The violence by Muslim extremists against U.S. compounds in Libya and Egypt could further tarnish the religion's image worldwide, and result in retaliation against Muslims in the United States, warned Duke experts Wednesday.
U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed Tuesday when a mob of protesters and gunmen attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The violence was reportedly prompted by an American-made film that ridicules Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
Protesters also angered by the video rioted at the U.S. embassy in Cairo Tuesday, raising Islamic banners in place of the American Flag.
Both attacks could have negative repercussions against Muslims, Duke experts said.
"The orchestrators of the violent protests in Cairo and Benghazi have viciously exploited the religious sensitivities of unsuspecting Muslims and rallied mobs to their cause," said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of religion and Islamic studies. "Their reprehensible demagoguery in using a film trailer designed to inflame Muslim religious sensitivities with the resultant loss of life has once again tarnished the image of Islam and Muslims."
Moosa said he suspects the riots were the work of the public relations units of sophisticated terrorist groups "who have been spoiling for a fight."
"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," he said. "The senseless deaths of the U.S. ambassador and embassy staff might endanger Muslims living in the West, especially in the U.S., since some hate groups could retaliate against Muslims here."
David Schanzer, associate professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy, said the makers of the "repugnant film" reject the legitimacy of Islam and refuse to distinguish between radical extremists and a religion followed by 1.2 billion people around the globe.
Likewise, Muslim extremists equate the acts of a few Americans with the United States as a whole, added Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.
"Leaders in the U.S. and the Middle East face enormous challenges to ensure that the center holds firm, especially in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, where Islamist parties have gained power and the Islamic identity of the governments in power is increasing," Schanzer said.
The long-term interests of both sides require caution regarding tone, rhetoric and actions, he added.
Patrick Duddy, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and now a visiting senior lecturer at Duke, called the killing of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues "tragic," and said the attacks warrant the "condemnation of peace-loving people everywhere."
"This attack on American diplomats also reminds us of the challenges inherent in post 9-11 diplomacy," Duddy said. "American diplomats and development professionals serve at more than 240 diplomatic posts around the world. Many are working places that are remote, often in conditions that are difficult and in circumstances that can be dangerous."
Tuesday's violence against U.S. compounds is the result of the rising influence of extremist religious groups in several countries in the region known as the Salafis, said Abdeslam Maghraoui, director of undergraduate studies at Duke's Department of Political Science.
He said the groups have recently attacked shrines and mosques in Libya and sub-Saharan Africa that belonged to Suffi, a more tolerant branch of Islam. In Tunisia, Salafis have attacked secular artists, writers and women for undermining Islam. In Egypt, the Salafi Nour Party, which advocates a very conservative interpretation of Islam, has won an astonishing 25 percent of the vote, Maghraoui said.
"The killing of the U.S. envoy in Libya following the armed mob attack is a worrisome and tragic development," he said. "Notwithstanding the particular circumstances of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Cairo and Benghazi, these incidents are part of a wider and troubling ideological trend."