The Muslim world’s response to the insulting anti-Islam film trailer posted on YouTube has played out predictably enough. Expressions of outrage, followed by protests and violence on American embassies abroad, came on the heels of the release in Arabic of the "Innocence of Mohammad" video, as the mobs turned their anger on the United States and its government for not taking action against those responsible for the film.
We have seen this story played out many times before, most memorably in response to the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist.
Less predictable was the conclusion that followed that the film was cooked up by Jews in an attempt to fuel anti-Muslim sentiment around the world.
This fantastical version of the people and intentions behind the film, unlike other big lie anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that have surfaced over the last decade -- from the false theory that the Jews and Israel were responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- to the myth that Israeli doctors were harvesting organs from earthquake victims in Haiti, can be clearly traced back to its source.
In this case it was the filmmaker himself, who claimed in interviews with American news outlets that he was a real-estate developer named Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American Jew who had produced the film at a cost of $5 million with money he collected from "more than 100 Jewish donors."
Suspicious, and unable to find any record of a Sam Bacile in Los Angeles, the news media dug deeper and came to the sobering conclusion that they had been duped. It turns out that Sam Bacile was a pseudonym and a mythical persona created out of whole cloth by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a 55-year-old Egyptian Coptic Christian living in California with a criminal record that allegedly included prior efforts to mask his identity and allegations of financial fraud.
Bacile was revealed as a fraud, but not before the conspiracy theory about a Jewish producer and his 100 Jewish backers spread like wildfire across the Middle East and around the Arab world. As the protests spread across the Muslim world to nearly two dozen countries from Morocco to Indonesia, so too grew the big lie that Jews were behind the film and, along with that fiction came the bizarre variations on the theme.
Perhaps Israel was also involved, some suggested. Others claimed Jews and the Israelis did it at the behest of the United States to sow violence around the world. Or the Jews did it to hurt the U.S. and its attempts to mend relations in the Muslim and Arab world.
The anti-Semitic conspiracy theory spread within days and became part of the rhetoric of the anti-American protesters around the world:
- Across the Arab and Muslim world, newspapers have printed hateful anti-Semitic cartoons and caricatures blaming Jews for the controversy.
- In Algeria, the Muslim Brotherhood officially blamed the "American Jewish lobby" for producing the film in a statement that read, "the movement strongly condemns this criminal act against the Master of Beings … and holds as accountable the U.S. authorities and the Jewish lobby which always tries to defame the peaceful message of Islam.
- In France, the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo ran a series of offensive cartoons that included a cover illustration playing on the French film "The Intouchables" with a stereotypical Orthodox Jew pushing the Prophet Mohammad in a wheelchair.
- In Lebanon, Israeli and American flags were burned during a demonstration against the anti-Muslim film.
- In Yemen, protestors outside the U.S. embassy joined together in anti-Jewish chants.
- In Gaza, Palestinian protestors chanted, "Death to America, Death to Israel" and one protestor held up a sign featuring a Star of David made to appear as if it had been stained with blood.
- In Egypt, a high-profile bishop in the Coptic Church blamed the "Zionists" for the decision by the American Copts to insult Islam through the film. He claimed, "They are trying to incite sectarian sedition in Egypt, to execute an evil Zionist plot."
Not unexpectedly, the Iranians pounced on the rumor as if it was a gift. For days the official Iranian television news repeated the myth as if it was a fact. Yet, Iran was not alone. Many media outlets across the Middle East, including the pan-Arab satellite network Al Jazeera, described the filmmaker as a Jew in the days following the protests.
We thought that once the story got out that the filmmaker was a Coptic Christian, and not Jewish, the conspiracy theory would die down, and the anti-Semitism with it. But instead it has gone viral at warp speed. Around the world the notion of a Jewish film has gained credibility, thanks to the speed of the Internet and the willingness of people to believe and accept that the Jews, once again, are the invisible force behind a news event that seems to have spread immediately and unpredictably from one Arab capital to the next.
There are myriad issues at stake in dealing with this reaction to the anti-Islam film.
First and most important is the culture of religious intolerance among extremist Muslims expressed through hate speech and violence. While the Egyptian and Libyan protests focused attention on the anger against the West, the vast majority of the violence on religious themes is directed at fellow Muslims, Sunnis vs. Shiites and vice-versa, with no regard for religious sensibilities: attacks against mosques and on religious holidays.
The focus, therefore, needs first to be on the violence resulting from this culture of religious intolerance, of which anti-Western rage is just one manifestation.
Second, there needs to be more emphasis in the U.S. on education, teaching respect for those whose religious beliefs are different. In particular, a distinction must be drawn between the bad actions of extremist Muslims and the values of the religion of Islam itself.
Third, freedom of expression is one of the central pillars of American democracy. Political and civic leaders must continue to denounce manifestations of anti-Muslim attitudes, as was done in the case of the recent outrageous film. But the right to express one’s mind, even when offensive, is not only constitutionally protected, but is at the heart of our democracy.
We must continue to defend that freedom while firmly rejecting extremist views.
Finally, we need good people around the world to stand up and loudly and clearly counter any efforts to portray these latest convulsions across the Middle East as the manifestation of a stereotypical, all-powerful Jewish plot. Unless good people speak out, unless Western leaders can make their voices heard, unless those voices are joined by leaders in the Muslim world, the anti-Semitic rumors most likely will continue to circulate unabated for many years to come.