Kindred Hatemongers: Why American Islamophobes and Muslim Protesters Need Each Other

The US-based Islamophobes behind the insulting and amateurish video “The Innocence of Muslims,” and those behind the violent protests it allegedly caused around the Muslim world, are kindred hatemongers. Both are extremists with a political agenda, and both want to use this incident to discredit the legitimacy of the moderate governments in power in their respective countries. There is a symbiotic relationship between the strident protesters and the bigoted filmmakers; each needs the other.

The crudely-made YouTube video was designed to be offensive. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, thought to be the film’s writer/producer, was hoping that his target audience would be outraged. A Coptic Christian from Egypt with a lengthy criminal history (including fraud and methamphetamine convictions), Nakoula was originally identified by one of his pseudonyms, “Sam Bacile.” Steve Klein, a right-wing Christian activist from Hemet, California whose Courageous Christians United has organized protests outside mosques and abortion clinics served as consultant. 

Both despised President Obama, and hoped that their video would anger Muslims in the U.S. and discredit the administration that protected them. The film was produced in 2011 and originally screened in Hollywood, but only about a dozen people appeared at its premiere. Even more disappointing to the filmmakers was the absence of any negative outcry. 

In Egypt they were more successful. Morris Sadek, another US-based Coptic Christian, helped promote the film on his website, and may have been the one who arranged for a translation into Arabic and the promotion of the video in Cairo.

In Egypt and throughout the Muslim world, the filmmakers finally received the negative publicity and public protests that they’d sought all along. But although many Muslims were offended by the tawdry mocking of their Prophet in the film, the violent responses came from those very specific groups which had a more targeted political agenda and had been longing for a pretext to attack symbols of American influence in their countries.

In Libya, the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi that killed four American staff members, including the remarkable ambassador Chris Stevens, was not a random mob. Truckloads of militia attacked the Consulate and it was a mortar attack that eventually demolished the building and killed the Ambassador, who had returned to the offices to make certain that his staff were all safe. 

No angry mobs assaulted the Consulate, only a highly organized militia attack. The militants were likely jihadis, either al Qaeda-related or Saudi-funded, from a neighboring town that had been a center of anti-American activism in the early years of the Iraq war. In attacking the US Consulate, they were also trying to delegitimize the moderate Libyan government that had rejected the extremists even as it was accepting US government support.

The assault on the US Embassy in Cairo was also largely supported by right-wing Muslim political groups. These were associated with the extremist Salafi party that had received almost 20% of the vote in Egypt’s recent elections, but kept out of power by the more moderate Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) founded by the Muslim Brotherhood. 

These right-wing Egyptian Muslims were looking for an excuse to attack America’s continuing presence in Egypt as a way of discrediting the FJP-led government of President Mohamed Morsi. The video was a problem for Morsi since he wanted not only to support the protesters who railed against it, but also to protect American diplomatic offices in Cairo. To make matters even more complicated he was also involved in delicate negotiations for continued US aid. 

So the video came at an opportune time for Morsi’s right-wing political foes who were able to turn hatred for the film into hatred of America, and finally to a hatred of America’s ally, the moderate Morsi. Tellingly, in the midst of the crisis, President Barack Obama declined to label Egypt as an ally of the U.S., which may have been an effort to protect Morsi as well as an indication that he expected the Egyptian president to more firmly reject the protestors.

In the meantime, while the Muslim world burned over a hateful video, its producer, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, was safely in hiding somewhere in Southern California. While many leaders on the political right were quick to blame Libya and Egypt for not protecting American interests, few bothered to criticize the hatemonger, Nakoula, who had created the mess in the first place.

But without him the anti-American and anti-moderate government hatred in the Middle East would not have been as stridently provoked. Just as hate responds to hate, those whose political fortunes depend on the manufacture of hatred seem to need each other.

juergensmeyer@gmail.com'

Mark Juergensmeyer is Professor of Sociology and Director of Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the winner of the Grawemeyer Award for his book Terror in the Mind of God (UC Press). He is the editor of Global Religions: An Introduction and is also the author of The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State and Gandhi's Way: A Handbook of Conflict Resolution, both from UC Press.