A southern Californian man from Cerritos is in hiding after a crude and inflammatory Youtube video he produced went viral and Pakistan’s railway minister, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, invited members of the Taliban and al-Queda to take part in the “noble deed” of assassinating him. On September 22, the Pakistani minister held a press conference where he declared, “I announce today that this blasphemer, the sinner who has spoken nonsense about the holy Prophet, anyone who murders him, I will reward him with $100,000.”
The minister’s comments were later condemned by the U.S. State Department, a spokesperson for Pakistan’s prime minister, and Rubine Khalid, a senator from Pakistan’s ruling party who stated, “We have got nothing to do with it [the comments], we all condemn it, and I think strict action should be taken against him.” All this came on the heels of a two-week wave of attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions around the world that have left approximately 79 individuals dead and 636 inured.
So who is Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, AKA Sam Bacile, and how did his crude film go viral? The original Innocence of Muslims film was uploaded July 2, 2012 by Youtube user Sam Bacile and has of this writing racked up 4.7 million views. A year earlier, In July 2011, a casting call was posted to Craigslist for Desert Warrior, a “Historical desert drama set in Middle East. Indie Feature film shoots 18 days in L.A. in August. Studio and backlot locations.” The script originally contained no mention of the prophet Mohammed; the audio was crudely over-dubbed to be as inflammatory as possible.
Nakoula Basseley, 55, the alleged film producer, was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution after being convicted in 2010 of federal bank fraud charges. His criminal records also include a 1997 conviction for possessing drugs used to make methamphetamine. Sheriff’s deputies were allegedly sent to his home on September 12, 2012 as he is frightened for his life following threats and a fatwa issued on jihadist Internet forums by Ahmad Fouad Ashoush, a man who heads Egypt’s Salafist jihadist community and is believed to be close to al-Qaeda’s current No.1, Ayman Zawahiri. “I issue a fatwa and call on the Muslim youth in America and Europe to do this duty, which is to kill the director, the producer, and the actors and everyone who has helped promote the film” the statement reads.
According to a statement issued to CNN by the 80 member cast and crew:
“The entire cast and crew are extremely upset and feel taken advantage of by the producer. We are 100% not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose. We are shocked by the drastic re-writes of the script and lies that were told to all involved. We are deeply saddened by the tragedies that have occurred.”
While the video was artless and poorly produced it wasn’t until September 6, 2012, when a radical Egyptian exile, Steve Klein, translated the video into Arabic and began contacting journalists around the world, that things really started to heat up. Klein alleged that the U.S. pastor Rev. Terry Jones, best known for organizing a mass burning of the Koran on April 28, 2012, was going to be holding another large event on September 11. Jones did indeed screen the film to his followers on September 11, calling the event “International Judge Mohammad Day.” Nonetheless, it takes a lot more than two American provocateurs to create a worldwide protest movement. What happened next is a classic case of a media hype amplification-spiral.
As Klein and Jones began issuing press releases and contacting journalists across Egypt and the Middle East, a conservative Glenn-Beck-style TV show host in Egypt, Sheikh Khaled Abdallah, picked up the story and prepared to run with it. According to Egyptian-British journalist Sarah Carr, Abdallah is “part of a school of particularly shrill religious demagogues who turn every possible event into an attack on Islam.” On September 8, Islamist satellite TV station al-Nasaired Abdallah’s show in which he featured the Arabic-translated version of The Innocence of Muslim. It wasn’t long after Abdallah had lit the proverbial match that Youtube views began skyrocketing and the politicization of this video began. Cairo news outlet youm7.com reported the same day that an Egyptian political party leader “denounced the production of the film with the participation of vengeful Copts.” The animosity between Coptic Christians and Salafists, particularly in Egypt, would serve as fuel for the impending wildfire.
According to Bobby Ghosh from Time magazine, “For months, organized Salafist groups have been protesting in small numbers in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, calling for the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik currently in a North Carolina prison, convicted for plotting a series of bombings and assassinations in the 1990’s.” Wasem Abdel-Wareth, a Salafist leader and current president of Egypt’s Hekma television channel, seized at the Innocence of Muslims film controversy and called for a widespread protest on September 11 in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. In an attempt to preempt the demonstration, the American Embassy in Cairo issued a statement saying they “Firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
Estimates are that about 3,000 demonstrators descended on the embassy around 5 p.m. and proceeded to scale the embassy walls, replacing the American flag with the black Islamist flag. Riot control police beat back the demonstration and, over the course of that night, erected a large concrete barrier to keep demonstrations back from the embassy. According to Ghosh, the demonstrators “were joined on September 11 by prominent leaders like Nader Bakar of the Salafist Nour Party and Mohammed al-Zawahiri, brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s longtime deputy and now head of al-Queda.”
While the Cairo embassy was being secured, a much more devastating attack would occur on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where as many as 125 armed men would converge on the consulate, leaving nine injured and four dead including American Ambassador Christopher Stephens, who is thought to have died from smoke inhalation. The attack in Libya is alleged to have been orchestrated by Ansar al-Sharia, a group supported by al-Queda. According to leaflets left at the scene, it was in retaliation for the death of “Libyan al-Queda No. 2,” abu Yahya al Libi, in an American drone strike. It is believed that the Innocence of Muslims movie protests were also used as cover for this attack.
Less than 24 hours after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, protestors took to the street in Sana’a, Yemen, and overran security forces at the embassy ,setting fire to vehicles within the compound. At least four protesters were killed and 11 injured, and 24 guards were also injured; a Marine FAST unit was deployed to Yemen. By September 14, the entire situation exploded as a result of Friday prayers across the Middle East denouncing the Innocence of Muslims film and calling for widespread demonstrations.
That day, the U.S. embassy and American school in Tunisia were set ablaze leaving 46 injured and four dead. In Sudan, both the German and U.S. embassies were attacked, flags were torn down, and fires were started, leaving three dead after clashes with riot police. A riot broke out in Tripoli, Lebanon, where fast food stores and a strip mall were attacked and torched (including KFC, Hardee’s, and Krispy Kreme), leaving one person dead. Clashes were also reported at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, where protestors asked for the death of Sam Bacile, the film producer, and immediate expulsion of U.S. diplomatic missions there. Ten kilometers from the Gaza strip, on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) compound, a peacekeeping mission tasked with monitoring the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, was stormed by Bedouin who set fire to an observation tower and left three people injured.
Over the course of the next two weeks the protests would spread to over 33 cities and five separate continents. Opposition parties even enforced a nationwide strike in Bangladesh in protest of the anti-Islam film, leaving schools and shops closed. While it seems these demonstrations won’t be letting up any time soon, another important dialogue is rising out of the ashes, asking for curtailments on freedom of speech. Muslim leaders have vowed to propose a series of blasphemy laws at the United Nations this week. President Obama commented on the video at the UN on September 25, stating, “As president of our country, and commander-in-chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wasn’t reading from quite the same script, however, when he suggested that freedom of speech could be limited when it was “used to provoke or humiliate.”
Should regulation be imposed to protect the sensitivities of individuals who may be offended by some content? According to Jillian York, director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “We live in a globalized world, where what someone says in New York matters in Cairo and vice versa, making it easy to suggest an extra layer of caution and sensitivity toward embattled minority groups. Nevertheless, such suggestions create a slippery slope toward greater censorship – one day the request might be to avoid insulting a prophet, the next it might be to avoid insulting a dictator.”
With an estimated 2.5 billion minds now plugged into “the grid,” culture clashes and assimilations are sure to ensue. Censorship is not the way forward, and in age of the Internet where it may even be technically impossible, we can probably expect to see quite a few more culture bombs in the future. As Elmar Brok, Germany’s chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, stated “We will not have peace in the world until we have peace between religions.”