US ambassador to Libya killed in violence over anti-Islam film

The reaction to a nonsensical and offensive film has sparked protests in Bengazi and Cairo.

With the US ambassador to Libya killed in Bengazi and a protest of 2,000 in Cairo raising an Al-Qaeda-associated flag above the US embassy on the anniversary of 9/11, it is clear the reaction to a small video published online yesterday has got out of hand.

The YouTube clip of a film named "Innocence of Muslims" has been reported in the (rumour-filled) Egyptian press to have been the work of Koran-burning Florida Pastor Terry Jones and Coptic Egyptian Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of the population in Egypt. It was in fact produced by an Israeli filmmaker named Sam Bacile. "Islam is a cancer," he told the Wall Street Journal. "The movie is a political movie. It's not a religious movie."

The film itself is comic in its ridiculous condemnation of Islam, almost a satire of far-right Christians’ worst stereotypes about the Middle East. It features a cast of orange-looking Americans with large stick-on beards attacking Christians and burning down their houses.

Scenes of the Prophet’s life take place against a static computerised desert backdrop and include historical incongruities such as plastic-looking weapons taken from a range of periods and women combining their hijabs with low cut mini-dresses.

The film accuses Muhammad of paedophilia, extortion, womanising, drinking wine, being gay (“Is the master dominant or submissive?” a follower asks, while Muhammad replies “both - remember the night at the gym?”), terrible grammar “how pleasurable is our Islamic ways”, and generally portrays him as being a murderous brute. A 102-year-old woman with an extremely strong New York accent claims “never have I seen such a murderous thug as Muhammad”, before being dragged away attached to a camel's leg.

Other figures from the Koran, such as Bilal, make an appearance. Although a freed slave of Ethiopian descent, known to be a companion of the Prophet famed for his beautiful voice, he is here presented as a large overweight white man with strange markings on his face.

The film has caused conspiracy theories to fly. Was it a plot by Morsi to provoke the US on the anniversary of 9/11? A Salafi plan to spread sectarian tensions? Protests are rumoured to intensify in Cairo today, with the violent football fans the Ultras Ahlawy heading down to the embassy. Sheikhs in Egypt are already calling for the revocation of citizenship of Copts living abroad.

All over a film that is so ridiculous it seems like a parody of itself. Much like the Danish cartoon controversy, something trivial has highlighted extreme underlying tensions and insecurities. They say that the offensive cartoon caused widespread anti-government protests in Libya. The film may also have brought to the surface tensions which will be harder to bury.

“Man + X = Islamic Terrorist” one character in the film philosophises in a characteristically nonsensical scene. What is X, we are left to wonder. By this film's estimation, the most obvious conclusion would be fake tan, a cheap beard, and some strong glue.

A still from "Innocence of Muslims".
Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".