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.
The Target of FuryThe following Monday, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaida, called on all Muslims, but particularly all Libyans, to mark the anniversary of Sept. 11 by taking revenge on the Americans for the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi. In June, a US drone had killed al-Libi, the second-highest ranking al-Qaida leader, in Pakistan.
Then on Tuesday, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, riots erupted in front of the US Embassy in Cairo: Demonstrators threw stones at police, who responded with tear gas. By Friday evening, over 220 people had been injured.
In Yemen, hundreds of rioters stormed the American embassy in the capital Sana'a. Guards fired into the crowd and four people reportedly died.
And 5,000 demonstrators marched on the German and British embassies in Sudan on Friday. They lit fires, jeered and danced as black clouds of smoke rose into the air. The Muslims tore down the German flag and replaced it with the Islamic black banner.
'Insult to Islam'
The German diplomats had been warned and had retreated to safety in time. Indeed, it was no coincidence that they were the target of the protesters' fury. Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti had criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel, claiming that she had allowed an anti-Islamic demonstration in front of the German parliament building, the Reichstag. "The German chancellor unfortunately welcomed this insult to Islam, and thus violated the principles of religious coexistence," he said. In reality, a Berlin court had approved a demonstration by the right-wing initiative Pro Deutschland, albeit elsewhere in Berlin, where caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad were displayed. The group is now also showing the incendiary video on its website.
The attack on the US Consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi came in many ways as a shock to the superpower: It was the first time since 1979 that a US ambassador had died in an attack. Not only that, but the ambassador, Chris Stevens, was credited with helping the Libyan rebels to liberate Benghazi from Gadhafi's troops. The revolution might have taken a different course without him. One of his colleagues called him the "most unknown hero."
By Friday evening, it was still unknown exactly how and where Stevens died, but it was most probably from smoke inhalation. There is a photo of Stevens taken on the night of the attack; his T-shirt is smeared with soot and a man is dragging him across the floor. It looks as if he is being evacuated.
It is also still unclear who led the attack. Was it an outraged mob, infiltrated by radical Islamists? Or was it members of al-Qaida who had planned the attack as an act of revenge? The first to express this suspicion was London-based Libyan Noman Benotman, a former follower of Osama bin Laden who left the terror group 10 years ago and is now an analyst at Quilliam, a London-based think tank that aims to challenge extremism. According to Benotman, the attack was carried out by nearly 20 fighters, armed with RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and the onslaught came in two waves.
The ambassador's death has cast Libya into a deep crisis. A day after the attack, the Libyan National Congress elected a new prime minister, Mustafa Abu Shaghur. The events of the past few days will probably overshadow the fact that Abu Shaghur, a technocrat, has clearly positioned himself in opposition to the Islamists.
Last Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to great lengths to placate Muslims. "The United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video," she said, adding "to us, for me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible."
Clinton appeared strangely helpless as pictures of the riots were broadcast on TV channels across America. She could have said that freedom of speech also has its limits in the US, and that those who are responsible will be brought to justice -- just as US President Barack Obama vowed to bring the ambassador's killers in Benghazi to justice.
On the evening of the first riots, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney allowed himself to indulge in some hasty criticism of the Obama administration. He called its behavior "disgraceful," and said that Obama should defend "American values." Romney was referring to a statement released by the US Embassy in Cairo, which condemns the film as the work of "misguided individuals (seeking) to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims."
By then, a debate on freedom and freedom of speech had clearly begun. But Romney disqualified himself from that debate by misusing the tragic situation as ammunition for election campaign attacks.
The West's Dilemma
Of course, like Obama, Clinton is caught in the dilemma of the West, where even hatemongers are allowed to voice their opinions. She can't even force Google to remove the video from its YouTube platform. Company managers blocked it in Libya and Egypt, but otherwise it does not break the site's rules.
Laws do exist in some countries that make blasphemy and incitement to racial hatred a crime, but little of this legislation is truly effective. In the US, right-wing extremists can even deny the Holocaust, something that is illegal in Germany.
But is it right to uphold the freedom of men like Nakoula, who then abuse it? Is that the price of freedom? Or should one defend Nakoula's freedom of speech for the very reason that most people find his actions repugnant, namely because it would demonstrate Western values particularly clearly? Doesn't this place the West in ideological proximity to intractable Islamists, who would also start a war over a picture of Muhammad with a donkey?
An easy answer for many politicians is that words don't kill, and pictures don't slay anyone. They would say that freedom of speech only ends when violence enters the picture.
But on the YouTube forum under the notorious film, a user writing under the pseudonym "Khalidbaby" writes that some Americans think that they have the freedom to do whatever they want, but freedom doesn't relieve you of responsibility for your actions.
Reacting to Provocation
The bitter debate over the circumcision of Jewish and Muslim boys in Germany highlights the things that religious people can find just as abhorrent as violence. Even some German Jews feel that the foreskin has such importance as a symbol of their belief that they are seriously considering leaving Germany.
And the speed with which some Muslims react to provocations with violence has been common knowledge since the publication of the Muhammad caricatures. Extremists in the Middle East and the West are familiar with the sore points. Among Muslims, self-declared jihadists -- including offshoots of the al-Qaida network -- are fomenting the unrest.
The walls of the US Embassy in Cairo now bear slogans that reflect their language: "Oh Obama, we are all Osama's grandchildren," has been spray-painted there. And, of course, it didn't take long for caricatures to emerge in Egypt that portrayed the US president as a Zionist puppet. There were also the familiar drawings of an octopus with the Star of David beneath the flag of Saudi Arabia and the black flag of the Islamists and al-Qaida bearing the statement: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet."
The protesters included well-known Islamists such as a brother of al-Qaida head al-Zawahiri and a number of sons of the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is serving a prison sentence in the US after being convicted of seditious conspiracy in connection with the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
Wherever religious fanatics are waiting for the right occasion, all it takes is a spark: Last month, Christians in Pakistan had to flee their homes in a poor neighborhood of Islamabad after a mentally impaired girl was suspected of burning pages of the Koran. Preachers of hatred called for revenge.
Islamists in PowerThe first person to exploit the faith so effectively was probably Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In 1989, his victim was Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie. In his book "The Satanic Verses," Rushdie offended the honor of the Prophet -- at least, in the eyes of many Muslims -- because he had a number of prostitutes appear in his work who were named after Muhammad's wives. The Ayatollah's fatwa sparked violence around the world and, even to this day, there is a price on Rushdie's head worth millions.
Rushdie was able to hide from Islamist killers for years, but Dutch artist Theo van Gogh had to pay with his life for daring to tackle the topic of the Koran. His short film "Submission," which was released sixteen years after the "The Satanic Verses," shows a naked Muslim woman with texts from the Koran about chastity and subservience written on her body.
The Fight for Freedom
Two months later, in November 2004, a Dutchman with Moroccan roots shot and killed the filmmaker. Van Gogh knew what he was setting off. He wanted a provocation; he wanted to fight for the freedom of artistic expression, using the most powerful weapon that he possessed.
One year later, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten triggered the biggest religious riots to date. Between Asia and Africa, 150 people died after the newspaper printed 12 caricatures of the Prophet. This included a drawing by illustrator Kurt Westergaard that showed Muhammad wearing a bomb with a lighted fuse in his turban. Westergaard barely escaped an attempt on his life in early 2010.
Only a few months prior to the caricature controversy, American soldiers in the high-security prison at Guantanamo had humiliated their Muslim prisoners. A US soldier splashed urine on a Koran. Afterwards, Muslims took to the streets in Northern Africa, Pakistan and Indonesia.
And in February of this year, US soldiers at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan inadvertently burned dozens of copies of the Koran. Forty-one people died in the ensuing demonstrations, even though President Obama had made a public apology to his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai.
This time the political damage will be far greater. The Arab Spring may have swept dictators from power, but a video like the one from Los Angeles can give extremists in these fragile countries a boost in support that makes them a force to be reckoned with.
In Libya there are two ideologically divergent groups, which are virtually fighting a territorial feud. Some tribes of eastern Libya are more fundamentalist than those in northwestern Libya. The tribes in Benghazi see it as a problem that the relatively secular forces from Tripoli have won the election. This tends to reaffirm the balance of power that existed under Gadhafi. On the other hand, the winners of the election know that it doesn't take much to provoke their brothers in the eastern part of the country.
Egypt is even more important, though. What's at stake here is peace with Israel and a collapsing economy in a country that the US already annually supported with millions of dollars during Mubarak's rule. Now that Mohammed Morsi has been elected as the country's new president, the question is what direction his political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, will take in the future.
In Egypt the radical Salafists are vying for power with the less radical Muslim Brotherhood. After being buoyed by their surprisingly good results in the 2011/12 parliamentary elections, the Salafists are disappointed with the election of Morsi, whom they see as too moderate.
Accommodating the Radicals
And Morsi's team knows that the Muslim Brotherhood has very little time to legitimize its hold on power in Egypt: It has to succeed in creating security and at least the prospect of future prosperity. The Salafists don't care about either of those things -- and therein lies the danger.
Consequently, in both Libya and Egypt, there are two fears: the fear that the moderates will assume power, and the fear that the radicals will drift into obscurity.
Morsi has to try to accommodate the radical Islamists, and this explains his vacillations over the past week. First, he said nothing about the riots for 24 hours. Then he guaranteed his people the "freedom to protest," but said that violence against embassies would be punished.
But after the attacks on the US Embassy, Morsi said nothing for quite some time, even though Washington is generously supporting the country. Instead, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Qatar-based TV preacher and prominent intellectual leader within the Muslim Brotherhood, is now calling for additional "demonstrations of Islamic rage."
It all boils down to who can present themselves as the best defender of the Prophet's honor -- and it's a game that the radicals can easily win. In Cairo, Tunis and Sana'a, it was always the most radical fundamentalists who marched on US institutions. For many years, the Salafists were excluded from the political arena. But for the past eight months, since the Egyptian parliamentary elections, the Salafist Al-Nour Party ("Party of the Light") has been an actor in parliamentary politics.
'We Don't Take Any Responsibility'
The film will also impact politics in the West: Politicians in the US and Europe can feel justified in their concerns that the liberation of the Arab nations has also liberated the Islamists. The message from the dictators had always been the following: We may not be democracies, but we are a bulwark against the jihadists.
Ironically, though, the Muslim faith was for decades the only sphere that the dictators could not completely control. This may have contributed to Islam's political radicalization. Whatever now happens is thus also part of the heritage of these dictatorships -- even many months after they were overthrown.
Radical Islamists killed Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi. But he also died for the freedom of the Christian agitators.
"We don't feel responsible," says radical Christian preacher Terry Jones. "We regret, of course, that somebody died. But we don't take any responsibility for that. We have merely exercised our right to freedom of speech. That right is only worth something if you can say things that people don't like."
REPORTED BY LAZAR BACKOVIC, DIETER BEDNARZ, CLEMENS HÖGES, MARC HUJER, JULIANE VON MITTELSTAEDT, CHRISTOPH REUTER, MARCEL ROSENBACH, ALEXANDER SMOLTCZYK AND BERNHARD ZAND
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2012
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