TV in the dock over anti-Islam film

How could an obscure movie trailer seen initially by few people ignite an international conflaguration? Questions must be asked of television broadcasters with dubious agendas. Bradley Hope reports from Cairo

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CAIRO // It was deliberately intended to cause offence, and it did. It was deliberately intended to provoke anger across the Muslim world, and it did.

What should have been an obscure YouTube clip that had a few dozen views by anti-Islamic zealots and was then universally ignored has now been watched more than seven million times. The death toll from protests, attacks on embassies and retaliatory bombings rose to 28 yesterday after a bus carrying foreigners and Afghans in Kabul was blown up by a group claiming they were responding to the Innocence of Muslims video.

The question is, how? How could a tawdry, low-budget, sloppily made film trailer by a nobody in Calfornia ignite an international crisis drawing in political and religious leaders the world over?

The answer to that question, according to media analysts, lies in biased, irresponsible and out-of-context broadcasting by TV channels, both in the United States and in the Middle East.

They perpetuated stereotypes, reinforced prejudices and compounded misunderstanding - fanning flames that became a conflagration, says Adel Iskandar, a media analyst and lecturer at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

During the first few days of the protests in Egypt, the impression was given on religious talk shows such as those on Al Nas, the Islamist TV station, that the movie was being widely watched by Americans. In fact, few had even heard of it before the protests.

Meanwhile some US broadcasters, including several on talk shows on Fox News and on conservative websites, quickly seized on the September 11 anniversary connection and the presence of Muslims with extreme views at some of the protests as a sign that Al Qaeda was in resurgence after the Arab Spring.

"Identifying and spotlighting the film by the Arab media kick-started the breaking news that self-perpetuated further coverage," said Mr Iskandar. "Al Nas broadcast part of the YouTube video to further infuriate audiences and ensure larger turnouts at the demonstrations."

It was the Egyptian presenter Sheikh Khalid Abdullah's decision to air two and half minutes from Innocence of Muslims on his talk show on Al Nas that brought the true extent of the blasphemy home to many Egyptians, and later to Muslims across the region.

US broadcasters immediately zoomed in on the burning of an American flag in front of the US embassy in Cairo, said Mr Iskandar, beginning a reinforcement of stereotypes of emotional and violent Muslims. Few mentioned that in Islam it is forbidden to portray the Prophet Mohammed at all, much less denigrate him.

"US media seemed to equate the reaction solely to the film, rather than a cumulative disgruntlement with the United States, especially on foreign policy," Mr Iskandar said. "In the absence of context, a gaping rift between public opinion in the West and in the Arab world has only grown wider because of the failure of both media systems to explain the perspective of the other."

It is the predisposition of all media - especially popular, partisan talk shows in the Middle East and in the US - to play to their audiences. But with complex, cross-cultural situations such as the video clip and the protests, this approach shows its greatest weakness, said Mohammed El Nawawy, an associate professor at Queens University in the US state of North Carolina.

The entire series of events became "convoluted and intertwined", he said.

Responses to the video across the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia were conflated into one, rather than analysing what happened in each country apart from the others.

The attack on the Libyan consulate in Benghazi that killed the US ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three of his staff was seen as part of the protests rather than partly caused by a security problem in a country that is still struggling to convince militias to put down their weapons.

"The American media focused much more on the possible role of Al Qaeda, that it was a planned attack," Mr El Nawawy said. "There weren't many attempts to speak to mainstream Muslims in these countries and find out why this movie was offensive in the first place."

On screen, it appeared that millions of people in the Arab world were involved in the protests when, in reality, the number of protesters worldwide was probably much lower.

In the aftermath of these events, questions have been raised about relations between Muslims and Christians, whether the US approach to the Arab Spring - especially in Libya - was wise, and how to deal with people who push freedom of expression to the extreme. These are all valid inquiries.

However, one pressing question has not been widely asked: who really fanned the flames? Was it a few fringe Egyptian-Americans, part of the Coptic diaspora? Was it extremist imams looking for a controversy to convince their countrymen to rid the region of American influence?

If this were a forensic investigation into a fire, it might be revealed that there were many trails of "accelerants" leading to the centre of the flames. There may be no way of preventing similar events, but it will be useful to consider how framing events in the media plays a role in such crises.

"We really need to learn from this," said Mr El Nawawy. "What happened is a symbol of all that's wrong in the search for mutual understanding."


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