LOS ANGELES— An obscure film that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad has been blamed for sparking protests across the Middle East, and the violent assault Tuesday that claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three embassy workers in Libya. The film was largely unheard of until a promotional clip was translated into Arabic on the Internet.
Little is known about the origins of the film beyond a 14-minute trailer that appeared on the Internet. Called "The Innocence of Muslims," the film was said to have been produced by a man named Sam Bacile, who told news media he is Israeli-American. A consultant on the film says that name is a pseudonym, and there are suggestions that the man behind the film is an Egyptian Coptic Christian who lives in California. There is no record of the film or its producer in Hollywood reference sources.
The video clip was posted to YouTube in early July, and appears to have been made mostly with amateur actors on a low budget. It shows the persecution of Egyptian Coptic Christians. It also portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a buffoon and womanizer who endorses child abuse.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group, believes the film would have remained obscure, but extremist groups in Egypt and Libya have used it to advance their agenda. He notes that the attacks and protests coincided with the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“Never mind the families at Ground Zero who are reading out the names of their loved ones, the memorial candles being lit. We don't like to see that kind of coverage, so we're going to do what we can to get our world view out there, which is a conspiratorial world view," Cooper said.
Cooper says if the film had not been produced, extremists would have found another pretext for their attacks. He says there are questions he would like answered by those who made it.
“Why they made the film, and who exactly wrote the script, who paid for it?,” Cooper said.
None of that is yet clear, but the controversial Florida pastor Terry Jones has promoted the film. He is known for sparking deadly riots in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 with threats - later carried out - to burn the Quran.
Political analyst Josh Lockman, who teaches international law at the University of Southern California, says we live in an age of of hyper-expedited news, when an action in Florida or Afghanistan can trigger passions half a world away. He says country-to-country relations are sometimes out of the hands of professional diplomats.
“Neither the U.S. government nor the Libyan government are responsible for either the film which was produced, or the horrific terrorist attack which occurred, killing Ambassador Stevens and three other diplomats. But both governments have to reckon with the inflammatory by-products of private actors,” Lokman said.
Several news organizations have linked the inflammatory film to an Egyptian American, 55-year-old Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who lives in California and once was convicted of bank fraud. Nakoula says he handled logistics for the production.
Another California man who says he served as a consultant, Steve Klein, has given conflicting accounts of the film's origin and funding. Klein is the founder of anti-Muslim and other hate groups. According to the U.S. Poverty Law Center, which maintains a list of such groups, Klein has conducted paramilitary training at the compound of a militant Christian church in California.
Actors and crew members from the controversial film say the producer misled them. Several have said they were shocked at the final production and appalled by its message. They say there was no reference to the Prophet Muhammad in the original script and that new dialogue was dubbed after production.