Everyday Americans spout off hours upon hours of offensive statements about Islam. So how on Earth did a poorly-produced, wildly obscure 14-minute YouTube clip spark violent uprisings from Yemen to Afghanistan to Algeria to Egypt? The answer is Sheik Khaled Abdullah, an Egyptian TV host who latched onto a trailer of the U.S. film Innocence of Muslims on Sunday, a move that has stoked anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world.
At the outset of the controversy, the U.S. media focused on the blowhard producer of the film Sam Bacile, a pathological liar of sorts, who allegedly tricked his cast and crew into making the grotesquely offensive movie and lied to the mainstream media about his identity and the film's financing. While Bacile's lies have made for an interesting media sideshow, he never would've become a headline if his film hadn't sparked an international incident. So the question remains: Why this shoddy YouTube clip and why now?
The original trailer of Innocence of Muslims was posted to YouTube by Bacile in July, but never gained attention until last week when it was translated into Arabic and linked to by an Egyptian-American Copt Morris Sadek in an Arabic-language blog post. Around that same time, Koran-burning Florida Pastor Terry Jones began promoting the film to practically no effect in the U.S. But it did gain the attention of a Glenn Beck-style TV pundit in Egypt: Sheikh Khalad Abdalla, a host on the Islamist satellite-TV station al-Nas. On Sept. 8, Abdullah lit the match that set this entire international incident in motion and broadcast an offensive clip of the trailer in which a man playing Muhammad calls a donkey "the first Muslim animal." Here's the fateful moment of Abdullah on TV playing the clip:
Shortly following Abdullah's broadcast, views of the video began increasing rapidly and Cairo news outlet Youm7.com reported that the leader of an Egyptian political party "denounced the production of the film with the participation of vengeful Copts." That clip of Abdullah's show has now attracted over 300,000 views.
So what do we know about this guy? The New York Times Lede blog has described Abdullah as a man who's "part of a school of particularly shrill religious demagogues who turn every possible event into an attack on Islam,” quoting Egyptian-British journalist Sarah Carr. According to Time's Bobby Ghosh, Abdullah's channel "traffics in demagoguery and hatemongering. Abdallah is its star. In previous broadcasts, he has called the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring 'worthless kids' and condemned newspapers that don’t support his views." Apparently, his main beef is Egypt's Coptic Christians, a minority that makes up about about one tenth of the population. According to Ghosh, the broadcast really took off thanks to Abdullah's viewership among Salafis:
Abdallah’s show was a dog whistle to the Salafists, a fundamentalist Islamic movement that makes up the second largest faction in the Egyptian parliament. For months, organized Salafist groups had been protesting in small numbers in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, calling for the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik currently in a North Carolina prison, convicted for plotting a series of bombings and assassinations in the 1990s. They were joined on Sept. 11 by prominent leaders like Nader Bakar of the Salafist Nour Party and Mohammed al-Zawahiri, brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s longtime deputy and now head of al-Qaeda.
Thus far, the international protests surrounding the film have attributed to at least one death: A protester was killed in Yemen today after hundreds stormed the U.S. Embassy. (The four U.S. deaths at the U.S. Embassy in Libya yesterday have been attributed to a coordinated plot by a small terrorist group that took advantage of the unrest caused by the film.) The discouraging takeaway from all of this is there doesn't seem to be an evident way of stopping this sort of incident from happening again. In a democracy of 300 million people, citizens will say and do things offensive to Islam, and that's their right. If a film that resembles a low-budget high school play like Innocence of Muslims can cause a firestorm like this, it certainly won't be the last.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.