Middle East protests: meet the hardline ‘tele-Islamist’ who brought anti-Islam film to Muslim world’s attention
The violent protests over a new film insulting Islam has highlighted two conflicting new visions emerging in the post-Arab Spring world
His inflammatory chat show on satellite television has long prided itself on baiting liberals, Christians and Jews, but last week saw Sheikh Khalid Abdullah stage the broadcasting controversy of a lifetime.
The rabble-rousing Egyptian tele-Islamist knew he had found a ratings-grabber when he found an obscure, badly-made film on the internet called the Innocence of Muslims.
It had actually been online since July, but nobody had paid attention to its crude libels against the Prophet Mohammed until Mr Abdullah’s show broadcast clips from it last weekend, calling for the film-makers to be executed.
Within hours the hardline Salafi Islamists who watch his programme, and who have been growing in strength since last year’s revolution, were demonstrating in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and outside the US embassy, which they stormed on Tuesday, burning the US flag.
Thus came the spark to a week of violent protests against the film, leading to the killing of the US ambassador to Libya on Tuesday evening and assaults on Western embassies across the Middle East, leaving at least nine dead and hundreds injured.
Also taking a battering are hopes that the democratic processes unleashed by the Arab Spring might mean that violent, anti-Western feeling was becoming a thing of the past.
“I don’t have a bad conscience about it, I did not call for violence,” Mr Abdullah told The Sunday Telegraph yesterday in an interview at his home in a middle-class Cairo suburb. “It’s not like I made this film. I only transmitted the news. It is funny that people in the West imagine that showing only two and a half minutes of the film on my channel was responsible for this whole crisis.”
Mr Abdullah, 47, whose “New Egypt” talk show started last year, exemplifies the way the Arab Spring movement of the past 18 months has unleashed two vocal and diametrically opposed forces within the Muslim world.
One is that of the “Facebook Generation” who initially led the protests in the likes of Tahrir Square, who are generally liberal, educated and secular.
The other is that of conservative, voraciously anti-Western Islamists who were likewise viciously suppressed by dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and who are also now exercising their freedom of speech.
Despite Salafis officially advocating an Amish-like disdain for the trappings of modern life, they are as well-versed in the power of digital media as any other Arab Spring protesters. And just like the Facebookers, they are adept at getting their supporters onto the streets – as the mayhem of the past week has shown.
Yesterday protests over the film continued, with clashes outside US diplomatic presences not just in the Middle East but right round the globe. In the Australian city of Sydney, police were pelted with rocks and bottles by several hundred protesters carrying placards saying: “Behead all those who insult the Prophet,”.
In Pakistan, crowds burned US flags in the street, and in some 50 countries worldwide, US embassies were on high alert.
In Cairo, police arrested some 220 people in an overnight crackdown on protesters outside the US embassy, many of whom had vowed to remain until President Mohamed Mursi, an Islamist and Egypt’s first freely elected leader, took a fimer line against the Americans.
“The clashes will continue until President Mursi takes a strong position,” said protester Ahmed Abdel Gawad, 31. “They aren’t for something specific, we are trying to be at the embassy to tell the whole world we are here.”
Yesterday Pope Benedict XVI, on a three-day visit to Lebanon, pleaded for Muslims and Christians to live in harmony. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama tried to soothe US anger at the killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens by saying that the Libyan mob who stormed the Benghazi consulate on Tuesday were not the same as the crowds who gratefully cheered the West for helping oust Colonel Gaddafi.
“I know the images on our televisions are disturbing,” Mr Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address. “But let us never forget that for every angry mob, there are millions who yearn for the freedom, and dignity, and hope that our flag represents.”
As President Obama broadcast his address, residents of Benghazi reported hearing US drones flying over the skies of the city, raising expectations that Washington may launch military strikes against camps run by Ansar al-Sharia, the Salafi militia widely blamed for the embassy attack.
The Libyan authorities arrested a further 12 suspects yesterday, on top of four taken into custody the day before, but the ability of its fledgling post-Gaddafi government to deal with such threats has already been cast into doubt by the incident itself.
Not only did Libyan security forces fail to protect the embassy staff during the assault on Tuesday, they are also under criticism for not disarming Ansar al-Sharia in the first place, despite it being suspected of other attacks on foreign embassy staff and the desecration of holy shrines and British war cemeteries.
Like many other Libyan militias that sprung up during last year’s anti-Gaddafi revolution, it still operates openly in Benghazi, driving around in convoys of trucks mounted with machine guns.
“The new Libyan govt has not tried to take their weapons off them because if you do that with one brigade, then all the other brigades fear they will do the same thing,” said Shamsiddin Ben Ali, a former member of Libya’s transitional national council who knew Mr Stevens personally.
“It is a shame because the Salafists have only minimal support here in Libya, and they could easily be disarmed by any well-trained brigade. They are completely misguided, with an ideology that is completely alien to Libyans – they want to stop women driving or wearing make up, and for men and women to be educated separately.
Benghazi has been improving greatly in the past year, with very little trouble other than from these kind of extremists. The sooner they are arrested the better.”
Mr Obama thinks likewise. In a Rose Garden statement the morning after the attack, he vowed that those responsible would be brought to justice, despite the difficulty of identifying specific perpetrators in what was a night-time mob assault.
No American president can allow a US ambassor to die in such circumstances without being seen to respond in tough fashion – especially just two months before an election.
But that also plays into the militants’ hands. The US warships now off Libya’s coast, the drones in the sky above, and the despatching of a team of 50 US marines on the ground can all be used to create the impression of US military interference in Muslim lands once more.
That is something the White House had hoped would soon be almost finished with the wind-down of troops from Afghanistan.
Last night, grim further details emerged of Mr Stevens final hours, during which he appears to have got separated from his bodyguards and taken refuge in a secure room in the diplomatic compound, protected by a locked iron gate and wooden door.
What should have been a protective citidel then became a death-trap, with Mr Stevens apparently unable to escape the smoke that then engulfed the room. He was found later, asphyxiated, by a group – possibly looters – who broke into the room through a window, the New York Times reported.
US officials are also said to be investigating reports that on the day of the embassy assault, militants from Ansar al-Sharia were in discussions with members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Saharan franchise of the global terror movement.
Until now, it has not really made its presence known in Libya. “The way AQIM has been discussing this strongly suggests they were involved in the plotting,” one former US official told the Wall Street Journal.
Mr Abdullah, the Egyptian broadcaster, lays the blame for the violence on Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the California-based Egyptian Coptic Christian who apparently made the film, and who is now under US police protection at his suburban home in Los Angeles for fear of reprisals.
A convicted bank fraudster, Mr Nakoula was driven to a nearby sheriff’s station yesterday on suspicion of violating the terms of his parole, wearing a scarf, hat and sunglasses to hide his identity.
Whether he will ever be able to show his face in public again is another matter, as is the question of whether further attacks may take place. Yesterday, the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Somali-based al-Shabaab movement both urged Muslims to carry out attacks on both foreign embassies and on targets in the West.
“The unprovoked attacks against Prophet Mohammed are not initiated by media houses and movie makers, but are clear instructions by Western governments,” said a Shabaab spokesman in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
Rather more conciliatory was Abdullahi Sheikh Osman, a respected spiritual leader in the city, who came to talk at a demonstration against the film. “”The man who made the nasty film is the al-Qaeda of Christians,” he said. “If Muslims make havoc, then they are rewarding the crazy man.”
Additional reporting by Richard Spencer in Cairo and Ruth Sherlock in Beirut