Tolerating Hate: Muslim Protests Show Limits of Free Speech
The anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims" has sparked protests across the Muslim world. Several people have already died in the wave of violence. The conflict raises questions about how far the West is prepared to go in defending freedom of expression. By SPIEGEL Staff
The casting call appeared on a Hollywood audition website called mooncasting.com. A director calling himself Alan Roberts wrote that he was looking for actors to perform in a "historical desert drama." The shoot in Los Angeles would last 18 days. The supposed "indie film" was listed under the working title "Desert Warrior."
The director needed "various Middle Eastern types, bearded," along with a large number of women, particularly an 18-year-old actress who "must look younger, petite, innocent." And, of course, he was looking for someone to play the lead role: "George," as the Middle Eastern warrior in the film was to be called, was a "leader, romantic, charismatic."
Since last Tuesday, a nearly 14-minute trailer of this trash film posted on YouTube has sent shockwaves around the world. In the final version of the film, "George" became the Prophet Muhammad. The young actress became a child who was bedded by the film version of Muhammad -- as were a number of the other women. A donkey even plays a role. And the bearded men in the supporting roles mimic Muhammad's faithful followers, who torture and massacre people in the film until Hollywood blood drips from their swords. The name of the film is "Innocence of Muslims." It's a cynical title that is full of mockery and scorn -- and a blatant provocation.
Blood Is Flowing
Islam has seldom been more brutally vilified. Anyone who posts a film like this on YouTube wants to see real blood -- and now real blood is flowing. The film has transformed parts of the Islamic world into volatile flashpoints. Over the past week, outraged Muslims have staged demonstrations in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Bangladesh, among other countries.
Protests continued in several countries on Sunday, but were less intense than their peak on Friday. In Pakistan, where protests were held in over a dozen cities on Sunday, one person was killed when unidentified people fired at a protest in Hyderabad. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, called for protests in Lebanon. "Those responsible for the film, starting with the US, must be held accountable," he said.
The protests turned particularly violent in Libya. In Benghazi, of all places -- the city that the Americans helped to liberate from the regime of dictator Moammar Gadhafi -- a mob demonstrated in front of the US Consulate. A number of heavily armed extremists with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and assault rifles then mounted a deadly attack, killing the ambassador and three other Americans.
And there are many indications that this could just be the beginning. On Friday, Islamists in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, attacked the German Embassy. Out of fear of further violence, the German government has closed its embassies in a number of Islamic countries. The Americans have pulled out staff from some of its diplomatic missions and deployed guided-missile destroyers off the coast of Libya.
The political damage is enormous: The fragile governments of the Arab Spring countries remain extremely unsteady. The West is now losing much of the credit that it gained from its oppositon to dictators such as Libya's Gadhafi and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.
And there doesn't appear to be a solution to this conflict, which is fueled by the following differences: For the secular states of the West, but also for secular Muslims, freedom is vital -- freedom of expression, freedom of art and freedom of religion. In some Islamic countries, however, there is a blurring of the differences between religion and politics. And many people in the slums of Cairo, Sana'a and Khartoum have little that they can be proud of, aside from their religion.
It is easy to use blasphemy to mortally offend less educated people, and it has become even easier since the advent of the Internet. In fact, it is so easy that an Islamophobe somewhere in America need only upload a video to YouTube to spark violence on the other side of the globe. This new clash of cultures is led by extremists on both sides who stir up hatred against each other -- extremists like Sam Bacile.
This is the name used by someone who posted an English version of the video on YouTube back in July. Nothing happened for weeks. Ten days ago, an Arabic version was uploaded as well. Now, the virulently anti-Muslim video has gone viral and the people of the Middle East have understood the intended message involving Muhammad, the donkey and the young girl.
'Islam Is a Cancer'
After the protests began, sources leaked a phone number to the Associated Press news agency. When reporters dialed the number, a man answered who claimed to be Sam Bacile, the film's director. "Islam is a cancer," he said, adding that he was an Israeli Jew who wanted to spread the truth about Islam. Some 100 Jews had donated money to the project, he said, supposedly to the tune of $5 million. Anyone who says something like that is not only willing to accept a few deaths; he is, at least in the eyes of many Muslims, also getting the state of Israel involved.
But the journalists felt that there was something about his story that didn't add up. They found the address that corresponds to the man's cell phone number. The man who came to the door in a cul-de-sac in Cerritos near Los Angeles denied being Bacile. He said that he was only responsible for managing the film team's logistics, and showed them his driver's license, but covered his middle name with one of his fingers. The journalists were able to read Nakoula Nakoula -- and the rest was research. They found out that Nakoula was convicted of federal bank fraud charges in 2010. He was given a 21-month prison sentence and ordered to pay $790,000 (600,000) in restitution.
Now, the reporters knew that his real name was Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian from Egypt with US citizenship. According to police records, he maintains at least 14 aliases. "Basseley" sounds almost like "Bacile". US investigators believe that Sam Bacile, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and the director are one and the same person.
The film's 80 cast and crew members apparently didn't know what the production was about. In a joint statement, they said that they felt "taken advantage of by the producer" and "grossly misled." They believed the story about a desert film. But the decisive scenes, in which "George" became the Prophet Muhammad, were clearly dubbed by different actors after filming; the actors' lips are not synchronized with the sound. The entire video is so amateurishly pieced together that it seems like a caricature. "Now we have people dead because of a movie I was in. It makes me sick," said one of the actresses from the film.
By contrast, other members of the team knew exactly what was going on. Steve Klein, for example, served the filmmaker as a script consultant. Klein is an American Christian extremist and a notorious Islamophobe. Morris Sadek also helped spark the current explosion of fury. Sadek, an Egyptian-American Coptic radical, played a key role by promoting the film on his website, which is read in Islamic countries.
Helping 'Sam' Hide
The third provocateur in the team is Florida pastor Terry Jones. He is again threatening to publicly burn copies of the Koran, and he has also publicly promoted "Innocence of Muslims" on the Internet. "The film may not have been shot in Hollywood quality," Jones told SPIEGEL, but he said that he intended to continue to disseminate its contents. Jones says that he talks with the filmmaker, whom he merely refers to as "Sam," every day on the phone: "We want to help him find a place where he can hide."
On Sunday, SPIEGEL ONLINE learned that German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had asked the German Interior Ministry to ban Jones from entering Germany. The Interior Ministry later said that if the pastor was allowed to enter the country it would "run counter to the interests of maintaining public order." The move was taken in response to information that suggested that German right-wing anti-Islamic groups such as Pro Deutschland and Pro NRW might invite Jones to come to Germany in the coming days.
The fact that two Coptic Christians and two fundamentalist Christians are apparently connected to the film is a dangerous development for the Christian minorities in the Middle East. Some 14 million Christians live there, with Egypt being home to roughly 8 million Copts. Last Friday, Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon. His visit was designed to show that Christians belong in the Middle East, and he intended to engage in a dialogue.
It is above all the Coptic Christians in Egypt who could use some help and dialogue. For centuries, they have been oppressed and humiliated, and Muslim extremists have burned down their churches time and again. And ever since the demonstrators at Tahrir Square managed to topple Hosni Mubarak, and the dictator's grip on the country no longer ensured peace in the streets, they have been suffering even more: In October 2011, 24 Copts died when army tanks rolled over demonstrating Christians following an attack on a church.
Filmmaker Nakoula has now brought the Copts into even greater danger. A week ago Saturday, the poison of his propagandists began to take effect. On the religious Egyptian TV channel al-Nas, host Sheikh Khalid Abdullah showed clips from the Arabic version of the video: the young girl, the donkey and the ridiculous prophet. Khalid Abdullah is someone who wants to incite outrage just as much as Nakoula -- except that he is on the other side and is looking to stir up hatred against Copts.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2012
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