystanders, saying the powerful suicide car bomb was in retaliation for the offensive cartoons. Two years later, Kurt Westergaard, one of the cartoonists, barely escaped from a Somali man linked to Al-Shabaab, al Qaeda's Somali affiliate, who broke into the cartoonist's home in Denmark with a knife and ax.

But the violence sparked by the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, one of which depicted the Prophet Mohammed with a turban-wrapped bomb on his head, began a full four months after the images were published by the newspaper and were the result of a carefully orchestrated campaign by two Danish Muslim clerics who toured the Middle East, presenting a dossier about the cartoons to important religious and political figures.

Opinion: Libya killings show U.S. at risk in Arab world

Included in the dossier were cartoons that had never appeared in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, showing offensive images of the Prophet Mohammed.

As a result, entering the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in Copenhagen today is akin to visiting a prison, with a heavily barred set of metal gates securing entrance to the building. And just as author Salman Rushdie remains under threat decades after the 1989 fatwa against him for his novel "The Satanic Verses," so too the threat against Jyllands-Posten is likely to endure for many years.

On Wednesday, Karzai released a public statement strongly condemning the recent "criminal act." This was not a reference to the assault on the U.S. consulate in Libya a day earlier that resulted in the four deaths there but to the release of "Innocence of Muslims," the video that denigrates the Prophet Mohammed.

News: Unanswered questions after the attack

Karzai did express his condolences about the deaths at the Libyan consulate when he spoke privately to President Obama. However, his public statement will surely draw attention to an issue that is likely to cause additional violent protests in Afghanistan, which NATO forces are steeling themselves for.

With allies like these, who needs enemies?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT