03 October 2012

The Anti-Muhammad Movie: Why and Who Benefits From It?

When I heard about the riots following the anti-Muhammad movie trailer, my first reaction was curiosity.

Unlike most people who comments about such issues, I first watched the movie trailer. It was not what I expected. The best word to describe it is comical. The camera was shaky, the set was non existent, the sandy deserts were provided by an incredibly amateurish After Effect background plug-in and the acting was terrible. Moreover, all the anti-Muhammad lines were dubbed in either as a voice over or by someone whose voice was very different from the lead actor. They were unmistakably added on. Clearly, this was not a professional production. In fact, most high school students with a Mac laptop could produce a better clip that this.

My initial curiosity was then replaced with a series of questions: why would someone produce such a clearly silly movie? Since the movie was obviously not an end onto itself what were the goals of its producers?

I also wondered how people who never touched a computer in their lives, let alone watch that trailer on You Tube, were informed of its existence? And why they felt so much rage and outrage?

My final question was: who benefited the most from the reaction to the movie?

Who Produced the Movie?

At first, it was widely claimed that the movie was produced by an Israeli-born Jewish real estate agent by the name of Sam Bacile. It turned out to be a complete hoax. But tellingly, that myth has since proved to be impossible to kill as most protesters in the Muslim world now believe that the whole thing was a Jewish conspiracy.

A few days later, it was reported that Sam Bacile was a pseudonym that belonged to an Egypt-born Coptic Christian by the name of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. He is now in custody and not much is known about him, including whether in fact he produced the movie and under what circumstances. He was found guilty of fraud in 2010 and had to make a substantial restitution and at first glance, does not appear to have the capital or capacity to produce such a movie.

Early on, a Christian nationalist in California by the name of Steve Klein was identified as a consultant in the movie. The movie is too laughable to have an actual consultant but Klein is reportedly connected to Joseph Nasralla, a Coptic Christian who heads a shadowy organization called Middle Eastern Christians in California. The organization does not seem to have a Web site and very little is known about Nasralla himself. Some media outlets mentioned another Coptic figure Zakaria Botros but his involvement in the movie is extremely unclear.

Essentially, the accusatory fingers were first pointed to Jews and then to Copts.

However, by now, very few media outlets are pursuing the who or why angles as most of the narrative is focused on the freedom of expression vs religious beliefs debate.  It seems that it will be a while before we get direct answers to these questions.

How Did the Rioters Discover the Movie Trailer?

The timeline is intriguing. The trailer was posted on You Tube on 1 July. Nothing happened for a few months. Then a religious TV channel in Egypt picked it up and start broadcasting a few scenes on 8 September. That's a nine-week interval. Around the same time, an Arabic-subtitled version mysteriously appeared on You Tube. That version seems to have disappeared since then (at least, I couldn't find it).

After that, most Muslim countries banned the trailer and I presume that very few people have actually seen it. Yet, tens of people died in various countries, including the American ambassador to Libya, as a result of these riots.

It is clear that there was a concerted effort to provoke a reaction using this video clip. According to Ayaan Ali Hirsi, the riots did not appear to be spontaneous but rather well organized in advance.

This is in line with what happened during the 2006 Danish cartoons debacle. There was a gap of several months between their publication and the first reactions to them. Similarly, most people who protested at the time had not seen the cartoons but were incited to express their outrage violently by various Salafist organizations.

Who Benefited From The Movie Trailer and the Ensuing Riots?

The clear winners are the Salafists.

After the recent electoral victory of Islamists in all Arab-Spring countries, Salafist found themselves on the defensive. These new governments, including the Ennahda in Tunisia, Justice and Development Party in Morocco and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt seemed to follow a new line. They claimed that their outlook represented a good balance between modernity and Islamic precepts. Their self-appointed model was Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Just two days ago, the President of Egypt, Muhammad Mursi, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal were in Turkey as Erdogan was opening a congress of his party.
Khaled Meshaal, exiled political leader of the Palestinian group Hamas, told the congress the party had shown the "bright face of Islam".
"Erdogan, you are not only a leader in Turkey now, you are a leader in the Muslim world as well," he said.
In Egypt, their official organization the Nour Party has been racked by internal strife and leadership changes.
Moreover, since his election, President Mursi was very careful not to pursue a hard Islamist line. Quite the contrary, there are indications that Salafists are not tolerated by the new administration:
Three Egyptians accused of killing a man while he was walking with his fiancĂ©e were sentenced to 15 years in jail on Tuesday for forming an Islamist vigilante group to enforce their hard-line ideas, the state news agency MENA reported. 
Al-Omma TV owner Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah, known as Abu Islam, and his son Islam, face charges of “insulting the Christian faith” along with journalist Hani Yassin Gadallah of the independent daily Al-Tahrir, said the official MENA news agency.
Salafists were also under attack in Gaza where Hamas openly declared war on them after they killed an Italian activist last year. They arrested and convicted many Salafist fighters and put Salafist organizations on the defensive.

In Tunisia, the uneasy relationship between the Islamist government and Salafist was labeled "edgy" by the Economist.

There is a simple reason for this tension. When secular governments were in place, it was much easier for Salafists to recruit people by pointing to corruption, to the so-called Western debauchery and to their overall sense of powerlessness and persecution. It is much harder to make the same claims under an Islamist government who were brought to power by the people themselves and who share the same basic Islamic beliefs as the Salafists. After the Arab Spring, many people in the Arab world seem to have a problem with the hard line Salafist positions and they are in retreat accordingly.

That feeling became palpable after the murder of the American Ambassador in Benghazi. Ordinary Libyans stormed Salafist headquarters and drove them out of the city.

The trailer reversed all that. It provided them with a cause for legitimate outrage and a renewed presence in the political system. It also enabled them to perpetuate anti-Israel and anti-semitic feelings by repeating the early reports about an Israel-born Jewish American to be behind all this. Finally, it gave them a strong platform to persecute the Coptic minority in Egypt. The suspicion that Coptic Christians were instrumental in the making of this movie will give them a lot of leverage in pressuring Mursi in Egypt.

Salafists were also the winners from another perspective: If the reports about the attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi accurate, this was not a spontaneous riot but a planned and premeditated operation with tangible results
Sensitive documents have gone missing from the consulate in Benghazi and the supposedly secret location of the "safe house" in the city, where the staff had retreated, came under sustained mortar attack. Other such refuges across the country are no longer deemed "safe".

Some of the missing papers from the consulate are said to list names of Libyans who are working with Americans, putting them potentially at risk from extremist groups, while some of the other documents are said to relate to oil contracts.
The second winners are the Western political groups that have a vested interest in creating and perpetuating a thoroughly alien and despicable image of "other" in Islam.

Steve Klein's allies like Pam Geller and Robert Spencer are able to use these incidents to portray Muslims as primitive, bloodthirsty and barbaric hordes.

In a world polarized by a Clash of Civilization perspective, they are the natural allies of Salafists and it wouldn't surprise me if one day we found out that the whole movie trailer was a joint project.

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