Tony Allen-Mills, courtesy of The Sunday Times and The Australian
HE thought he was going to play Samson, the biblical strongman who lost his locks to Delilah. Instead Tim Dax, an exotically tattooed actor struggling at the seamier margins of Hollywood, found himself carrying a spear on a low-budget film called Desert Warrior. The only desert in sight was painted on a warehouse wall in central Los Angeles. At the time neither the plot nor his character made much sense to Dax. Yet he posed where he was told for $US75 a day and assumed the film, like most of his other acting credits, would swiftly disappear on to remaindered video shelves.
That changed last week when a friend alerted Dax that his “crazy little” desert movie had somehow turned into Innocence of Muslims, a barely coherent anti-Islamic rant posted on YouTube that has ignited murderous protests across the Muslim world from Morocco to Bangladesh – and been linked to the killing in Benghazi of Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, and to an attack on the Camp Bastion military compound in Afghanistan where Prince Harry is serving.
In Egypt, which has seen some of the fiercest rioting during the past few days, hundreds of riot police sealed off an area near the US embassy in Cairo on Saturday, and Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal el-Din vowed to restore calm after a 35-year-old protester was killed and dozens were injured.
Outbreaks of violence continued elsewhere, even outside the Muslim world. In Sydney, eight people were arrested and six police officers injured after crowds carrying signs such as “Behead all those who insult the prophet” protested outside the US consulate.
Among extremists seeking to profit from the chaos was Stephen Lennon, leader of the far-Right English Defence League, who said he was seeking a British venue to broadcast the inflammatory anti-Muslim film.
In Afghanistan, further details emerged of Friday’s attack on Camp Bastion in which at least two US marines were killed. Prince Harry, who turned 28 on Saturday, was reportedly nearly 2km away with other crew members of the Apache attack helicopters, of which he is a co-pilot gunner, when the attack took place. “The insurgents who mounted this attack were nowhere near Captain Wales,” a Ministry of Defence source says.
The sudden flare-up of violence has provided a disturbing new twist to the volatile aftermath of the Arab Spring and the revolutions that toppled some of north Africa’s previously most powerful dictators.
For US President Barack Obama, at the height of a close-fought campaign for this November’s elections, it also has raised potentially damaging questions about security, intelligence and the West’s understanding of the complex tangle of revolutionary and other forces that replaced dictatorships in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya during the Arab Spring.
In one sense the turmoil came as no surprise: since the dying Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini announced a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses in 1989, the Islamic world has shown itself swift to respond to anything it regards as an affront to its faith.
That lesson has not been lost on figures such as Terry Jones, a previously obscure Florida pastor, who sparked violent protests around the world when he threatened to mark the 2010 anniversary of the September 11 attacks by burning a copy of the Koran.
Jones resurfaced last week as a backer of Innocence of Muslims, which depicts Mohammed in the most insulting terms imaginable. Video clips from the film appeared specifically intended to provoke a violent reaction, and when they first popped up in Egypt last week, they inevitably spread fast across the Arabic internet.
Initial reports named the film’s director as Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American property developer turned filmmaker said to have raised $US5 million from Jewish investors for his project.
It has since emerged that most – if not all – the cast and crew, like Bax, were fooled into thinking they were filming a biblical adventure, which was then edited with new dialogue into an anti-Muslim rant. “We have been blindsided by the final product,” one individual, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation, told The Washington Post.
As the week went on, however, it became clear Bacile was an invention. The film instead seemed to be the work of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a 55-year-old Egyptian immigrant and Coptic Christian with a long criminal record. US reporters established that a telephone number Bacile had given when making the film could be traced to Nakoula’s home.
Dax confirmed his pay cheques were issued on Nakoula’s account; investigators also established that the municipal permits required for local filming had been issued to a charity called Media for Christ, run by Joseph Nassralla Abdelmasih, also a Coptic Christian of Egyptian origin.
Police in Los Angeles said late on Friday that Nakoula had been escorted to an interview with federal officers investigating possible probation violations from the making of the film, but insisted he had attended voluntarily and was not in custody.
The film itself was also not quite what it seemed. It was initially claimed that it was a full-length feature that had a single screening at the Vine cinema on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles in June.
Yet a manager said the cinema was often used by student filmmakers to show off home-made films to tiny audiences. He believes only a handful of viewers watched the Mohammed film.
US investigators now believe that Innocence of Muslims may never have been finished; it was likelier a collection of loose clips that found their way on to the internet several months before they were spotted by Islamic activists.
One of the few to admit a connection to the film is Steve Klein, a Californian insurance salesman, ex-marine and militant Christian fundamentalist who has long preached hatred of Islam.
Klein told The Sunday Times he was the “script consultant” on the film and had attended the Vine screening.
He said it originally had been entitled The Innocence of Bin Laden in the hope Muslims would be drawn into cinemas by its title, then tricked into watching an anti-Islamic diatribe that might lead them to question their faith.
Also allegedly involved was Morris Sadek, a third Egyptian-American Copt, from Virginia, who is believed to have subtitled scenes from the film in Arabic and sent the clips to hundreds of journalists and activists in Egypt. Attacks on the US embassy in Cairo soon followed, and quickly spread to Libya and elsewhere.
Emad Mekay, a young Egyptian journalist studying at Stanford University in California, was among the first to notice last week that the offending video was being promoted in Cairo by extremist Coptic Christians with ties to the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak – the man toppled by last year’s revolt.
Mekay believes many wealthy Egyptians who profited under Mubarak are angry at Washington and Obama for allowing their protector to fall.
“Many extremist Christian Copts have used the US as a hub to attack and slander Muslims and Islam, flaunting their US presence as a protection,” he said.
Perhaps not surprisingly, obscure Egyptian religious rivalries have not been a US priority of late. Obama got into hot water last week when he cast doubt on whether Egypt remained a US ally.
Furious that President Mohamed Morsi initially condemned the film rather than the attack on the US embassy in Cairo, Obama said on Wednesday: “I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.”
His aides spent much of the rest of the week insisting that he had not intended a threat.
Unlike Libya, which has rarely been seen in Washington as more than a minor distraction, Egypt has long been a cornerstone of US Middle Eastern policy and a crucial partner in securing peace for Israel.
“This has been an enormous setback for relations,” noted Robin Wright, a foreign policy analyst at the United States Institute of Peace. “There is a sense the Egyptians have done very little and what little they have done came way too late.”
Yet Obama found himself not only issuing warnings to Cairo but also at loggerheads with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over how tough the US should get with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
All this made the President unexpectedly vulnerable over foreign policy issues that had never seemed likely to matter in an election campaign dominated by domestic economic concerns.
As the slayer of Osama bin Laden, Obama had appeared largely immune to more subtle criticisms of his Middle East strategy, yet the death of Stevens and evidence that the administration is losing influence in Cairo offered Mitt Romney an opportunity to score political points.
At first it seemed the Republican contender had blown it by appearing to play politics at a time when the country should have been united in mourning a tragedy.
Yet as the protests continued, he was able to make hay with the President’s shortage of policy options, accusing his rival of being “at the mercy of events instead of shaping them”.
Obama has sent a contingent of marines to Yemen, and warships are moving into striking range of Libya, but it is not at all clear whom they would strike.
Nor is it clear how any American administration – Democrat or Republican – will be able to identify reliable partners in the volatile mix of democrats, radicals and provocateurs jostling for advantage in the region. Obama has preferred to tread warily for fear of siding with a faction that might later turn against Washington.
Perhaps the worst news for Obama came not from Benghazi or Cairo but a modest four-bedroomed home in Cerritos, California. It was here that Nakoula allegedly hatched his plan to bait Egyptian Muslims. The house’s distinctive front door, with a pattern of triangular windows, appears in one of the video clips that spread across the Arab world.
The trouble that tripped up Obama started uncomfortably close to home.
ALSO SEE Roberts, “Understanding Zealotry: Questions for Post-Orientalism,” in http://sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/2007/12/29/understanding-zealotryquestions-for-post-orientalism/
ALSO SEE Ernest Corea in http://www.eurasiareview.com/17092012-middle-east-violence-no-excuse-for-vile-provocation-analysis/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+eurasiareview%2FVsnE+%28Eurasia+Review%29