A low-quality film mocking the Muslim Prophet Muhammad reportedly sparked a protest that ended with Libyan Islamist extremists attacking the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other foreign service workers. Earlier on Tuesday, a group of Egyptians scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and tore down the American flag, angry over the same movie.
So what is this film, and who made it?
A 14-minute clip of the extremely amateur "Innocence of Muslims" film shows the Prophet Muhammad as a homosexual who endorses extramarital sex and pedophilia. (Many Muslims consider physical or visual representations of Muhammad to be blasphemous.)
Clips of the English-language film, some of which have been online since July, attracted attention in Egypt only over the past few days when someone posted a clip that had been dubbed into Arabic, according to the New York Times. Some Egyptian TV hosts began airing the clips over and over, portraying it as a Coptic Christian and American plot to denigrate the prophet. Morris Sadek, a Coptic Christian from Egypt and critic of Islam who now lives in the United States, told AP he recently began promoting the film clips, which might also explain their rise out of obscurity. Florida pastor Terry Jones, best known for burning a copy of Islam's holy book in 2011, has also been publicizing the film.
Though much remains murky about the movie and its origins, the Wall Street Journal tracked down and interviewed a person who claimed to have written and directed the movie, a real estate developer named Sam Bacile. Bacile told the Journal that he made the film to portray Islam as a hateful religion:
"Islam is a cancer," he said in a telephone interview from his home. "The movie is a political movie. It's not a religious movie."
Mr. Bacile said he raised $5 million from about 100 Jewish donors, whom he declined to identify. Working with about 60 actors and 45 crew members, he said he made the two-hour movie in three months last year in California.
Bacile told the AP that he is now in hiding, and that his full movie has only been shown once, to a nearly empty theater in Hollywood. But the AP added that anonymous "Israeli officials" said there was no record of a Sam Bacile being a citizen of Israel. Another person involved in the film, Steve Klein, told The Atlantic that he believes Bacile is a pseudonym, and that he doubts his claims that he is Israeli. (Klein said he met the person who made the film, but didn't know his real name.) And others have raised questions about Bacile's claim that the movie had a $5 million budget, based on the nearly unwatchable trailer's low quality. The New York Times could not verify whether a full two-hour version of the movie even exists, as Bacile claimed, since only portions of the film have been posted online. The Times also noted that Bacile identified himself as 52 years old in one interview and 56 in another.
In an even stranger twist, NPR's Sarah Abdurrahman noticed that every specific reference to Muhammad or Islam in the movie's trailer appears to be dubbed over what the actors actually said. Without the lines that insult Islam, the trailer "reads like some cheesy Arabian Nights story," Abdurrahman writes. In a statement given to CNN, the cast and crew of the film said they were "grossly misled" about the movie's purpose and said they feel "taken advantage of." One of the film's actors told Gawker that the cast was told they were acting in a movie called "Dessert Warriors," and had no idea it would be altered to have an anti-Islam message. She said the film's director, whom she now plans to sue, said he was Egyptian.
President Barack Obama condemned the attacks in a statement Wednesday, but also made an oblique reference to the "Innocence of Muslims" film. "While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants," Obama said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also referenced the movie. "Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior, along with the protest that took place at our embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet," Clinton said. "America's commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear. There is no justification for this. None."