The ongoing demonstrations against U.S. embassies in the Middle East, which tragically resulted in the deaths of four American diplomats alongside a number of Libyan defenders last week, represent a considerable challenge to U.S. diplomacy. The protests also demonstrate the power of one insidious aspect of social media designed to spark the most incendiary response—ugly and false propaganda designed to travel at light speed across international boundaries from one country that respects free speech to many others that are only now learning how to deal with the free flow of information.
It’s important to locate blame for the riots where it belongs—with the rioters and those who are cynically exploiting an offensive, poorly made YouTube video to aggravate pre-existing grievances and incite violence. Democratic values allow for the full expression of grievances, freedom of speech, and political debate. But whatever the merits of the disagreement, the right of free speech never includes violent actions, criminal assaults, and lawlessness. Five diplomats at work in the evening must always expect their host government to protect them from a disorderly mob.
But it’s also important to understand the ideology behind the video that sparked the protests, as articulated by those who made it, and the connections that exist between them and the broader Islamophobia network in the United States, as described in the Center for American Progress’s 2011 report, “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.”
Originally the maker of the film was reported as someone named “Sam Bacile.” Bacile said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that the film, titled “The Innocence of Muslims,” was intended to showcase his view of Islam as a hateful religion. “Islam is a cancer,” Bacile said. “The movie is a political movie. It’s not a religious movie.”
Yesterday the Long Beach Press-Telegram reported that “The Innocence of Muslims” was produced by a southern California-based Christian nonprofit called Media for Christ. Fundamentalist Christian activist Steve Klein, who hosts a video program produced by Media for Christ, acknowledges being a consultant for the movie. “Our intent was to reach out to the small minority of very dangerous people in California and try to shock them into understanding how dangerous Islam is,” Klein told a local news station.
In one video on his website The Way, Klein displays his paranoia and complete misunderstanding of the wide and varied world of Islam when he warns that “what we’re seeing going on in Egypt translates throughout all of the world.” He says, “Muslim Brotherhood, Ahmadinejad, doesn’t matter if they’re Sunni, Shi’ite, Sufi, eventually they’re gonna attack and erupt.”
The Press-Telegram also reports that both Media for Christ and The Way “are run by Joseph Abdelmasih of Arcadia, who is listed as chief executive officer for both entities, and president of Media for Christ, public records show.” Joseph Abdelmasih is also known as Joseph Nasrallah, also a Coptic Egyptian-American. On the 2010 anniversary of the September 11 attacks, he spoke at a rally near Ground Zero organized by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, both major figures in the Islamophobia network.
That rally was designed as a protest against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” which is in reality an Islamic cultural center located several blocks away from the former site of the World Trade Center. The center’s developer, Sharif El-Gamal, told the Associated Press that the center is modeled after the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he lives. The center opened its doors last year.
But Nasrallah sees it differently because of his extreme prejudice against Islam. “They are using taqiya” (an Arabic term describing an Islamic concept of dissimulation or deception to avoid religious persecution). “They are using deceiving. They are lying against Pamela Geller, they are lying against Robert Spencer. They are lying lying lying!”
What all of these activists share is a belief that the Islamic faith and Western culture are irreconcilable, and that conflict between the two is inevitable. As in Manhattan; Temecula, California; and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, mosques are seen as beachheads for an invading army, and American Muslims are seen as potential sleeper agents, willing to use any deception to transform America into an Islamic state.
In addition to threatening to marginalize and alienate a growing sector of Americans, the vast majority of whom are deeply committed to American values and ideals, these false and offensive ideas communicate to the world’s Muslims that America is against them, and affirm the rhetoric of radical extremists who claim there can be no peace between Islam and the West.
Sadly, too many mainstream conservatives in our country cavort with members of the Islamophobia network in the United States such as Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Frank Gaffney, and others, lending credence to their paranoid rants and encouragement to the likes of Steve Klein and Nakoula Basseley Nakoula who produced and promoted a video designed to spark violent reaction. Such ugly propaganda and its creators should be strongly condemned alongside those who manipulated the situation for their own political ends in the Middle East. So, too, should the supporters of Islamophobia who create a breeding ground for hate by denigrating one of the world’s great religions and insult the sacrifice of our military and diplomatic corps by violating America’s core value of religious freedom.
Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst with the National Security team at the Center for American Progress and Director of Middle East Progress at the Center.