Defamatory representations of the Prophet Mohammed have sparked violence in several Muslim countries – in part directed against Western embassies. On 11 September, the US Ambassador to Libya was killed along with three of his staff in an attack on the US embassy in Benghazi. The German embassy in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, was stormed on 14 September with parts of the premises set on fire. A number of other Arab countries have also seen impassioned protests.
Minister Westerwelle has spoken out to condemn the attacks. He said that the anti Muslim video, which was disseminated online and is said to have triggered the protests, “does not justify violence”. He described the storming of the German embassy in Khartoum as “unacceptable” and summoned the Sudanese Ambassador in Berlin to the Federal Foreign Office. On 19 September, Minister Westerwelle sent the Foreign Office’s Regional Director for Sub Saharan Africa and the Sahel to talks with the Sudanese government and made it clear that “We expect a clear commitment to, and concrete steps towards, protecting our embassy”.
The embassy itself is currently closed. Further developments will determine the course of the incremental restoration of embassy activities. Security has been tightened in embassies all over the region, with some increases in security staff numbers. The Foreign Minister also advised German staff working in the private sector in the countries concerned to be “particularly vigilant”. Nonetheless, he declared himself convinced that “the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject violence”.
Sending a message to counter intolerance
The Minister nonetheless expressed understanding for “the indignation which many faithful Muslims feel towards the anti Muslim film which has been circulating”. On the subject of plans for public screenings of the controversial video in Germany, he issued the following statement:
It’s important for us to send a message to the world together – a message that we do not support right wing extremists who insult and attack other religions. We must not forget that this is the kind of situation some radicals in the Islamic world depend on to spread intolerance. But unfortunately it’s also the case that a few right wing extremists in Germany spread intolerance, and we as a civil society need to clearly and courageously distance ourselves from both of these.
Referring to announcements that more material criticizing Islam was to be published in Western states, Minister Westerwelle warned against “adding fuel to the fire”. Freedom and responsibility, he said, were “two sides of the same coin,” meaning that “freedom of opinion is not freedom to insult, abuse or vilify those of a different faith”.
The international response
The United Nations Security Council has also strongly condemned the attacks on embassies and called upon the governments of the countries concerned to fulfil their obligations to protect foreign countries’ diplomatic missions. On 14 September the UN Security Council issued a statement condemning such attacks regardless of their motive or when and where they are carried out. Germany’s UN Ambassador Peter Wittig read the statement; Germany currently holds the rotating chair of the Security Council.
On 20 September, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, the Secretaries General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League, and the African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security released a joint statement to send “a message (…) of peace and tolerance”. They wrote condemning attempts to hold the international community hostage to the acts of extremists on either side.