CAIRO — A crude video about the Prophet Muhammad that triggered an unprecedented outbreak of anti-American protests last week moved from being a YouTube obscurity in the U.S. 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 whose anti-Islam campaigning led to the revocation of his Egyptian citizenship this year — had an exclusive story for Gamel Girgis, who covers Christian emigrants for al Youm al Sabaa, the Seventh Day, a daily newspaper in Cairo. Sadek had a movie clip he wanted Girgis to see and emailed him a link.
“He told me he produced a movie last year and wanted to screen it on Sept. 11 to reveal what was behind the terrorists’ actions that day, Islam,” Girgis said, recalling the first call, which came Sept. 4.
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 the movie exists.
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, but the trauma of those deaths will likely scar U.S. perceptions for years, and while Saturday seemed calm, the U.S. State Department made clear it fears the violence has not ended.
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 ultraconservative 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.
“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 Sept. 9, 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 the Coptic Christian church had condemned the movie, Sadek and Florida pastor Terry Jones, who Girgis wrote backed the movie. 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.
Afterward, Abdullah asked if anyone had apologized for creating such a film. His co-host said: “An apology is not enough. I want them convicted.”
That 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 9/11.
“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 recognized the potential problem. They called leaders of the groups calling for the protest and apologized for the film. They told them the film does not represent how Americans see Islam. In a statement posted on the embassy’s webpage, they condemned the video. But it was too late.