September 13th, 2012
11:23 AM ET

My Take: A deadly link between Islamic and anti-Islamic extremists

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

What should we make of the attacks on the U.S. consulates in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens?

It depends on who you mean by “we.”

From the perspective of those who stormed the embassies, taking down the American flag in Egypt and replacing it with a black flag reading, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger,” theirs was an act of justice on behalf of the One True Faith.

The Americans had it coming, according to this view, because Americans are on the wrong side in the clash of civilizations between the Judeo-Christian West and the Muslim world. And the creation of an anti-Islamic video (ironically entitled "Innocence of Muslims") by a producer thought to be an American provided the catalyst (or excuse) for the protests.

Why Muslims are sensitive about portraying the Prophet Mohammed

Most Americans operate by a different “we.” From our perspective, the assault was an unjust and cowardly attack on (among other things) the rule of law, the institution of diplomacy and the right of free speech.

Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur gave voice to this perspective when he said on Twitter, “I condemn these barbaric attacks in the strongest possible terms. This is an attack on America, Libya and free people everywhere.”

“Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added. “The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.”

In a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, later published as "This Is Water," novelist David Foster Wallace urged student to scrutinize the “natural, basic self-centeredness” that puts “me” at the center of the world.

This unconscious “default setting” fosters the sort of “blind certainty” that manifests as arrogant atheism and fundamentalism alike, Wallace said. And the point of education is to shake us out of that “default setting” - to begin to see things from the perspectives of others.

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Wallace focused in his speech on the individual “I.” But his critique can be applied as well to another “default setting” (this one more cultural than natural): our tendency to understand the world from the perspective of “we."

According to those who stormed the embassies, "Innocence of Muslims" was not made by an individual (whoever the shadowy "Sam Bacile" may - or may not - be). It was made by an American.

Moreover, according to this groupthink, Americans as a group are responsible for the sins of individual Americans, so it makes perfect sense to strike out at embassy personnel who issued a statement before the protests turned deadly, condemning "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims, as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."

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Meanwhile, the shadowy figures who produced and distributed "Innocence of Muslims" are imprisoned in some groupthink of their own, which gathers all the world’s Muslims under the category of an evil Islamic empire. Their film doesn’t just depict Mohammed as a con man, philanderer, and pedophile. It portrays his followers as dupes.

Unfortunately, the events of recent days have done nothing to jar the alleged producer out of this default setting. When questioned about his film in the aftermath of the Libyan and Egyptian attacks, a man identifying himself as "Sam Bacile" reportedly told the Wall Street Journal that “Islam is a cancer.”

You don’t need a Kenyon college degree to see how this vicious cycle of provocation and violence is fueled, and you don’t need to be a moral relativist to see that it takes two sides to keep it running.

I am an American who is justly proud of the First Amendment and its protections of freedom of speech and religion. And I believe that killing your opponents in the name of God or nation is a far greater offense than offending them with an ignorant movie.

Nonetheless, the root problem on display here is in my view what Wallace denounced as “blind certainty.”

Our world is not divided first and foremost along religious or national lines, into Muslims and Christians and Hindus or Israelis and Americans and Egyptians.

Neither is it divided into secularists and people of faith - the New Atheists and partisans of old-time religion.

The real “red line” in the modern world divides the certain from the uncertain. And in the tragic events of recent days, those who produced and distributed this hateful movie stand on the same side of this line as the killers of innocents in Libya and Egypt.

Both groups are possessed by the unholy spirit of “blind certainty,” unacquainted with both the complexity and contradictions of life on Earth and the “cloud of unknowing” that hovers over every major religion.

The great religious thinkers in Judaism, Christianity and Islam always knew enough to know that they did not know everything.

They knew the difference between the eternal decrees of the God of Abraham and the all-too-flawed thoughts of ordinary people. They knew, in short, that they are not God, who alone is charged with creating and destroying the world and discriminating along the way between the real and the illusory.

The killers in Libya have forgotten that. So have the not-so-innocent producers and distributors of "Innocence of Islam."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

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Filed under: Belief • Egypt • Islam • Libya • Middle East • Violence

soundoff (395 Responses)
  1. Rynomite

    "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims, as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."

    The problem with this statement is that it is IMPOSSIBLE to not offend the feelings of one religion or another whenever having a dialogue about religion.

    People (sadly) take their religion seriously.

    A Christian stating their belif that Muslims will burn in hell for not believing in Christ will offend Muslims.
    A Muslim stating their belief that Jesus was not divine will offend Christians.
    An Atheist stating the fact that all religion is man made and no god exists will offend God worshippers.

    None of these statements are necessarily mocking (though depending on the tone and context they could be), but each one WILL OFFEND someone for the simple fact that people are too easily offended.

    All in all, it was a silly statement for a U.S. embassy to make.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • A Muslim

      Actually I'm sure that most muslims and christians wont be offended by those statements. It's understood that they're different. The issue is when there is a lack of respect for the other religion. Respecting a religion doesn't go hand in hand with beleiving in it. I dont believe in some of the beliefs of Christianity but I respect it and I would never make slanderous or deceiptful statements about it. The film isnt saying "muslims are going to hell because they dont believe as I do", it spreads falsehoods and says that Islam is evil.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  2. A Muslim

    One of the beliefs in Islam is that no one is accountable for the mistakes or sins of another. Muslims have to live by the entire Quran not just certain ones. Yes we are to protest and protect our faith, but that doesn't translate into breaking laws and destroying an embassy or attacking embassy employees (or anyone for that matter). Protection of the faith can be accomplished by simply protesting the slanderous lies of the film and providing the truh to counter such lies and deciept. Attacking and murdering people and breaking laws is not justified in Islam, and actually works against protection of the faith because others in the world will hate you and despise you for reacting that way. You don't gain respect by acting like an animal. It is long overdue for muslims to discuss all the issues in their society, rioting and attacks may have been the only means that someone felt they can do in response to things in the past (due to dictatorships, occupation etc), but the means exist today to vent out disapproval of something in more constructive ways. I like the idea of interfaith dialogue but prior to this muslims need to have a dialogue within themselves to get back to the true essence and teachings of Islam.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Foundation of hinduism, criminality is as much a target as much a hindu, criminal, No one is more responsible for hinduism, terrorism of hindu Jew's, filthy self centered than Government of USA, run by hindu gentiles, criminal self centered slaves Christians of hindu Jew's. for more visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html nd click on word Choice to open file.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Pete

      Hinduism is better than Islam.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      @Pete – how so?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • tuvia suks

      I don't, for one second, believe what you write or say. I have your silly book, read it, and it is violent towards all 'unbelievers.' You are fooling yourself but not me. Xtians have the same problem.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • A Muslim

      Tuvia sux. Reading something without knowing the context isn't helpful. You don't care to get the context. You're not a historian so I don't blame you. The Quran isn't a story book, it's not always narrating events, alot of times its just a direction to the prophet and the muslim community during his time. Regardless you don't have to believe me. Objective people who care about the truth rather than being hateful understand this and they're the ones I care about informing. Not you.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • A Muslim

      References in the Quran to attacking non-muslims were referring to ordering the Prophet to fight back against the attacks and persecution by the pagan arabs whom had the stated intent to kill all muslims. The Quran was reveald to the prophet in stages, when muslims were being attacked then the direction to fight the non-believers was stated to him. There is also direction that muslims should not be an aggressor and that if the other side stops fighting you, you are to stop fighting them. The Quran is meant to be taken as a reference to how life was dealt with at that time and try to apply it to what ever time the reader is in. Individual muslims or groups that attack others, in their minds, believe that they are responding to an attack or ongoing attack, i.e. occupation of palestine, iraq, etc. Are there instances in history where the initial aggressor was clearly muslim, I would'nt be surprised, but that's because they're human beings, not because they're muslim.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  3. GroupThink

    "according to this groupthink, Americans as a group are responsible for the sins of individual Americans," This here is the exact thing everyone needs to understand but especially the Religious. The group is not responsible for the actions of an individual but are expected to speak out against the negative actions of the individual. Muslims like to try and blame America for the actions of an individual American which they need to realize is a very very bad idea. Here is why... Muslims do not want America holding all Muslims responsible for the actions of a few any more than we want them to blame all Americans for one extremely stupid mother efer do they? For if we were to do so we would end up on the path to genocide and on that path everyone loses because it becomes a zero sum game where one group refuses to exist with the other and attempts to eliminate them.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Supporter of hinduism, terrorism against Muslims and Islam are as much hindu, terrorist as hindu Jew's, terrorist self centered, Not all American's but defiantly hindu, criminal government is as much guilty as a hindu Jew, terrorist Jew for her support of hinduism, terrorism against Muslims and Islam.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Rynomite

      "according to this groupthink, Americans as a group are responsible for the sins of individual Americans,"

      The religious don't really do well with this concept.

      Consider the original statement could easily be rephrased, "according to this groupthink, People as a group are responsible for the sins of Adam & Eve". The concept of original sin. A silly widely accepted concept.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  4. GoldenGirl

    A people who believe violence is justified when they are offended will always be violent. Offenses will happen and they aren't always intentional.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  5. Sy2502

    A ridiculous analogy that of the struggle Muslim vs anti Muslim in the Middle East and atheists vs religion in America.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Actually they are one in the same

      One cult wants to dominate the others, and rational minds have always resisted.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  6. William Demuth

    I hate to always have to be the one to ask the tough questions but here goes.

    If the aggressors in this cultural war are the Muslims, why are their casualties hundreds of times greater than the Christians are, and thousands of time larger than the Jewish ones are?

    I am not complaining mind you, being an Atheist, I believe the only good Theist is a dead Theist, plus this is so much more entertaining than the Olympics was, but I hate to see so much propaganda and so few facts.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Punctus

      Excellent question....

      September 13, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • ME II

      Because the aggressor isn't necessarily the strongest.
      I'm not saying I know who the aggressor is in your so-called culture war, but the side with the most losses is not necessarily the victim, that would be too simple.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • JPinTX

      "why are their casualties hundreds of times greater..." Facts, please?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I can't believe you even think that is a pertinent question

      September 13, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Rynomite

      Let's say I'm a 4ft 87lb 5th grader and I share a bus seat with a 6ft 210lb 8th grader. Maybe I don't like that the 8th grader takes up 2/3 of the seat. I feel that he should only have half and I should have half. I point this out to him and he just shrugs and says, "Hey I'm just bigger and take up more space." So I decide I don't like his response so I punch him in the nose.

      Was it unforeseeable that I was going to end up with 2 black eyes, a broken jaw, and a few missing teeth?

      September 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • William Demuth


      The facts are not shared by your government, but the most conservative estimates of Iraq casualties put the total around 500,000.

      I hope from here you can do the math.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • quiet_pilot

      it's called asymetric warfare, jews have great killing technology, now that they are no longer pacifists, arabs have excess population thay want to get rid of, what do you expect ???

      September 14, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
  7. Alex in NJ

    Sam Bacile is Israeli, not American.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Wrong dude.

      Coptic Christian. And a con man.

      The name you are using is fake, and based on his middle name.

      He may actually be going to prison for this, he was banned from the internet for five years after being convicted of felonious "check kiting"

      September 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      thindu Jew's filthy self centered claim to be Israelite, while they commit hinduism, terrorism , in death thsy claim to be American to hind, fool people of America. for more visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html nd click on word Choice to open file.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  8. redsled

    an intentional case of overkill by the author.yet another white uncle tom.you can't truly compare murder with an idiot making a movie.see micheal moore.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Punctus

      I agree with your point that there is a fundamental moral difference between killing and simply being rude and intolerant....but "white Uncle Tom?" What does that even mean?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  9. ME II

    @Stephen Prothero,
    "The real “red line” in the modern world divides the certain from the uncertain. And in the tragic events of recent days, those who produced and distributed this hateful movie stand on the same side of this line as the killers of innocents in Libya and Egypt."

    Hear Hear.
    Well said.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  10. greg

    You put the producers on the film on the same plane as murderers? Shameful.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • ME II

      Same side, not the same level.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Ricky L

      Absolutely on the same plane.

      Sam Bacile....or whomever.....got what he wanted – a deadly reaction which he hopes will lead to a larger, more violent conflagration.

      The extremists on both sides are the same, and all you have to do is read many of these comments to know it's true.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  11. travolta_stinks

    "Both groups are possessed by the unholy spirit of “blind certainty,” unacquainted with both the complexity and contradictions of life on Earth and the “cloud of unknowing” that hovers over every major religion."

    Agreed "blind certainnity" otherwise known as conservatism is behind the makers of a movie that demonizes all muslims and ultra conservative muslims who think all Americans are too blame for that movie.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  12. Exhausted

    In the words of Chris Rock – what happened to "just plain crazy?"

    September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  13. Mark

    Human is human. We need to admit our limitation. That is humble. We need to have a clear and solid mind so we are not easily to be incited by other's stupid actions.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  14. QS

    It was childish and irresponsible of the maker of the film to have made the film....but he has the right to do so.

    It was childish and irresponsible of the rioters to storm U.S. embassies and react so violently to something so childish and irresponsible.

    But above and beyond anything else, the most childish and irresponsible aspect to this entire situation, as it always seems to be, is religion.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • WASP

      @QS: seriously what would a non-believer/atheist have to truly get so angry to become violent; in my opinion not much.

      only thing that would cause me to be violent would be if someone hurt my child or my family.......then that perosn(s) better pray the police get them before i do. 🙂

      September 13, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Children do not usually use rocket launchers and AK-47's so I think your descriptor is childish.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • William Demuth


      You are wrong

      The RPG series, AND the Kalisnikov weapons are BOTH designed to be able to be used by children, and in Africa it is probably the rule rather the the exception

      September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      Actually, Bill, the Christian Terrorist group Lord's Resistance Army is reported to have used child soldiers to carry out it's Christian-inspired terrorism. So children likely do use AK47s.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • tuvia suks

      @ Bill Deacon. Do you always spout BS? I have SEEN kids with RPG"S and AK-47's. It was a place called Vietnam. You are an idiot.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I suppose it is a sad commentary when you all accept ans "usual" the condition that children employ firearms. Citing fringe instances of children being armed does not make violent behavior child like. But thanks for the insults anyway.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • QS

      Not sure how the definition of "childish" got so skewed here, but it was meant to be more along the lines of immature – it had nothing to do with children using weapons, it's about adults behaving as children mentally over something so ridiculous as religious beliefs.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  15. humbly

    Extremists in every religion are dangerous.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Yeah, I'd say it's the extremism not the religion

      September 13, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • travolta_stinks

      Anybody who takes religion seriously is an extremist.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • ME II

      @Travolta stinks,
      That seems rather extreme.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  16. Johnny Hands

    Films don't kill people, Muslims kill people.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Johnny Hands


      Films don't kill people, religious fanatics kill people.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • BobG

      Little Johny, the PC king. By the numbers, how many innocents are killed by Christians in the modern age and, by the numbers, how many innocents are killed by Muslims, by the numbers, and mind you I think Religion of anykind is usually NOT helpful and damaging due to the inherent clash of different "truths!"

      September 13, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  17. Emily

    Ultra conservatives and Muslim extremists have a lot in common. Intolerance and bitter hatred of those who are different is the thread that ties them together.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      If you can't find intolerance in liberalism you are either unwilling or inept.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      That's right Bill, liberals are intolerant of the following:

      -denying people the same rights as everyone else SOLELY because some ancient text tells you its ok to discriminate
      -Oppressing the poor in the name of capitalism
      -Denying someone rights because you happen to think they're the lesser gender.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • WASP

      @bill: being liberal has nothing to do with being intolerant. truthfully liberals tend to be more tolerant than our more conservative counterparts.

      only thing i know i'm intolerant of is blind faith aka ignorance and any type of "ism" i absolutely refuse to accept ageism, s e xism, racism any of those BS excuses to seperate the "us" from the "them"

      September 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I say, liberalism has no more, nor any less bent towards extremism than conservativism. Extremist are just that, extreme. They appear at the outer fringe of ideologies where the boundaries are often blurred. If you are unable to identify extremism in your favorite ideology, you are either willfully ignoring it or delusional.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      Naturally both sides have their extreme fringes. But we're not talking about extremes here Bill, the word used was intolerance. Intolerance is central to the tenets of the GOP platform.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • ME II

      If you can't spot the extremists on your own side, it may be you!

      September 13, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • BobG

      Geeez, I'm no Repubican but I never hear Conservative demanding that MSNBC/NBC or CBS or ABC be shut down and censored nor do I ever see Conservatives shout down and foul mouth like I do liberals. Just yesterday there was another calI by an ultra lib group to SHUT DOWN FOXNEWS! I really do think some liberal causes are very good but I'd rather not be associated with liberals and their want to CHILL what they don't like.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Emily used the phrase "conservative extremist" so I stand by my critique of her reasoning.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  18. absolute marine

    Thanks SB1790 LMAO !!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  19. Barbara

    But Stephen, what you fail to point out is that most people crave certainty. You can see that quite clearly in all the lambasting of "flip-flopping" that goes on, and talk about needing certainty in financial markets and in the tax plan. If it is truly in our basic nature to crave certainty, then this type of behavior can only be expected to continue.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  20. Fred

    I dont see how they are the same when in Packistan they were going to kill a 13 year old girl for using the Koran to keep warm. She couldnt read.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Michelle

      Islam is very similar to young Christianity. Christians have a vast history of doing unthinkable things, as well, and not all too long ago, either. The US' separation of church and state allows for better protection from those kinds of acts today, otherwise I'm sure we'd still have public stonings of sinners by the fundamentalists.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      nice unfounded assertion Michelle.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.