Understanding Muslim Anger Over 'Insulting' Film

Protests over a video insulting the Prophet Mohammad have spread throughout the Muslim world. Host Michel Martin discusses reactions and why it has elicited such anger with Al Jazeera's Abderrahim Foukara and Georgetown University Professor John Esposito. Advisory: This segment may be uncomfortable for some listeners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we'll hear from pro football player Brendon Ayanbadejo. He's long made headlines for his skills on the field. Now he's in the news because a public official tried to tell him to keep quiet about his views supporting same-sex marriage. He has said he will not. And Mr. Ayanbadejo will tell us why, in a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about the developments that many of us are watching, in the Middle East and North Africa. By now, I'm sure you know that Ambassador Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans, were killed in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Now, there are ongoing protests in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and U.S. embassies around the world are tightening security in response. Now, there are still details that remain unclear about that attack in Libya. But initially, the attack was thought to have been sparked by a trailer airing on YouTube, for a crudely produced film that is insulting to the central figure in Islam - the Prophet Muhammad - and to Islam more broadly. And protests over that video are spreading across the region, so we thought we would talk about what is happening and why.

And earlier, we spoke with Abderrahim Foukara. He is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. We often go to him, to discuss affairs of the region on this program. Abderrahim, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Thank you.

MARTIN: Also with us, John Esposito. He's a professor of religion, Islamic studies and international affairs. He's also the founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. That's also in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for joining us, also.

JOHN ESPOSITO: Delighted.

MARTIN: So Abderrahim, if this were not so serious, this would be the plot of a spy novel - just because the circumstances around this film, and what it has set off, are so complicated and murky. And I need to ask you to try to tell us as much as you can; unpack it, as much as you can. Like, for example, how did this film happen, to begin with?

FOUKARA: Well, what we know is that this film was made several weeks ago. We did not start to hear about it in any significant way until September. We did not actually start to seriously talk about it until the day of the 9/11 anniversary - on the 11th of September. We were actually - on Al Jazeera, we were doing the coverage of the anniversary when the protests in Cairo came into full prominence. And then we started backtracking, looking at the film, what happened, the original version - which was supposed to have been made in English. Then there was another version, which was dubbed into Arabic. The Arabic version, obviously, was played in Egypt. It garnered a lot of attention. That led to the protests at the U.S. Embassy. And then, later on, it led to the protests at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

MARTIN: And I just want to mention here that NPR has done extensive reporting on the provenance of this film, and it's way too complicated to go into now. But it does appear that the filmmaker, who now seems to have gone into hiding, has portrayed himself as an Israeli Jew. That appears not to be the case and that, as you mentioned, the dialogue in the film was overdubbed several times. So clearly, there is a lot of mystery, you know, around this and his intentions. He's gone into hiding. We don't know.

But the protests - the YouTube video, as we understand it, was uploaded back in July, but the protests started in Egypt this past week. So how did that happen? Can you tell us that?

FOUKARA: I think what happened is that an Egyptian television picked up on the existence of the video. And, obviously, the Muslim Brotherhood won the presidential election in Egypt. Now there's Mohammed Morsi who is the president of Egypt, originally came from the Muslim Brotherhood. And the election of the Muslim Brotherhood riled up many Egyptians, some of them secular, some of them Coptic Christians inside of Egypt.

Now, that's another dimension to the film, because there's a lot of mystery around the guy who actually made the film, as you pointed out. But there's also the fact - or at least we think it's the fact - that it's an Egyptian Coptic Christian living here in the United States who promoted the film on his website and who was the bridge to showing the film - that was apparently made in California - shown in Egypt.

So it played into Egyptian politics. It played into the election of the Muslim Brotherhood, and it played into the fears of the Coptic Christians of Egypt.

MARTIN: And I want to ask you to hold that thought for a minute, because I want to bring - and I want to talk more about what would the motivation be for putting forward something like this. But before we do, I want to bring Professor Esposito into the conversation.

I understand that this will be offensive to many people. But for people who don't know what we're talking about, we have to play a little bit of it just so that people can get a sense of what it is that we're describing. So I'm going to play just a very short clip. As we said, the image - it's very amateurish, and some of the lines are clearly dubbed in after the fact. I'll just play a little bit. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INNOCENCE OF MUSLIMS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: My age has exceeded 120 years, and in all my young life, I have not seen such a murderous thug as Mohammed. He kills men, captures women and children.

MARTIN: So we did not alter that video, by the way. So you can just hear just in that short clip what's - how those sound levels vary. And I hope you'll permit me to say, I don't think you need to be a Muslim to find this offensive, if you view this in its totality. But having said that, can you break down some of the reasons why Muslims would find this offensive?

ESPOSITO: Let me begin by noting that I happen to be looking at two very prominent commentators who wrote excellent pieces on this. And yet, when they referred to the film, they used words like, allegedly disrespectful, purportedly disrespect. So there's a certain kind of weird political correctness on this when you've got something where you're portraying the prophet in terms of having oral sex. You're talking about being illegitimate, homosexuality, etc.

I think that, you know, the reaction that you're going to get from many Muslims - I'm talking mainstream here. The reaction is that you're taking a central, prophetic figure. Indeed, it's important to remember that, for Muslims, Mohammed is the ideal Muslim, as it was. He's the living Quran. You know, he's the model, you know. And so to go after him, OK, is to be the ultimate form, you know, the ultimate form of disrespect. It would be the ultimate blasphemy, etc. And recognition of that can be seen in the very making of the film. They made the film this way.

And in the initial interview, the person said, you know, I hate Islam. It's a social cancer. And so there was a deliberate attempt to do that kind of provocation.

MARTIN: And so it's intended to be demeaning. This is not like a parody poorly executed. This is intentionally demeaning.

ESPOSITO: Oh, if you - I mean, if you look at it, I mean, it would be like - if you showed it to Christians and you had the Virgin Mary involved in a scene in oral sex, I mean, how would they respond to that? Or Jesus?

MARTIN: Abderrahim Foukara, can you - as we noted, Al Jazeera's been doing - trying to do some reporting on the filmmaker and those circumstances are murky, too. But what do you understand? What does the reporting suggest about the motivation for the film?

FOUKARA: I mean, on the surface of it, the motivation is clearly the intent to rile up Muslims everywhere. And as I said, there's that Egyptian component to it. So it's also designed to rile up relations between Muslims and Christians in Egypt and in other parts of the world.

MARTIN: And you're describing it - Al Jazeera's website is describing it as a hate film. And by that, do you mean the kinds of racist literature, anti-Semitic literature that we sometimes see in this country, like "The Turner Diaries" or "The Elders of Zion" that's intended to cause a confrontation? But to what end? What is the purpose of trying to spark a confrontation? Does your reporting indicate that?

FOUKARA: Well, I mean, in the case of Egypt, I think - and I'll say it again. It's designed to stir trouble between the Muslims and the Coptic Christians of Egypt. There's been a lot of tension in those relations already. So it's intended to aggravate that tension. But, beyond that, I've seen the film, and, you know, beyond the primitiveness of it in terms of the techniques, the cinema techniques, the shooting techniques, the sound problems that we just heard, beyond that, it's clearly designed - it's not based on scholarly research about the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad.

So it's just clearly designed to offend as many people as possible. Actually, I wouldn't put it beyond the intentions of the person who made it to actually create - incite people to behave in the way that they have been behaving in Egypt, in Syria now, in Yemen, across North Africa and the Middle East, not to say that the - what was done in Benghazi to the U.S. Consulate and the killing of the U.S. ambassador is, in any way, justifiable.

But it's clearly seen - especially listening to the statements coming out of California, quoting this guy, Bacile, quoting others - it was clearly seen as an attempt to get people to do the kind of things that they are doing now in order to say, look. We've always told you that Islam is a violent religion. Here's the ultimate proof.

MARTIN: Becile being Sam Becile, who - which is the name the filmmaker gave people. We don't believe that is his real name. As we said, he was initially presenting himself...

FOUKARA: That's right.

MARTIN: ...claiming to have been an Israeli Jew, claiming that the film was financed by others like him, and that appears to be completely false. And, Professor Esposito, I know you want to add to this. Our guests are Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University and Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera International. He's the Washington bureau chief. We're talking about that controversial video that sparked protests around the Middle East and North Africa. Professor Esposito?

ESPOSITO: Well, I think the latest, also, seems to show that we're talking about a pseudonym for somebody who now is being identified as a Egyptian-American Copt who's known to be very anti-Muslim in approach. And it's important to note that the Coptic - Orthodox Coptic Bishop of Los Angeles denounced this kind of film. But this particular individual is known to be very aggressive in terms of an anti-Muslim approach.

And, in fact, what you see here is exactly what my colleague was saying. It's a deliberate attempt to provoke, but to turn around and say, see? This is the way these people are.

MARTIN: And as I want to mention again, that this is an unfolding story. There is extensive reporting on this at the NPR website. Go to NPR.org, where we're following this story closely, and also trying to unpack the identities of the filmmakers and those who are promoting it and what their motivations are.

But, again, Professor Esposito, I think some Americans watching this unfold would argue that - yes - it's offensive, but it's still freedom of speech and, you know, we don't have to watch it, but they have a right to say what they want. And I wanted to ask if, you know - how this argument would be viewed, you know, elsewhere.

ESPOSITO: Well, I think there's...

MARTIN: And, obviously, I want to ask Abderrahim that, as well.

ESPOSITO: I think there's a recognition of the freedom of speech, but you know, you still get into freedom of speech and then what are the consequences of it? You know, freedom of speech means that I'm - that one is free to be - to make statements that are anti-black, anti-Hispanic, that are anti-Semitic. But, you know, do we tolerate it? And, more importantly, do we not see what the consequences are? And so what you really have is a situation where this belongs to the genre of Islam-aphobia, which is just like anti-Semitic.

MARTIN: I understand what you're saying, but I guess what I'm asking you is a different question, which is, in a number of these countries where these protests are unfolding, do the citizens there not believe that the government has the ability to control this or do they believe that it's a deliberate provocation on the part of the United States, or on the part of the American people? Do they believe that these views are widely held here, for example?

ESPOSITO: Well, I think that it depends on who. I mean, you know, citizens in Egypt are as diverse as citizens in America. And, you know, if you look at our hard line Christian right versus others. You know, clearly, people see this as very offensive and, for some, there's a sense that, you know, why does the government allow this? Not all blame the government.

I mean, keep in mind, there's a difference between the Egyptian and the Libyan situation and the reactions - both in the motivation - in Libya, you have an extremist group, whatever, whether it's associated with al Qaida or not. It was planned, well armed. It was violent. They were out to kill.

In Egypt, it's a different situation. In fact, some of the reports from Egypt - first of all, it was not armed and violent, but in fact, you have two strong Salafist political parties there. Salafis are very ultra-conservative Muslim groups and they have not done as well, visa vi the victory of Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

And so part of their taking out the demonstration was both to say - to show to the people that they really represent, you know, as it were, true, authentic Islam while, you know, Morsi's in a position of now being a national leader and, you know, perhaps not making as strong a statement.

Also, the difference between Libya and Egypt is that the Libyan government formally apologized. And, in fact, you had mass demonstrations in Benghazi and in Tripoli, apologizing both to the government and to the American people.

MARTIN: Abderrahim?

FOUKARA: I mean, in the case of how people perceive this film - people in North Africa and the Middle East - yes. There's clearly this notion that whatever comes out of the United States is the making of the United States government. There's an accumulation of this. There's the burnings and the desecration of the Quran in Afghanistan. There's the whole saga of the pastor Terry Jones wanting to burn the Quran and to put the Prophet Mohammed on trial.

So it is seen through this prism. When you talk to people and you say, this is an issue of freedom of speech in the United States, there's nothing that the government can do about it, as Hillary Clinton said just a little while ago. They basically say, look, when the United - if the government of the United States had really wanted to stop this, they would have been able to do it.

And, just as the professor said, they would also retort that, if you made denigrating remarks about African-Americans or Jews or Jesus or Mary, then the issue is not always as simple as to say, yes. It's a question of freedom of speech that must be respected.

MARTIN: Well, I think members of those groups would disagree. I mean, I think that members of those groups would say there's plenty of demeaning speech about those groups that's tolerated, but that it's not widely disseminated and not - those views are not widely shared. A final thought from you.

FOUKARA: Yeah. I just wanted to add to this, just as a - in relation to what you have just said. Now, this is obviously a very complex situation. In the case of Libya that the professor talked about, the situation in Libya - you have the government saying that it's the remnants of the Gadhafi regime. You have other reports saying that it's the Salafis - this or that.

But what people have to remember is that the situation in Libya keeps - is still very unstable, very combustible. And, therefore, when people reacted at the consulate, what we are hearing, even from the United States government and from European officials is that this may have been a preplanned attack, so there's that part of it which had been preplanned.

The fact that people are demonstrating - you could conceivably convince them that it's an issue of freedom of speech, but the fact that it seems to have been preplanned, I think, takes us in a different direction.

MARTIN: Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. John Esposito is the founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for joining us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, if you are one of the many Apple fans out there, yesterday's news was music to your ears.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: iPhone 5 is the thinnest phone we have ever made. It is the lightest, as well.

MARTIN: But is it worth the upgrade? We'll ask technology reporter and digital lifestyle expert, Mario Armstrong about that and other fall tech finds. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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