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Blasphemy riots: less about theology, more about power plays

Although riots in Egypt and Libya were said to be provoked by a blasphemous portrayal of the prophet Muhammad, Islam scholars say the teachings are ambiguous and co-opted for political ends. 

By Staff writer / September 12, 2012

A man looks at documents at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sept. 12. The graffiti reads, 'no God but God,' 'God is great,' and 'Muhammad is the Prophet.'

Ibrahim Alaguri/AP

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Jerusalem

The mobs that killed the US ambassador to Libya and assaulted the US Embassy in Egypt may have been provoked by a blasphemous portrayal of the prophet Muhammad, but Muslim scholars and analysts alike say the attacks have little justification in Islamic theology. Instead, they reflect societies roiled by power struggles and competing ideologies – in which Muslims are used as pawns for political gain.

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“The punishment for blasphemy and even the definition for blasphemy is not in the Quran. There are some hadiths that address it, but it’s ambiguous,” says Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington. “So it’s very vague and … it’s manipulated by those who want to raise a mob and wield power within a society.” 

She cites other recent examples of blasphemous incidents being exploited for political purposes, including the protests in Afghanistan and Pakistan over Florida pastor Terry Jones burning the Quran, fanned by the Taliban, and a Danish newspaper’s denigrating cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, exploited by Arab governments upset with the Bush administration’s push for democracy in the Middle East.

In this instance, the offending material appears to be an amateurish 14-minute YouTube clip that portrays Muhammad as a bumbling philanderer and child molester who makes up his religion on the fly to suit his own whims and incites his followers to unrestrained violence. The clip is purportedly taken from a full-length film that the filmmaker, a man claiming to be an Israeli Jew by the name of Sam Bacile, said cost $5 million and was funded by some 100 Jewish donors. 

But there is mysteriously little proof that Mr. Bacile, who told the Associated Press he was a California-based property developer, is who he says he is. The Israeli government has said it knows of no citizen by that name, and there is no trace of a Sam Bacile in US White Pages or the movie database IMDb.com. A colleague of his interviewed by The Atlantic said Bacile was not Israeli, “most likely” not Jewish, and was using a pseudonym.

But whoever was behind it, the film – whose quality suggests a far lower budget, it should be noted – was clearly meant to incite a response, just as the Danish cartoons did. 

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