'Innocence of Muslims' film: A tangled web of interpretation and religion

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As violence across the Middle East increases in reaction to the poorly-acted, low-budget, English language, Muhammad-mocking film Innocence of Muslims, so too does murky, confusing controversy over the identity of the director and the involvement of Southern California-based members of the Egypt-based Coptic Church.

The release of an Arabic translation of the film, which was originally posted in English to YouTube in July, was coincidentally timed to the anniversary of Sept. 11. The Associated Press first reported Tuesday that the the film’s director was a Jewish California-based real estate developer named Sam Bacile, and then the AP tracked down a man in Cerritos, Calif. named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian who said he helped the company that produced the film, but didn’t direct it. Federal authorities have since confirmed Nakoula, who has a rap sheet that includes financial fraud and multiple aliases, including names similar to “Sam Bacile,” wrote and directed the movie.

About 25 miles north of Cerritos, in Duarte, a Coptic Christian company called Media for Christ has been identified as the producers behind Innocence of Muslims. On Wednesday night and Thursday, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials were called to both Nakoula’s residence, and the Media for Christ offices. When EW on Thursday called Media for Christ, a woman answered in Arabic, then hung up.

“There’s been no threats against either of them,” sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore told EW on Thursday about claims Nakoula and Media for Christ faced retaliation. “We were contacted Wednesday night, we responded, and there were no problems, and we left. Then we came back to monitor, and the press started to come. Media for Christ was given a film permit to shoot this movie, but the film was filmed elsewhere.” The Los Angeles Times reported that Media for Christ’s permit was for one day of filming in August 2011 in Los Angeles County, including Santa Clarita’s Blue Cloud Movie Ranch, which specializes in Middle East and military settings.

So how did a low-budget (even the sand looks fake) film, which portrays the Muslim prophet Muhammad as hypersexual and a child molester, set off such a tumult, even perhaps playing role in the U.S. Embassy killings in Libya and violent protests in Cairo and Yemen?

It’s a matter of perception.

In the United States, religious, divine figures such as Jesus are both honored and satirized (see: 2007 horror flick Zombie Jesus!, 2003’s cape-wearing Ultrachrist!, and Mel Gibson’s infamous 2004 The Passion of the Christ). But First Amendment rights to free speech sometimes blur the line between art and hate.  In the Middle East, explained Islam expert Berj Boyajian, an adjuct professor of comparative Islamic law at the USC Gould School of Law, Muhammad isn’t considered divine, but as a human being who receives revelation.

“[In Islamic countries], they’re much more protective of the prophet Mohammad than Christians and Jews combined,” said Boyajian. “No Christian would burn an embassy. They would say, ‘That is his or her opinion.’ For Muslims, although they say Muhammad is not divine, they are more protective of him.

In Innocence of Muslims, a bearded, fake-accented actor playing Muhammad cavorts with women, asks a donkey if he likes girls and is portrayed as a pedophile. Even if the movie is actually loosely based on parts of Islamic religious text in the Quran, from having multiple wives to marrying young, this Western, heavily bigoted interpretation would be found offensive in the Muslim world and elswhere, Boyajian said.

“Again, Muslims take pride in the purity of Muhammad,” said Boyajian. “Muslims believe that Muhammad had between 11 and 13 wives, as a fact. In Muslim literature, the Quran allows Muslims to marry four wives. There’s a verse, in the Quran, that says that what’s allowed for the prophet to do is not allowed for others.”

Boyajian also brought up the issue of pedophilia. What was actually accepted at the time of the Quran, hundreds of years ago, to marry girls very, very young, obviously doesn’t gel with present-day culture.

“It’s a fact that Muhammad married a girl when she was 7, and consummated the marriage at 9. At that time, that was allowed,” said Boyajian. “With our Western concepts, if you have anything to do with a 9-year-old girl, you’re a pedophile. There are things [in this film] which are factually correct.”

The largest Christian church in Egypt, the Coptic Church, traditionally devout, is well aware of the outrage this type of film can cause and was quick to separate itself from the California-based Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandra and the film it seems to have helped produce. “The producers of this movie should be responsible for their actions. The name of our blessed parishioners should not be associated with the efforts of individuals who have ulterior motives,” His Grace Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii said in a statement obtained by the AP. Started by Saint Mark, in Egypt, Coptic Christianity includes affiliations with the Anglican and Catholic Church.

In 2009, One-Zero, an Egyptian film by screenwriter Mariam Naoum, directed by Kamla Abou Zekry, ignited controversy for its portrayal of the difficulties of gaining a divorce and remarrying within the strict Coptic Christian community. A lawsuit was filed, and those involved were attacked on the Internet.

“When Coptic Christians this week demonstrated against the film in Egypt, they did not want to open the door to the Muslims to attack Jesus,” said Boyajian. “When they are in Egypt, in Syria, in Lebanon, they are very careful not to offend Muslims.”

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‘Innocence of Muslims’ mystery: Who is Sam Bacile?

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