Reasons behind video protests, impact on US-Middle East Relations

Updated On: Sep 20, 2012

Thousands have protested across the Middle East and North Africa against a film made in the US that depicts the Prophet Muhammad. The US consulate in Libya was also attacked last week, killing the US ambassador and three others. Why has the film stirred up riots, and what does this mean for US-Middle East relations?

Background: The Film and Video

The video (pictured) was first posted online on 1 July, without attracting much attention. It was later picked up by various Arab TV stations, including a religious Egyptian TV channel. Google, which owns YouTube, said in a statement that the video was "clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube", but has restricted access to the video in some countries.

The video, a trailer for a longer film entitled 'Innocence of Muslims', appears to depict Islam as a religion of violence and hate, and its Prophet Muhammad as a foolish and power-hungry man. The film depicts the Prophet having sex, and portrays him and his followers as killers, looters and extortionists. Depicting the Prophet Muhammad in any way already defies Islamic belief, let alone satirising him.

The entire low-budget film is thought to be around an hour long, though most have only seen the trailer on the Internet. The fuller version was shown in a small Los Angeles cinema in June. The now infamous trailer for the film was posted through a Youtube account linked to the name 'sambacile' - originally reported as an Israeli-born Jewish estate agent. But this person did not exist, and US authorities now say they have identified Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian living in California, as the man who made the film.

The actors in the film say they were misled about the purpose of the production, and that all references to the Prophet and insults to Islam were added post-production.

Q&A: Anti-Islam film protests [BBC, 15 Sep 2012]

Reasons Behind the Riots

The magnitude of the riots across the Arab world over the video have taken many by surprise, especially in light of how President Barack Obama's administration has been working to improve US ties with the Middle East. The US government had no hand in creating or promoting this video, so it would be logical to assume that once enough steam is let off and the protests run their course, everything will go back to the status quo.

But it is also possible the events of this week mark the beginning of a period in which violent protests against the United States in Arab countries will become more commonplace. There is a fundamental disagreement between the US view of freedom of speech as a basic right, with the Islamic view that sanctity of religion cannot be violated.

This is not new, but contemporary communications technology and the resulting dissemination of information pushes this divergence of worldviews to the forefront. As a feature in Foreign Policy notes, five years ago, nobody in the United States, let alone in Egypt or Libya, would have heard of "Sam Bacile," and not more than a handful of people would have seen any part of the infamous film. But now anyone with a laptop can create something abhorrent and ensure that it is viewed by millions of people around the world.

Analysis: Why the Embassy Riots Won't Stop [Foreign Policy, 14 Sep 2012]

Although Muslims are sensitive towards slights to their religion, such as reports of desecration of the Koran or books, films and pictures that include blasphemous depictions of the Prophet Muhammad or of God, outbursts of rage may also be stirred up by political groups. As an article in the Economist notes, the film suddenly began attracting attention around September 11th, an anniversary almost as politically charged in the Muslim world as it is in the West.

It has also been suggested that the issue has been taken advantage of by radical elements, who have felt weakened after the Arab Spring. Such political factions may be taking advantage of the movie and YouTube clips to reignite anti-American rhetoric that has faded in the past few years.

Analysis: Muslim rage: Why they won’t calm down [The Economist, 15 Sep 2012]

Interview: Islamist Extremism After the Arab Spring [Council on Foreign Relations, 14 Sep 2012]

Impact on US-Middle East Relations

However, according to the BBC's Jon Leyne, the crisis may not damage relations between the US and the Middle East in the long term. On Friday, there was a letter to the New York Times from a key figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairet el-Shater, making it clear that Egypt did not hold the US government or people responsible for the anti-Islamic film. Mr. Mursi has also appeared on television to call for an end to attacks on embassies, and riot police were sent in to clear Tahrir Square and the area around the US embassy.

Egypt desperately needs stability if it is to revive its economy, bring back tourists and foreign investment. Right now, the Egyptian government is negotiating for a multi-billion dollar IMF loan and other financial help and investment. Egypt's government knows it needs to deliver economic growth and prosperity, and for that it needs good relations with the United States.

Analysis: Film protests could strengthen US-Egypt ties [BBC, 15 Sep 2012]

Meanwhile, in the US, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been accusing President Barack Obama of being too keen on the Arab awakening. Yet, an editorial in the Economist argues that the Arab spring, for all its messiness, is still broadly moving in the right direction. It will take many years, but these Middle East democracies promise eventually to embrace a style of government that is more like Turkey’s moderate, democratic Islamism than Iran’s harsh theocracy. But until then, the US will remain essential to progress. The US stands to benefit from a more stable Middle East, and should do more in the region, not less.

Analysis: America and the Middle East: Murder in Libya [The Economist, 15 Sep 2012]