A movie cannot shoot in Los Angeles County without a permit, and a permit makes public the names of the film’s writer, director, and producer.
This means that answers to the question of who was behind “Innocence of Muslims,” the anti-Muslim project that sparked a wave of mob violence across the Middle East and may have created the cover for a deadly attack on US diplomats in Libya, now appear to be in the hands of Los Angeles County officials. And they are not talking.
A US law enforcement official told the Associated Press Thursday that authorities believe that a 55-year-old Coptic Christian, a US citizen named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, is behind the film. A convicted felon, Mr. Nakoula has changed his version of events numerous times in interviews with various news outlets.
On Thursday, after being contacted by both the FBI and the US State Department and on its legal counsel’s advice, the office of the CEO of L.A. County removed from public availability what has been confirmed as the permit issued to shoot at least part of the anti-Muslim film. Permits are normally available online and by request from the county.
“This was done to give us time to make sure that we are not putting anyone in danger,” says Ryan Alsop, assistant CEO of L.A. County, adding, “we have up to 10 days to respond to any request, and we are just making sure that we don’t endanger public safety.”
Paul Audley, president of FilmL.A., the nonprofit group charged with issuing film permits for L.A. County, confirms that a permit was issued to Media for Christ, a conservative nonprofit based in Duarte, Calif., east of Pasadena, to shoot what eventually became “Innocence for Muslims.”
The permit was pulled for a project titled “Desert Warriors,” he says, but is quick to add, “We do not get involved with the content of a movie because that would get into issues of free speech.”
It was a single day permit – for Aug. 18, 2011 – and is filed with Los Angeles County under permit number F00043012.
Calls to Media for Christ on Wednesday and Thursday received denials of any involvement. A woman who identified herself as Diana said Wednesday “we had nothing to do with the film.”
She acknowledged, however, that Steve Klein, an insurance agent and talk-show host who appears every Thursday for an hour on its broadcasting outlet, hosting “Wake Up, America,” was a “consultant on the project.”
Calls and e-mails to Mr. Klein have not been returned, but he has been widely quoted in media outlets as saying that he did consult on the film. He told The Atlantic on Wednesday that the people behind the project were “mostly evangelical” Christians.
The film is reportedly the source of the 14-minute YouTube video trailer that was dubbed in Arabic and played on Egyptian television, leading to the demonstrations at US diplomatic missions from Yemen to Cairo.
As to the making of the film, a number of the performers say they were hired through a Craig’s List casting call. CNN has posted what is billed as the original language of the casting call: “Historical desert drama set in Middle East.”
The performers also have said in their statements that their original lines have been dubbed over to include the inflammatory anti-Islamic rhetoric that was not present in the original script.
“It seems that the individuals behind this film, whatever their original faith backgrounds, now subscribe to a puritanical and exclusionary form of Evangelical Christianity,” says Hussein Rashid, Fordham University theology professor and associate editor of Religion Dispatches, via e-mail. Mr. Klein, he points out, claims to hunt out Muslim terror cells and has protested not only Muslims, but Mormons as well.
“What these individuals did was work with stereotypes of religious communities and hope to create conflict. Whether Jews and Muslims, or Christians and Muslims,” he says. After suggestions that a Coptic Christian is one of those behind the film, he says, “the Coptic Church has lambasted the film, and the strength of relations between Muslims and Jews is stronger than Islamophobes would ever understand.”
Professor Rashid says the moviemakers’ plan rested, in part, “on everyone being as full of hate as themselves. Fortunately, that's not the way the world actually is.”
This film is “clearly amateur hour,” he says. “The Islamophobia Industry” depends on “gradually pushing the line as to what is acceptable to say in polite company, and they will talk about how Muslims aren't American.”
But, he adds of Islamophobes, “even they have not gone the way of the direct racism and anti-Semitism of these filmmakers.”
L.A. County officials will not say when the permit will be available for public scrutiny. But, says Mr. Alsop, it reserves the right to release it with redacted sections, if deemed necessary, “for public safety.”
While this may trouble some who feel the public has a right to know who is behind a controversial film that may have had a role in at least four American deaths, L.A. officials are doing their due diligence, says Khalil Marrar, author of “the Arab Lobby in US foreign policy.”
“They do not want to have what happened to the Dutch filmmaker on their hands,” he says referring to Theo van Gogh, who was killed in 2004. “It is important to support freedom of speech, but the atmosphere is too inflamed to fully support that right now.”