Alastair Beach
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on : Wednesday, 12 Sep, 2012
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Religion and Outrage in Cairo

Egypt Unwrapped

The death of the American ambassador to Libya following the Prophet Mohammed film controversy shines a spotlight on difficult questions of religious belief in Egypt.

Egyptian protesters tear down the US flag and wave various black Islamic flags at the US embassy in Cairo on September 11, 2012

Congratulations to Sam Bacile, the Israeli property developer who was reportedly behind the knuckle-headed video which last night appeared to lead to the deaths of five Americans, one of them the ambassador to Libya.

The film, which was also allegedly backed by a consortium of wealthy Jewish funders, depicted the Prophet Mohammed as a fraud.

Mr Bacile, who today appeared stubbornly unrepentant, obviously knows which buttons to push.

His decidedly ham-fisted effort also triggered angry protests outside the American embassy in Cairo last night. Demonstrators climbed the walls of the Downtown compound, eventually replacing the Stars and Stripes with a black flag often used by fundamentalist Muslims.

Yet the demonstration, which at its rowdiest numbered just a few thousand, was relatively contained. Police officers managed to persuade protesters to get off the wall without resorting to their batons, and eventually the numbers fizzled out.

In Libya it appears things took an alarmingly violent turn. The US consulate in Benghazi came under fire from a mob carrying guns and rocket-propelled grenades, with the assailants intent on using the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to carry out their spectacular crime.

So back to Sam Bacile, a man whose moronic foray into religious critique has now secured him a position in history alongside the publishers of the infamous Danish cartoons, or murdered Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh.

But he is not the only one with questions to answer.

Why did the actions of one idiot compel a gang of outraged gunmen to murder five Americans in Libya?

Why couldn’t the thousands of Egyptian Salafis who marched on the US embassy last night not just dismiss Bacile for who he is – an ignoramus not worth a single drop of angry, tarmac-chant spittle?

Everyone else knows Bacile is a fool, so why turn him into the martyr he so clearly wants to be?

Yesterday’s events once again threw a spotlight onto the ever-present bugbear of religion in Egyptian political life.

Last week I was sat under the blazing strip-lights of Hurreya, the historical hangout of beer-sozzled intellectuals in Downtown Cairo.

With me were a group of six atheists, huddled like wanted fugitives into one corner of the bar. It was their weekly meeting – a chance to discuss Dawkins and Darwin away from the skeptical ears of family and friends.

“My parents would have a heart attack if they knew I was an atheist,” said one, when asked what his mother and father thought about his beliefs.

When one considers the anger and sheer disbelief which many Egyptians feel when their faith is questioned – a point underlined by events in Libya and Cairo’s US embassy – it is no wonder atheists feel they have to live hidden lives.

Alastair Beach

Alastair Beach

Alastair Beach is a freelance reporter based in Cairo who has worked for a variety of publications, including the Independent, the Sunday Telegraph and Spectator. He was previously based in Syria.

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