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Sep 14, 2012 | 15:34 GMT

3 mins read

In Egypt, an Anti-Islamic Film as a Political Tool


Protests at U.S. embassies are spreading rapidly throughout the Middle East as Muslims continue to show outrage over a film criticizing Islam. The protests began in Cairo on Sept. 11, leading many to speculate that the demonstrations were meant to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

However, the film was released June 1, more than three months before the protest in Cairo. In fact, Egyptians were unaware that the video even existed until a talk show host named Sheikh Khalid Abdullah devoted his two-hour program to the film Sept. 8. As a Muslim sheikh, Abdullah undoubtedly was offended by the video's contents. But as a Salafist, whose beliefs run counter to those of the ruling Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Abdullah may have screened the film to incite chaos and complicate Egypt's newly elected president's attempts to consolidate power. 

Abdullah's program, Masr al Jadida, was then quickly disseminated. A YouTube clip of the show was uploaded to a Salafist website Sept. 9, and in two days the clip had received more than 300,000 hits. (The original video maligning Islam received only 10,000 hits between June 1 and Sept. 12.) By Sept. 11, at least three Egyptian TV channels had run stories covering Abdullah's program. It is certainly possible that Egyptian protesters chose Sept. 11 for its symbolic value, but the proximate cause of the protests more likely was the emergence and widespread distribution of Abdullah's program.

091712 World Violence

Of course, Abdullah may have covered the film because he found its contents offensive. That he knew its controversy would raise his profile also probably factored into his decision to air the film. However, his ideology and political leanings, both of which clash with those of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, may have also influenced his decision.

Abdullah is no stranger to controversy. He has been the subject of several media reports alleging his lack of restraint and disregard for ethical boundaries. In early 2012, he was sued by an actress whom he heavily criticized during one of his segments. Abdullah has even publicly attacked Sheikh Hazem Abd Ismail, a fellow Salafist and 2012 presidential candidate. 

Abdullah also has been very critical of liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood, which sees him as seditious. Given this tenuous relationship, it is possible that Abdullah ran his segment to shore up sectarian strife in spite of the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, his program made sure to draw a connection between Egyptian Copts and the creation and distribution of the film.

Mainstream Islamists have supported the Muslim Brotherhood since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, but more radical Islamists — namely, Salafists — have yet to support it. Salafists' misgivings with the Muslim Brotherhood worsened when Mohammad Morsi was elected president. Since then, Salafists have tried to provoke controversy and complicate the Brotherhood's rule. Inciting chaos and compelling people to act out against their government helps the Salafists and other radical Islamists by putting more pressure on rival politicians, who are forced to side with a foreign partner (the United States) or segments of their constituencies.

Obviously, it is impossible to know Abdullah's true intentions. But running a video to create problems for the Muslim Brotherhood is in keeping with the Salafists' methodology for tampering with the Egyptian government. It also illustrates the threat that Salafists and radical Muslims can pose to the fledgling political body. As the Muslim Brotherhood continues to consolidate power, party officials may encounter more difficulty as they foster necessary relationships with the West and as they placate their support bases and stave off Salafist incitement.

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