As the White House and congressional leaders condemned the assaults on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya, the mystery deepened over who is responsible for the anti-Muhammad film trailer, “The Innocence of Muslims,” and perhaps more importantly, who financed it.
The alleged producer is Sam Bacile, based largely on interviews he gave to the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press from an undisclosed California location. But that identity is in doubt.
He told the AP that he is a real estate developer and an Israeli Jew, but Israeli officials said that they had not heard of him and had no record of him being a citizen.
“This is a political movie,” Bacile told the AP. “The U.S. lost a lot of money and a lot of people in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’re fighting with ideas.”
A trailer for Bacile’s “Innocence of Muslims” dubbed into Arabic and posted on YouTube, sparked protests that have led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and his three security guards in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi by protesters angry over the film that ridicules Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. In Cairo protesters climbed the walls of the U.S. Embassy, pulling down the American flag and replacing it with a black Islamic banner.
Bacile, who said he directed and wrote the movie, told the AP that it was financed at a cost of $5 million with the help of more than 100 Jewish donors. But Steve Klein, who has been described in press accounts as a consultant on the film, told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that Bacile is not Israeli and is most likely not Jewish.
The name, Klein said, is a pseudonym. “I would suspect this is a disinformation campaign,” Klein told Goldberg. Klein is a Christian activist in Riverside, Goldberg wrote.
Although some sources are pointing to coptic Christans as the financiers of the film, the lack of sophistication of the project underscores the ease with which a film and trailer can be made to have an impact outside the mainstream of the indie and documentary community in Los Angeles.
The movie’s trailer has the air of a skit, with actors portraying Muhammad and his followers, and casting the prophet as a philanderer. The violence has ignited fears that throughout the Arab world, there will be further censorship in Islamic media.
“From my personal point of view we can’t be dealing with this movie in such a violent way, even if it does make fun of Muslim religion,” Arab film analyst Alaa Karkouti, who runs Cairo-based film marketing firm Mad Solutions, commented to Variety.
“The main concept for any religion is that to be a true believer you need to be prepared to suffer abuse,” Karkouti said. “To make this (movie) such a big deal is disproportionate to the real issues the Arab world has faced, like people getting killed in the streets during the revolution and until now the facts still being hidden about who killed them,” he went on to add.
Karkouti and several other prominent members of Cairo’s film and TV community, who spoke on background but would not be quoted, were also quick to point out the manipulative aspect of the mayhem. “Let’s not forget that this film is old,” said Karkouti. “Why is it being bandied in the (Egyptian) media now? Why did this break out on September 11?”
The perception among those interviewed is that the timing is linked to the upcoming U.S. elections and the fact that Mitt Romney is running on a more conservative agenda towards the Arab world than Barack Obama. The dubbed-into-Arabic 14-minute trailer of the movie, depicting Muhammad having sex and calling for massacres, surfaced in the Egyptian media in the past few days.
But the two-hour movie was completed in 2011 and screened earlier this year in a Hollywood theater.
“What has been happening proves how easy it is to control and manipulate a certain segment of the Arab population,” said Karkouti. “But this is a very small percentage of the Arab population which is reacting this way,” he noted.
Karkouti and the others who chose to speak off the record are concerned that, since the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Egypt’s top force, is emerging as having the most political clout in all countries affected by the Arab Spring, this induced violent outbreak could, albeit indirectly, exacerbate growing forms of Islamic censorship in the region.
For example Egypt’s state TV, Egyptian Television Network is no longer airing vintage classics featuring couples kissing, which used to run until recently, and the second installment of a TV series on the Muslim Brotherhood titled “Al-Gama’a,” written by well-known writer, Waheed Hamed, was recently pulled from production.
By Nick Vivarelli in Rome and Ted Johnson in Los Angeles. The AP contributed to this report.