An obscure film fans the flames

Protesters destroying an American flag pulled down from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday.
Protesters destroying an American flag pulled down from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday. (MOHAMMED ABU ZAID / AP)
Posted: September 14, 2012

How does an amateurish, do-it-yourself movie, a piece of anti-Islamic agitprop almost no one has seen, get mixed up in 9/11 attacks in Cairo, Egypt, and in Benghazi, Libya, tightening political tensions at home and abroad?

The still largely mysterious film The Innocence of Muslims lays bare today's media world. Its bizarre progress - from the California hills to YouTube to TV screens in the Middle East to the streets of Cairo and Benghazi - displays the instant power of media to spread words, images, or ideas worldwide, into millions of minds. It shows how easy it is for almost anyone to make a movie these days - and how easy for advocates and opportunists, from real estate developers to Middle East extremists, to leverage media to further their aims.

All these things happened with Innocence. Last week, word got out via YouTube, Twitter, e-mail mailing lists, and TV, of a film - made purportedly by an Israeli man living in the United States - that blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, pederast, and hypocrite.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was attacked by about 20 armed men. Four Americans were killed, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, whose death may have been caused by smoke inhalation.

In Cairo, late in a day of angry crowds milling around the U.S. Embassy, several dozen people attacked, took down the American flag, and replaced it with a flag bearing an Islamic message.

 Marwan Kraidy, professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn, calls a movie like Innocence "a match thrown in a barrel of gasoline.

"You have a region that's bubbling on the surface and boiling underneath," says the Lebanese-born Kraidy. "Within the larger community, there's a small group with hair-trigger sensitivity, ready to go off at the least perceived insult to Islam." It ignites easiest, he says, when the torch is visual: "The Arab/Islamic community has a very active cyberspace. People are watching this on mobile phones and laptops. With video, you can watch it again and again, get angrier every time. Something about video, its closeness to reality, makes it especially powerful."

Lawrence Husick, senior fellow and cochair of the Center for the Study of Terrorism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says that "social media, like media in general, can be used to amplify opportunistic, politically driven aims." Terrorists work very much by the image: "Think of the roadside bombing videos out of Iraq, and the battlefield and raid videos used for years by the Taliban. Very powerful because very immediate."

He further adds that while Cairo seems much more spontaneous than Benghazi, "much that seems spontaneous in the Middle East really isn't."

What of the film? The trailer shows a shambling affair, filmed, apparently, in the hills of Southern California during summer 2011. A man calling himself Sam Bacile told the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press he was writer, director, and fund-raiser, collecting $5 million from more than 100 Jewish donors. (Frankly, even that tiny budget seems high for such shaky production values.) Bacile, who said he was an Israeli working as a real-estate agent in California, was open about his inflammatory aims, calling Innocence a political, not religious, work, and calling Islam a "cancer."

Few have seen the whole film. Bacile claimed the entire Innocence was screened "earlier this year" in a mostly empty theater in Hollywood. A 14-minute trailer was posted on YouTube in July. Perhaps mysteriously, the English-language version was joined by one dubbed in Egyptian Arabic; Bacile says he didn't do it. Even on YouTube, relatively few watched the trailers: about 55,000 for the English version, an additional 15,000 for the dubbed version.

But it's not how many people see; it's who.

Last week, Morris Sadik, an Egyptian Coptic Christian (remember those three things) in California, saw the trailer and promoted it. He heads an extremely anti-Islamic group, the National American Coptic Assembly. Coptic Christians, a religious minority in Egypt, have suffered longtime discrimination, and Muslim-Christian tensions remain. The mainstream Coptic community has disavowed Sadik's campaign on behalf of Innocence.

But the tinder had been torched. A Cairo TV talk-show host named Sheikh Khaled Abdallah aired clips from the trailer on his show Saturday, and those clips recycled back to YouTube. A variety of Middle East provocateur groups prompted followers to see the YouTube trailer before it could be taken down.

And the attacks happened Tuesday.

Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina's School of Information and Library Science, and heads the influential website Technosociology. She says the speed and scope of dissemination can make slight things huge: "Views that would previously remain marginal and contained can now reach other parts of the world to great inflammatory effect. . . . A simple, crude and hateful video that would have had very little chance of ever being seen now can act as a broadcast channel."

 A second whole media story arose Wednesday, as more and more about Sam Bacile came into question. Rumors flew that he himself was not Israeli at all, but rather might be connected with the Coptic community. The question "Who is Sam Bacile?" rocketed around the Web as of Wednesday night. Steve Klein, a California insurance salesman, is listed as a consultant to the film. He's a former Vietnam veteran and terrorism expert who has close ties with the Coptic and conservative Christian communities.

Connectedness is dark as well as light, says Tufekci: "It's not just messages of hope and solidarity that travel across borders, as they did from Tahrir Square in Egypt, but also messages of hate and malice."

She hopes people can use media to foster tolerance, "if the world is not to surrender to the intentionally inflammatory rhetoric designed to provoke, and those who use this provocation as an excuse to kill."


Contact John Timpane

at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.

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