In my opinion

By seasoned Middle East commentator , author and journalist, Adel Darwish…

The timing was more than just coincidence,” said a western diplomat in Tripoli last month following the attack by enraged Muslims on the American consulate, which claimed three lives including that of US ambassador Christopher Stevens. American and other western embassies and businesses across the region came under attack by mobs angered by a low-budget, badly made film they claim mocks Islam.

As with previous, similar protests, including Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel; the Danish cartoons of 2005; the British primary teacher’s arrest over the naming of a Teddy bear in a school in Sudan in 2007, not one in 250,000 Muslims would ever have seen the film, were it not for the publicity and hype purposefully stirred up around it.

Innocence of Muslims cost only $5m to make and it shows. It is an amateurish, badly acted, disconnected series of sketches crudely attempting to emulate Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’.

The film was financed five years ago by a group of businessmen in North America’s Middle Eastern diaspora. It still not absolutely clear who these backers were, although they are strongly rumoured to be self-exiled Arab Christians and Jews with at least one Israeli property developer among them.

When the film was shown in San Francisco only 19 tickets were sold resulting in the cancelation of subsequent screenings.

Some of its infantile sketches have appeared in You- Tube since June without the Arab media or any Muslim country taking particular notice.

However, as the US prepared to commemorate 9/11, 47 year old Egyptian hardline salafi fundamentalist sheikh, Khalid Abdullah, took the opportunity for some self publicity and mischief making. Irresponsibly, he urged Muslims to protest after showing selected offensive clips of the video on his talk show on channel New Egypt, which specialises in attacking liberal Muslims, homosexuals, Christians and Jews.

The US embassy in Cairo was subsequently besieged by an angry mob who pulled down the Stars and Stripes and allegedly, raised the black flag of Al-Qaeda. Egyptian security force’s were slow and meek in their response, leading to a barrage of criticism in Washington and throughout the American media.

Within 48 hours Islamist groups led angry mobs to attack US and other western missions. Newly ‘democratically’ elected Islamist leaders, especially in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia were encouraged to join the fray. Mercifully such pleas were firmly rejected but, even so, the protests spread across the Middle East to Pakistan and points east.

Liberal activists in Cairo and Tunis accuse the new (post 2011 revolutions) regimes and their Islamist allies of orchestrating the crisis.

In Benghazi it was not angry protesters who killed the diplomats but the Islamist armed group Ansar al- Shariaa (partisans of Islamic law), who came in Toyota pickup trucks with mounted 35mm anti-aircraft guns and rocket propelled grenades from their mountain strong- hold near Benghazi.

The crisis was a gift to Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brothers. It deflects wide criticism in the Egyptian media of Morsi’s failure to come up with proposals for coherent policy or plan to address economic problems and lack of social justice that were the main triggers for revolution. It also helps move the focus away from the erosion of human rights and increased censorship that has taken place over recent weeks, with newspapers closed and journalists arrested and charged with ‘ insulting the president’. Such moves are being interpreted as being a curtain raiser for future attacks on cultural centres, arts facilities and theatres that do not conform to MB ideology.

Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brothers (MB) called for a million-strong march, entitled “Championing the Prophet”, designed to consolidate their grip on the streets and counteract the effects of recent previous marches against Morsi. However, in the event, only a few hundred supporters turned up in Tahrir Square, prompting the MB leadership to quickly issue a statement calling for a symbolic vigil to avoid inflaming situation.

Liberal observers accused Morsi of deliberate ambiguity on the issue intended to send a subtle message to Washington that he can turn the volume up, or down, on anti-American feelings and protests at will.

In countries like Lebanon and Iran, where President Assad of Syria still enjoys some support, protests sent a clear warning of the threat posed to western interests by radical Islam should Assad fall.

In Iran it was an opportunity to rekindle the Great Satan enemy theory, which helps shift the focus from the regime’s failure in the economy, human rights and foreign policy. In addition it is important for the Iranians not to be seen to allow Sunni organisations like the Muslim Brothers to monopolise anti-American protests and the facade of protecting Islam; the Shia must also do their bit.

In Sudan, where several European diplomatic missions were targeted, the military Islamist regime of General Omar Bashir, who is wanted by the international criminal court for genocide and war crimes, encouraged protests, once again to shift focus from his appalling policies onto an outside enemy.

In the old days Arab dictators, such as Colonel Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Hafez Assad and Muammar Gaddafi, kept the flame of anti-Israeli, anti-US feeling burning only dimly, as a reserve. The flame was fanned to ignite protests which would distract attention from their own failings or misdeeds.. Why should we expect the new Islamist autocrats to behave differently?