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How an Obscure Video Sparked International Protests

Sam Bacile's movie was hardly seen at all in the United States, yet it incited a string of riots and the assassination of an American ambassador

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The US ambassador to Libya was killed last night in an attack on the American Consulate sparked by a video mocking Mohammed, Islam’s prophet. The video itself was hardly seen at all by anyone in the United States, but a translation to Arabic posted on YouTube suddenly incited anger and violence in the Muslim community.

The film—titled “Innocence of Muslims”—was produced, written and directed by a man named Sam Bacile, a real-estate developer from California. Bacile is an Israeli-American, and his film drew about $5 million in donations from Jewish donors across the country, he has said.

Few people in the United States had seen the video, but it was promoted by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor whose penchant for burning Qurans has put him in the spotlight before. His promotion likely put the film on the radar of Islamic activists, who objected to what the New York Times calls a “buffoonish caricature of the prophet Mumammad,” who, in the film, calls a donkey “the first Muslim animal.”

Bacile is now in hiding, although he’s not ready to take back what he said in his movie. While he’s not sure who translated it into Arabic, he doesn’t blame his film for the deaths of the ambassadors. “I feel the security system (at the embassies) is no good,” Bacile told NBC News. “America should do something to change it.”

But Bacile also knew the potential risks of making such a movie. Steve Klein, a consultant to Bacile on the film, had warned him. The Guardian reports:

Klein said he had vowed to help Bacile make the movie but warned him: “You’re going to be the next Theo van Gogh.” Van Gogh was a Dutch film-maker killed by a Muslim extremist in 2004 after making a film that was perceived as insulting to Islam.

In protests outside the Libyan embassy, angry citizens decried Bacile’s depiction of their prophet. Some of them wore Guy Fawkes masks, while others held signs saying “Worshippers of the Cross, leave the Prophet Muhammad alone.” Protestors also climbed the walls of the American embassy in Egypt and seized an American flag. They were continuing to protest Wednesday morning. The New York Times reports:

Zeinobia also reported that confusion about the origins of the film was so general that one group of fundamentalist Muslims was “calling for another huge protest at the embassy of Netherlands, demanding its closure because the Dutch government is producing an insult film against Islam.” Dutch diplomats responded with a statement denying these claims, she noted.

While the Koran does not spell out a prohibition against depicting Mohammed, some Islamic traditions forbid it.

More from Smithsonian.com:
The Struggle Within Islam
A New Crisis for Egypt’s Copts

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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