A crude video about the Prophet Muhammad that triggered an unprecedented outbreak of anti-American protest last week moved from being a YouTube obscurity in the United States to a touchstone for anger across the world through a phone call less than two weeks ago from a controversial U.S.-based anti-Islam activist to a reporter for an Egyptian newspaper.
Morris Sadek, a Coptic Christian who lives in suburban Washington, D.C., whose anti-Islam campaigning led to the revocation of his Egyptian citizenship earlier this year, had an exclusive story for Gamel Girgis, who covers Christian emigrants for al Youm al Sabaa, the Seventh Day, a daily newspaper here. Sadek had a movie clip he wanted Girgis to see; he e-mailed him a link.
“He told me he produced a movie last year and wanted to screen it on Sept. 11th to reveal what was behind the terrorists’ actions that day, Islam,” Girgis said, recalling the first call, which came on Sept. 4. Sadek, a longtime source, “considers me the boldest journalist, the only one that would publish such stories.”
Girgis said he watched the movie and found it insulting. He didn’t want to write about it. But Sadek called Girgis back and urged him to, telling him he could not deny that the movie existed.
Two days later, Sept. 6, Girgis published a three-paragraph article, calling the movie “shocking” and warning it could fuel sectarian tensions between Egyptian Christians and Muslims. Girgis concluded that the video “is just a passing crisis that doesn’t affect the bond between Muslims and Copts.”
In hindsight, that sentiment seems wildly optimistic. Five days later, thousands of Egyptians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and burned the American flag while as many as 125 armed men overwhelmed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Three days after that, protests in 23 countries included the sacking of the German embassy in Sudan and the burning of the American School in Tunisia.
Whether the Benghazi attack was linked to anger over the video remains uncertain – witnesses have said there was no protest preceding the attack – but the trauma of those deaths will likely scar U.S. perceptions for years, and while Saturday seemed calm across the region, the U.S. State Department made clear it fears the violence has not ended. In a statement, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Obama administration remained concerned about developments in Sudan.
“We have requested additional security precautions as a result of yesterday’s damage to our embassy.,” she said. “We are continuing to monitor the situation closely to ensure we have what we need to protect our people and facility.”
Sadek did not respond Saturday to requests for comment.
How Grigis’ short item spread is a reminder of how interconnected the world has become. An Islamic web forum picked up Girgis’ story the day after it was published. Girgis’ newspaper also ran an interview that day with Wisam Abdel Warith, the head of a television station, the Wisdom, that’s affiliated with the ultra conservative Salafist strain of Islam.
When asked about the movie, Warith urged the leaders of Egypt’s Coptic community to condemn the movie, though he gave no indication he had seen it.
“The Church has to reveal its position clearly,” Warith said. “Either it disclaims itself from those who produced the movie or it remains silent and that means they condone it.”
By Sept. 8, other newspapers started picking up the story. Al Youm al Sabaa ran another story, this time noting that Egyptian politicians criticized the movie.
But the story remained off the front pages, still considered a local piece about an Egyptian in America fueling a sectarian crisis here, not about how the West treats Islam. That was the case until last Sunday, when Khalid Abdullah, the premier commentator for al Nas, a popular Salafist television station, aired the clip on his show.
Abdullah’s co-host, Mohammed Hamdy, introduced the topic by apologizing for what he was about to share with his audience. He noted that the Coptic Christian church had condemned the movie, Sadek and Florida pastor Terry Jones, who Girgis wrote backed the movie as well. Jones’ threats to burn Qurans inflamed Muslims in 2010 and 2011.
The Coptic condemnation was important to note, Abdullah said, because “some will say we are inciting violence against Copts to create sectarianism” by airing the clip.
The scene aired on al Nas blurred the face of the woman, in accord with Salafist beliefs that a man should not engage with an uncovered woman who is not his wife. But it left the man’s image clear, even though Muslims are forbidden to make any attempt to recreate Muhammad.
“What is this stupidity?” Abdullah asked, after the station aired the clip, concluding later that the creators of the film “want to inflame Egypt.”
Abdullah asked if anyone had apologized for creating such a film. His co-host responded, “An apology is not enough. I want them convicted.”
That same day, the Mufti of Al Azhar University, the chief source of Sunni Islamic thought in the Arab world, condemned the clip for “insulting the prophet” and noting it was produced by “Copts living abroad.”
Facebook pages started appearing, urging Islamists and youth to protest Tuesday, the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Jones had called for putting Muhammad on trial that day in a web message, which is why, protest organizers said, they scheduled it for that day. Calls started coming into the U.S. embassy as well, catching everyone there by surprise.
“People were writing to us asking what the role of the U.S. government has in this video. What are you going to do? Who produced this?” said one U.S. official at the embassy who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “Our initial response was: What video?”
But as the embassy learned about the planned protests and the video’s content, officials there said, they immediately recognized the potential problem. They called leaders of the groups calling for the protest and apologized for the film, according to recipients of the call. They told them the film does not represent how Americans see Islam. In a statement posted on the embassy’s web page, they condemned the video.
But it was too late. Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for the conservative Islamist Nour Party and one of those who received a phone call from the embassy in the hours before the scheduled protest, said there was no going back. It was now a religious duty to defend the prophet, he said.
On Monday, a day before the scheduled protest, newspapers reported on the upcoming protest, saying it was called because Americans must pay for allowing such a movie to be produced. Major newspapers wrote about the Coptic church disavowing the movie. Islamic groups called for those who produced the movie to be punished. Bakker told another the newspaper, al Masry al Youm, there should be a law that forbids insulting the prophet. “This is the least” that needs to happen, he said.
By mid afternoon Tuesday, protesters started gathering in front of the embassy, chanting against the United States. By 5 p.m. some scaled the 12-foot wall protecting the compound, set a ladder against the flagpole and brought down the American flag. They replaced it with an Islamic one. A protester handed the American flag to those sitting on top of the wall, and they began tearing at it. Whatever remained of the flag was eventually burned.
Five hours later, in neighboring Libya, attackers launched an assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens, tech officer Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
The violence made the movie an international story, and Muslims across the world planned to gather Friday, after prayer, in response to a film most had never seen. At least seven people were killed and thousands of police officers were deployed around the world to protect U.S. sites.
Zaid Akl, a political analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the protests were about far more than the United States and its views on Islam. It was a means for frustrated Egyptians to rehash longstanding problems here – police abuse, unemployment, as well as defending the faith.
“These are same issues people protested in 2005 and 2010 and last year. Nothing has changed,” Akl said. “What is happening now is not conducive to any society-based dialogue.”
Girgis, for his part, never thought the story would go beyond Egypt.
“I regret publishing the story because of the events that took place in the Islamic world but I am a journalist, and it is news,” Girgis said. “If it wasn’t me publishing it, it would have been someone else.”