Inside the Islamophobic-Religious Right Alliance Whose Film Sparked a Crisis in the Middle East
A demonstrator warns of Islamic law during a protest against the construction of the Park 51 Islamic center in lower Manhattan.
Photo Credit: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
As angry protests surrounded U.S. embassies in the Middle East on the anniversary of September 11, the mainstream media raced to discover who was behind the obscure anti-Muslim film that sparked the demonstrations. The Associated Press reported that the filmmaker was Sam Bacile, an Israeli Jew living in California who called Islam a “cancer” – a story that ricocheted around the Web.
But the AP and Wall Street Journal, which also reported on Bacile, were duped. By the end of the day on September 12, the AP discovered that the person behind the film was an Egyptian Coptic Christian by the name of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. There didn't seem to be a real Sam Bacile. And the more information came out, the more it became clear that the origins of the film lie in an alliance between members of the Egyptian Coptic Christian community, right-wing Christians and the well-funded network of Islamophobes in the U.S.
As the post-9/11 dust settled, a small, loosely connected group of anti-Muslim activists worked to lay the seeds of what would become a full-blown network of Islamophobes across the U.S. that peddled propaganda about the impending takeover of the U.S. by Muslims, who would impose “sharia law.”
An important part of their message is that Christians in the Middle East were being persecuted, and deserved the protection of their fellow Christians in the West (of course, this doesn't include Christians facing persecution from Israel's Jewish majority). Specifically, Egyptian Coptic Christians were the focus, and after the 2011 Egyptian revolution, concerns about the fate of Copts in Egypt increased. While there are real fears for Copts in Egypt—churches have been burned and protests violently repressed by Egyptian security forces—anti-Muslim activists have cynically exploited that grim reality. Coptic Christian leaders have denounced the film, which has endangered the community within Egypt.
And so a small number of Coptic Christians, by no means representative of the full Coptic community, have made alliances with right-wing evangelical Christians and virulent Islamophobes in the U.S.
This alliance is behind the film, Innocence of Muslims, which portrays the Prophet Muhammed as a child abuser and gay man. Depictions of the Prophet are considered to be forbidden in Islam, and past depictions, like those in the infamous Danish cartoons, have likewise set off angry protests in a region already seething at U.S. intervention and its long history backing repressive dictators. The protests in Libya and Egypt were largely peaceful, but a group of armed Libyan Islamists outside the U.S. embassy in Benghazi launched an assault, culminating in the death of the American ambassador and three others. Media outlets still piecing the story together suggest that the attack in Libya may have been pre-planned, with the protests serving as cover.
The Associated Press reported that Nakoula, a 55-year-old living in California, was the manager of the company that produced the film. Nakoula, who has been convicted of financial crimes in the past, said that he was a Coptic Christian and that “the film's director supported the concerns of Christian Copts about their treatment by Muslims.”
But Nakoula had help. A California-based newspaper reported September 12 that an organization called Media for Christ produced the Innocence of Muslims film. The head of that organization is Joseph Nasralla Abdelmasih, an anti-Muslim Coptic Christian from Egypt. Abdelmasih is an ally of Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, two leading Islamophobes in the U.S. Two years ago, on September 11, Abdelmasih spoke at Geller's and Spencer's rally in lower Manhattan. The rally was called to protest the building of the Park 51 Islamic center, a few blocks away from the site of Ground Zero, and was a flashpoint in larger efforts to oppose the building of mosques in the U.S.
“Wake up, America!” Abdelmasih said to a crowd of flag-waving hooligans. “Islamics conquered our country with their lies...It's written in the Koran that the war is deceiving,” he said, a reference to the anti-Muslim trope that Muslims justify lying with the religious concept of “taqiyya,” which stipulates that Muslims can conceal their religion while at risk.
Geller responded to Abdelmasih's involvment with the film in an e-mail. “Whether or not Joseph Nassralla was involved in this film, it doesn't matter, because the film itself doesn't matter,” Geller wrote. “The film is just a pretext to justify the violence and intimidate the West into adopting Sharia restrictions on the freedom of speech, so that jihad can advance unimpeded and unopposed in the West.”
Morris Sadek is another U.S.-based Coptic Christian activist who helped promote Media for Christ's film. Sadek is likewise connected to anti-Muslim activists in the U.S. “Sadek is a supporter of ACT! for America, which believes that President Obama has embraced the Muslim Brotherhood,” Right Wing Watch's Josh Glasstetter reported.
Terry Jones, the inflammatory Christian preacher who burned Korans last year in a move that sparked deadly protests in Afghanistan, also promoted the film.
Yet another Christian right activist involved with the film is Steve Klein. Klein is a right-wing extremist allied with Sadek's National American Coptic Assembly. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that Klein is “a longtime religious-right activist who brags about having led a 'hunter killer' team as a Marine in Vietnam” and who believes that Muslims are “a cancer.”
Journalist and Nation Institute fellow Max Blumenthal added to the portrait of Klein with his report that “Klein (or someone who shares his name and views) is an enthusiastic commenter on Geller’s Web site, Atlas Shrugged.” Blumenthal writes that Klein “organized alongside the anti-Muslim Coptic extremist Joseph Nasrallah to demand the firing of LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, whom they painted as a dupe for Hamas,” and that “Klein has organized against the construction of mosques in his area.”
The alliance of Egyptian Christians, right-wing American Christians and anti-Muslim activists have now sowed the seeds of more chaos in the Middle East. This is exactly what they wanted. “We went into this knowing this was probably going to happen,” Klein told the Associated Press.
The people behind the film can also feel satisfied that they have contributed to a strain in U.S.-Egyptian relations as a time when the Muslim Brotherhood is in power. They hope that by destabilizing Egypt, Muslims will come off as crazy, violent people, and that U.S. relations with a government seen as hostile to Israel will be strained.
Their mirror image—radical, right-wing Islamists in the Middle East--continues to stoke anti-American rage across the Middle East because of the anti-Muslim film. And so both sides get what they want: a “clash of civilizations”-esque confrontation between the radicals on both sides of the “East-West” divide.
Meanwhile, ordinary Americans and Muslims are caught in the crossfire. As Blumethal wrote in the Guardian: “A group of fringe extremists had proven that with a little bit of money and an unbelievably cynical scam, they could shape history to fit their apocalyptic vision.”