Background

The film Innocence of Muslims came to prominence in July 2012 when it was uploaded to YouTube, the video file-sharing website. Arabic language versions, this time with anti-Islamic content, were added in the first days of September 2012, with post-production dubbing which changed the original dialogue without the actors’ knowledge.(1)

The video focused on the persecution of the Christian Copt community in Egypt, with claims of a rise in growing religious intolerance and sectarian violence from the Muslim majority against the Christian group which makes up 10% of the Egyptian population.

The lm was perceived as denigrating Islam and the prophet Mohammed and its Arabic version led to wide- spread protests around September 11 – the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York – particularly in Egypt, but also in many other Muslim nations and in some western countries.

One of those protests, in Benghazi, was used as a cover by armed terrorists for an attack on the American mission in Libya and the killing of United States Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three of his staff. In all, the protests led to hundreds of injuries and more than 75 deaths.

An Indian protestor kicks an image of a American flag on a wall of the U.S. Consulate during a protest against the anti-Islam in Chennai, India, on September 14, 2012. (AP Photo_ArunShanker K.)

An Indian protester kicks an image of a American flag on a wall of the U.S. Consulate during a protest against the anti-Islam in Chennai, India, on September 14, 2012. (AP Photo ArunShanker K.)

The film sparked new debates about free speech, internet censorship and blasphemy and became the subject of incendiary comment. It led to the issuing of Fatwas – Islamic legal rulings, often misinterpreted as death sentences – against the video’s participants and, famously, to one government minister in Pakistan offering a bounty for the death of the producer.

The film was particularly controversial because it was linked with claims reported by leading media such as the Associated Press that it had been financed by 100 Jewish investors. This report first appeared on September 12th 2012. An extensive correction was issued two days later.

While the film was eventually revealed to be the work of a Coptic Christian of Egyptian origins, the myth that Jews produced and financed the film in an effort to insult the Prophet Mohammed and Islam had gone viral. It provided a spark that militants and extremist groups used to give fresh momentum to anti-western sentiment across much of the Middle East and the Islamic world.

The man responsible was Mark Basseley Youssef, alias Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, and also known as Sam Bacile, the name he used in his discussions with the Associated Press.

Two months after the film controversy broke Youssef was sent to prison by an American court but not for any offence related to the film. He was jailed for a year because of violation of his probation arising from an earlier conviction. His criminal record includes convictions for drug offences and bank fraud.

He told authorities that he wrote the script for Innocence of Muslims while in prison. When he was freed on probation in June 2011 he started production in California.

Actors in the lm say that they were told the film was called “Desert Warrior,” and say that the script contained no references to Mohammed. One of them, Cindy Lee Garcia, told ABC News, “I never heard Mohammed, I never said Mohammed.” Specific references to Mohammed and Islam were added later.

Youssef originally told reporters he was an “Israeli Jew” and that the film had cost about $5,000,000, which came from wealthy Jewish friends, but in fact Youssef is an Egyptian-American. He later admitted the film cost between $50,000 and $60,000 and was shot in a little over 12 days. The money, he said, came from his wife’s family in Egypt.

Although media coverage gave the impression that this was a major production, it was nothing of the sort. The video itself was widely derided as amateurish and unworthy of any serious consideration as a work of creative value.

The film’s aim was to insult, provoke confrontation and reinforce divisions. In this sense it was of use only to a small, narrow community of political activists on both sides of the febrile religious divide that has arisen between mainly Islamic and Christian communities over the past decade.

Although the error-strewn reporting led to significant apologies from the Associated Press as well as The Wall Street Journal, many media organisations did not bother to correct their mistakes and few returned to the story to set the record straight when the film’s producer was sent to jail.

The Innocence of Muslims affair is the latest incident in which media have been at the centre of attempts by political groups to manipulate public opinion to foment religious and cultural divisions between communities. This tendency has its origins in the development of the so-called war on terror following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and wider concerns over United States policy in the Middle East, particular arising from the invasion of Iraq in 1993.

Most dramatically, in 2006, the infamous cartoons crisis led to a firestorm of protest over publications in western media of images of the Prophet Mohammed. Although, in the event, only a relative handful of media around the world ever published these controversial cartoons they served as a lightning rod for conflict over free expression rights and led to angry street protests in which more than 150 people were killed.

The cartoons had been commissioned by a Danish daily newspaper but their publication only became a global story four months later, timing which suggests that Middle Eastern political groups fueled and shaped the controversy to suit their own interests. In particular, it provided opportunities for fresh expression of anti-Americanism in the Middle East.(2)

In 2008 a short film produced by the Dutch Parliamentarian Geert Wilders called Fitna (an Arabic word that is similar to tribulation and turmoil in English) attempted to illustrate how the Koran is used to promote hatred. The film argued that Islam encourages terrorism, anti-Semitism, and violence against women as well as violence and subjugation of non-Muslims.

It was published on the Internet but, in the face of broad opposition from most of his political opponents, Wilders was unable to get the film shown elsewhere in Europe. Nevertheless, it stirred a continuing debate about Islam in the Netherlands.

In 2010, Pastor Jim Jones leader of a tiny Christian community in the backwoods of Florida promised to burn the Koran on the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, a pledge that was widely-publicised by media and quickly became a global story prompting fresh protests. In the event Jones gave way to political pressure and did not carry out his threat.

But media, particularly in the United States, realised that the story may have received more attention than it deserved. Jones continues to seek publicity and has been burning the Koran on occasions but his actions receive little publicity. However, he returned to the limelight brie y thanks to the Innocence of Muslims when he publicly defended the lm and showed a trailer of it to his supporters.(3)

In February 2012 there was fresh controversy over the burning of the Koran and religious material by United States soldiers in Afghanistan. According to the Washington Post, US troops at Bagram air base provoked public indignation in February by taking a batch of religious materials, including 500 copies of the Koran, to the incinerator.(4) Five days of protest followed in which 30 people died, including four Americans.

Against this backdrop of discord and dispute over religion, free expression and fragile community relations the Innocence of Muslims posed new challenge to media about how to report manifestations of hatred.

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Tagged with: Afghanistan, Associated Press (AP), cartoons, Christianity, Cindy Lee Garcia, Coptic Christianity, Denmark, Egypt, Fitna, Geert Wilders, Innocence of Muslims, Innocent Mistakes, Jews, Libya, Mark Basseley Youssef / Nakoula Basseley Nakoula / Sam Bacile, Middle East, Muslims, Netherlands, North Africa, North America, Northern Europe, Pastor Jim Jones, religion, South Asia, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), United States, Western Europe