An act of provocation? The “Innocence of Muslims” Film, and Its Political Consequences

by Javier Betancourt and Marianna Karakoulaki

Palestinians burn a U.S. flag during a protest against the movie, “Innocence of Muslims,” near the United Nations office in Gaza City, Wednesday.
Source: New York Daily News:

The low budget movie “Innocence of Muslims” has caused a major stir around the Islamic world. This low budget film presents half truths about prophet Mohamed in order to depict him as a paedophile, homosexual, criminal, and a murderous madman. However, a very interesting story is behind the production, which has sparkled violent protests around the Islamic world. The first issue that needs to be taken into consideration is the coincidence of this movie getting worldwide recognition at the 11th anniversary of the 09/11 terrorist attacks in the USA, despite the fact that the “movie” was released in July 2012[1]. Was it the filmmaker’s desire to cause a reaction of that extent? In order to understand the rationale behind the filmmaker’s rationale, we will examine two different issues, the relation of the director’s true identity to the release of the film in the first place, while in addition, we will look at the reaction of the USA toward the protests.

For someone who looks at the film and every issue around it without any bias seems as an unstructured and without any context rant. It depicts prophet Mohamed having sex, talking to donkeys, murdering Christians and everything that someone can make up in order to offend the Islamic population around the world. Furthermore the bad quality of the production is almost comedic with the most notorious aspect being the dodgy changes on the voice of the actors. It has been reported that the original working title of the movie was “Desert Warrior” and was filmed in a Hollywood set, with a Christian charity applying for the essential permit[2]. In addition to this, the original name for the leading role was “George” which, in the final cuts at the end of the film, was dubbed as Mohamed. The actors have already claimed they have been cheated and have denied any relation to the outcome of the film[3]. This rather unthinkable act also put the actors into danger since they allegedly had no idea about the director’s plan.

The question though that remains is the real identity of the person behind this film. At the beginning, the assumptions were many since the identity of the director and producer seemed to be too much: Sam Bacil, an American Israeli Jew living in the USA[4]. The person who appeared to be the producer of the film is also a rather controversial figure. It is the infamous pastor Terry Jones[5], who in a series of anti-Islamic rants ended up burning the Quran. The pastor’s irresponsible and violent actions were the antecedents to the 2011 Mazar-i-Sharif attack occurred on April 1, 2011 when a group of demonstrators attacked the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, killing seven foreigners, including three United Nations staff members and four Nepalese guards. Additionally, five protesters died in the violence[6]. Nevertheless after extensive investigation by the media it is now alleged that the person behind this film is an Egyptian-American named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, using the alias “Sam Bacil”. Mr Nakoula has been described to be Christian Coptic, who is no stranger to criminal acts; he is currently in probation after conviction for bank fraud[7], while he had been detained for being in possession of ephedrine and hydriodic acid, materials commonly used to create methamphetamine[8].

It can be assumed that the reasons behind Mr. Nakoula’s anti-Muslim film are related  to the abuse, discrimination and violence against the Christian Coptic minority in Egypt, fuelled by the  country’s political instability after the revolution, the concern for the future, and the wellbeing of the Egyptian Christian minority in the country[9].  The sectarian violence in Egypt has been frequent since the early 1970s[10] but in a way “under control” during the authoritarian government of Hosni Mubarak. However, violence against the Coptic Christians seems to be increasing since the end of the Egyptian Spring. At this point it should be noted that, the first 2 minutes and 20 seconds of the controversial 14 minutes film are set on an Egyptian village, with officers bearing the Egyptian coat of arms, indifferent of a violent murder of Christians by Muslims.

An example of recent sectarian violence and abuse against the Christian Coptic minority population in Egypt are two deadly events during the Egyptian revolution: the 2011 Alexandria bombing with 21 people killed and 79 injured (1st January, 2011)[11] followed by the Maspero demonstrations in 9th October, 2011, resulting in 28 deaths and 212 injured; the last one began as a peaceful demonstration regarding a destroyed church in Aswan.[12] In a third episode of violence in Abu Qurqas El Balad, in Minya Governorate, 260 KM south of Cairo, one Christian Copt was killed, an old woman was thrown out of her second floor balcony and ten Copts were hospitalized. It was reported that Coptic homes, shops, businesses, fields and livestock were plundered and torched. Muslims  announced their intention to avenge the death of two Muslims killed by Copts, rumours spread throughout Abu Qurqas of many strangers and of trucks loaded with weapons coming into the village to carry out the threats during the Easter week. The terrorized Christian villagers sent pleas everywhere, asking for protection, even to Coptic groups in Europe and the U.S.[13]

The question that surrounds the film is whether it is the production of a Coptic extremist who seeks to bring into international attention the Coptic Christian issues. Nevertheless, there is no easy answer to this due to the “mystery” and vagueness around the film.

Even if it is assumed that the movie’s trailer, is a plea for Coptic rights, this has seriously endangered Egypt’s Coptic population. It would not be surprising if extremist Muslims retaliate against the Coptic minority as an act of revenge. If Mr. Nakoula’s film was an attempt to bring into light the Coptic rights connected to the safety of the Coptic population in Egypt, then why did he use a fake name and most importantly an American-Jewish alias?

An extreme interpretation of the film’s true objective would be the director’s will to involve the US and Israeli governments and their populations into a sectarian conflict with Islamic populations; something that would satisfy any supporter of Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’. As extreme the above assumption as it may sound, the film successfully managed to provoke a violent reaction around the Muslim world. In Libya[14] the US ambassador was killed along with four other Americans who were inside the US Consulate in Benghazi that was attacked by furious armed men who stormed inside. In Kabul, Afghanistan and Jakarta, Indonesia[15] demonstrations in reaction to the film turned violent with protestors burning cars along with US flags. In Pakistan[16], protestors clashed with the police while in Lebanon, Hezbollah[17] released an angry statement about the film calling for the punishment of the filmmakers.

However the worldwide reactions to the film created several questions that should be addressed:

What is the rationale behind the violent reaction in the Islamic world? To think that the violent demonstrations began only as a reaction to the film is indeed shallow since it was not the first time that prophet Mohammed was a subject of mockery online, one only needs to visit online forums, blogs and similar webpages to realise that. However, these reactions lead to a set of other questions: how far can someone go when discussing/filming/writing on a religious subject? Where are the limits of freedom of speech, if there are any? And, when can a subject be characterised as blasphemy?

It is not uncommon for people to criticise and even mock religions online, for various reasons- one only needs to visit Yahoo Answers’ Religion and Spirituality section to witness an example of a hostile environmet towards organized religion. However, the issue becomes even more complicated when it comes to Islam. Reactions similar to those of the film in discussion, have happened in the past. Most notably, in 2006 when five people[18] were killed in Afghanistan after violent reactions started about the now infamous prophet Mohammad’s cartoons. The person that created the cartoons stated in an interview the reasons that he made the cartoons:

“I commissioned the cartoons in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam. And I still believe that this is a topic that we Europeans must confront, challenging moderate Muslims to speak out. The idea wasn’t to provoke gratuitously — and we certainly didn’t intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter. [19]

In the wake of the cartoon controversy, the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) stated:

“The Secretary General appeals to the Muslims to stay calm and peaceful in the wake of sacrilegious depiction of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) which has deeply hurt their feelings. He has stated that Islam being the religion of tolerance, mercy and peace teaches them to defend their faith through democratic and legal means.[20]

 In any case, it is clear that blasphemy laws should not be bounding for people that are not affiliated to a religion.  It is the undeniable right of non-affiliated individuals to be free of any type of moral code or law imposed by religion. In this case, it is the right of non-Muslims to openly criticize Islam and any other religion without fear. However, in contrast  to the cartoons, the film in question was  obviously a  desperate attempt of provocation and not open criticism.

A very indicative example of what is supported in this article is a comparison between the “Innocence of Muslims” with Monty Python’s “The life of Brian”, which is  under discussion in several online conversations, related to the violent reaction to the film.  It is obvious that there is no artistic comparison between these films whatsoever since “The life of Brian” was a masterpiece of religious satire whereas the “Innocense of Muslims” was an amateur 15-minute Youtube video. Nevertheless, although many Christians were indeed offended[21]  by Monty Python’s movie, their reactions never led to violent clashes.

Another aspect that needs to be discussed in brief, is the impact the film had in the relations among western countries, and the USA in specific and the countries where the violent demonstrations have taken place. The common factor among the violent demonstrations was the unbelievable hatred against the USA. The demonstrators have been depicted[22] burning the US flag while chanting anti-American slogans. The outrageous rationale behind that is the fact that the filmmaker has been said to be of American citizenship, thus if the release of this film was made by an American citizen, on American soil directly links to an American production that aimed to the insult of Islam.

The U.S. President , Barack Obama, in a recent speech[23] in the United Nations has condemned both the film and the violent reactions. However, he said that although the attacks in Libya are considered as attacks against the USA,  they are not attacks by the government but by individuals who aimed at the Embassy. Also, it is highly unlikely that the USA will react violently, although the security measures in the US embassies around the world have been increased[24]. In any case, Barack Obama, wants to avoid any controversy that will have any negative result to his presidential campaign thus he has been very careful with his statements. His speech in the UN[25] clearly demonstrates the above:

“A politics based only on anger -one based on dividing the world between us and them – not only sets back international cooperation, it ultimately undermines those who tolerate it. All of us have an interest in standing up to these forces. Let us remember that Muslims have suffered the most at the hands of extremism. On the same day our civilians were killed in Benghazi, a Turkish police officer was murdered in Istanbul only days before his wedding; more than ten Yemenis were killed in a car bomb in Sana’a; and several Afghan children were mourned by their parents just days after they were killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul.”

Apart from the USA, Israel has also been involved, though to a lesser extent, while the Israeli flag was burnt outside the Israeli Embassy in London and other locations. The reason for that is obviously the filmmaker’s identity since he was initially been described as an American Jew. However, the protests mostly focused on the USA. In an extreme scenario, but a highly possible one, in the case that the protests will continue and receive even larger dimensions involving Israel even more, they might cause further instability in the Arab-Israeli relations. The reason for that is the fact that the current Israeli government follows a harder stance to violent reactions against the Israeli state and it is very likely that it will react with force. Nevertheless, it is more likely that the protests will gradually start phasing out, especially since the governments of the countries where the protests are taking place have officially condemned the violent clashes.

Last but not least, both the film and the violent reactions have once again highlighted the fact that there is a big question globally on what is considered blasphemy, where are the limits of freedom of speech and expression. Finally, the film has without any doubt caused an unbelievable reaction, although this kind of reaction was absolutely unnecessary and could have been avoided. As for the US government, it would be better not to be directly involved in controlling the clashes, but to co-operate with local governments in order to control the situation and avoid any further loses. In case the USA were directly involved the outcome would have been unbelievable; more hatred against the USA and violent reactions would have been caused. Additionally, the anti-American wave would have taken even wider dimensions that would probably even resemble the one during the invasion of Iraq. The stance that the USA have kept until now is without any doubt right.

[1] A. Lighthead, “Innocence of Muslims: Mystery of film-maker ‘Sam Bacile’”. BBC News, Los Angeles, 13 September 2012. (Accessed on 14/09/2012)

[2] C. Sieczkowski. “’Innocence Of Muslims’ Shot On Hollywood Set, Film Permit Connected To Christian Charity” The Huffington Post. 14 September 2012. (Accessed on 14/09/2012)

[3] H. McKay. “’Innocence of Muslims’ producer’s identity in question; actors say they were duped, overdubbed” Fox News, 13 September 2012. (Accessed on 14/09/2012)

[4] J. Goldberg. “’Sam Bacile, Israeli Jew,’ May Actually Be Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, Coptic Christian” The Atlantic. 12 September 2012. (Accessed on 14/09/2012)

[5] M. Fisher. “The Movie So Offensive That Egyptians Just Stormed the U.S. Embassy Over It” The Atlantic, 11 September 2012. (Accessed on 14/09/2012)

[6] “Afghanistan: Deadly Kandahar protest at Koran burning” BBC News, 02 April 2011. (Accessed on 14/09/2012)

[7] S. Braun, “U.S. identifies anti-Muslim filmmaker”. USA Today, 14 September 2012. (Accessed on 14/09/2012)

[8] K. Bessinger, J. Gottlieb. “Alleged anti-Muslim film producer has drug, fraud convictions”. LA Times, Los Angeles, 13 September 2012. (Accessed on 14/09/2012)

[9] R. Abouzeid. “After the Egyptian revolution: The wars of religion”. Time World, 10 March 2011.,8599,2058032,00.html (Accessed on 14/09/2012)

[10] C.H. Smith, “Escalating violence against Coptic women and girls, New Egypt could be more dangerous than the old”. The Washington Times, 26 July 2012. (Accessed on 14/09/2012)

[11] “Egypt bomb kills 21 at Alexandria Coptic church”, BBC News, 01 January 2011 (Accessed on 14/09/12)

[12] “Cairo clashes leave 24 dead after Coptic church protest”, BBC News, 10 October 2011. (Accessed on 14/09/2012)

[13] M. Abdelmassih. “Collective Punishment of Egyptian Christians For Death of Two Muslims” Free Copts, 26 April 2011. (Accessed on 15/09/2012)

[14] US confirms its Libya ambassador killed in Benghazi, 12 September 2012. (Accessed on 25/09/2012)

[15] A. Shah. “Mohammed film protests turn violent in Kabul” 17 September 2012. (Accessed on 25/09/2012)

[16] A. Chowdhry. “Muslim ‘Day of Love’ erupts in violence” 22 September 2012. (Accessed on 25/09/2012)

[17] “Hezbollah gives angry reaction to Muhammad film – video” , The Guardian, 17 September 2012. (Accessed on 25/09/2012)

[18] “Muslim cartoon fury claims lives”, BBC News, 6 February 2006. (Accessed on 25/09/2012)

[19] R. Flemming. “Why I published those cartoons” The Washington Post, 17 February 2006. (Accessed on 15/09/12)

[20] H.E Prof Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, “Press Release onOIC (Organisation of Islamic Countries) Statement on Insulting Cartoons” Teach (Accessed on 15/09/2012)

[21] S. Bhaskar. “What did ‘Life of Brian’ ever do for us?” The Telegraph, 29 November 2009. (Accessed on 14/09/2012)

[22] “US-Backed Syrian “Opposition” Burn American Flag in Aleppo and Chant Anti-American Slogans” 15 September 2012 (Accessed on 25/09/2012)

[23] “Full speech: President Obama’s UNGA address” 25 September 2012. (Accessed on: 25/09/2012)

[24] “U.S. increases embassy security worldwide after Libya attack”,  CNN US, 12 September 2012. (Accessed on: 25/09/2012)

[25] Full speech: President Obama’s UNGA address” 25 September 2012. (Accessed on: 25/09/2012)


2 thoughts on “An act of provocation? The “Innocence of Muslims” Film, and Its Political Consequences

  1. Hi Belen and thanks for reading and commenting… Concerning Elder Pastitsios, it is an issue that I have twitted a lot since the moment I found out about it. I think that it is absolutely ridiculous to arrest someone who has a satirical page .. he did not insult the orthodox religion, the church or whatever… he was just making fun about a monk who is being idolised by the some belivers…Additionally, the fact that taxpayers money was spent on a mission of such kind (since as the police has said they were invastigating the page for a long time) is absolutely absurd.. this money but also time and effort by the department of electronic crime could have been spent for more serious crimes such as online child pornography…
    To be honest I haven’t really heard a prosecution of such kind in Greece since the times of the military Junta. Though I find blashemy laws a medieval measure and totally ridiculous, the fact is that they exist and those who demanded the arrest of fb page owner should have known that he did not commit blasphmy since he did not attack the God or any other saint.. he was mocking the ridiculous practices and absolute ignorance of his followers. Elder Paisios is neither a saint nor in the line to be made a saint by the orthodox church thus a normal person, thus the blasphemy charges do not stand in any way…

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