*** UPDATE: The Atlantic is reporting that Sam Bacile is not a real name and may be a pseudonym. We're currently digging into this story. ***
Last summer, an American filmmaker known as Sam Bacile produced a movie that is now having a profound impact on U.S. relations with the Middle East, as well as the 2012 presidential campaign.
Bacile, who identifies himself as a 56-year-old Israeli-American California real-estate developer, said he wrote, produced and directed the film, "The Innocence of Muslims," but the Atlantic reports that the name is a pseudonym, according to film consultant Steve Klein.
Bacile claims he raised $5 million from unnamed Jewish sources to make the film that he wrote and directed himself. "The Innocence of Muslims" portrays the prophet Muhammad as an adulterer who condoned the abuse of children, and the dialogue contains numerous insults directed toward Muslims.
Early this year, the amateur project screened to a nearly empty theater in Hollywood and went unnoticed for the most part. However, it was when Bacile made a trailer for the movie and posted it to YouTube in July that it went viral and eventually made its way to media outlets in the Middle East after being translated by an unknown source into Egyptian Arabic.
A television host in Cairo, Sheikh Khaled Abdallah, aired excerpts from Bacile’s video, which incensed viewers so much that 2,000 demonstrators assembled outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday night and successfully took down the American flag and replaced it with one of solid black.
The crowd was dispersed in the late evening, but a similar reaction was happening in Libya. After hearing about an American movie that condemned Muslims, one of the militia groups which has been vying for power since Gaddafi’s fall called upon citizens to attack the American consulate in Benghazi. This call was heeded, and rocket-propelled grenades resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, computer expert Sean Smith and two security guards.
In the religious culture of Islam, it is absolutely forbidden and blasphemous to depict Muhammad’s image. The most noted example of this type of situation escalating in a similar and serious way was the “Jyllands-Posten” Muhammad cartoons controversy, in which a Danish newspaper released twelve editorial cartoons using an image of Muhammad, which were then reprinted in other papers around the world. Muslims in Islamic countries protested, eventually leading to over 100 reported deaths due to police fire and violence. The controversy is also sparking some political flames at home.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo released a statement:
However, the White House disavowed this statement, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton elaborated, "Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
While there may be an incongruity in the statements above, the real scrutiny is falling on Mitt Romney, for responding to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo’s statement by saying, “It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” The fact that Romney tied Obama to the attackers is drawing intense heat from mainstream, liberal and even conservative media outlets for politicizing such sobering events, especially since the statement was released before all the relevant facts about what happened were known.
Did Romney go too far in attempting to exploit this controversy? What about the Obama administration’s distancing itself from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo’s statement? What will be the ultimate political fallout of these protests, both in the campaign and concerning foreign policy down the road? While extreme violence is tragic and negative in and of itself, what role did the release of this intentionally incendiary movie play in spurring it on? How is Sam Bacile reacting to the news that something he made has caused so much harm across the globe?
Christian Caryl, editor of Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab website; Senior Fellow, Legatum Institute, “an independent, non-partisan public policy organization based in London whose research, publications, and programs advance ideas and policies in support of free and prosperous societies around the world.”
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Founder and CEO of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA Society) and Imam of Masjid Al-Farah, a mosque in New York City, twelve blocks from Ground Zero
Father Gregory Bishay, Priest with the Coptic Orthodox Christian Center in Orange
Salam Al-Marayati, President, Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)
Ron Elving, Senior Washington Editor for NPR
Sarah Posner, Senior Editor, Religion Dispatches