Western media, instead of noticing how the pro-Mubarak media was fueling the frenzy, tended to single out the September 8 broadcast by Khaled Abdallah, a talk show host on Al-Nas, a conservative Islamist TV channel. In fact, Abdallah aired the least offensive scenes of the video—a sequence where the Muhammad character talks to a donkey to convert it to Islam and get the title of “the first animal in Islam.” Abdallah actually leads with a statement warning against religious tension between Muslims and Christians. He also did not draw any link with the US. In fact, he inaccurately said the film was Dutch, not American.

Yet the British Daily Telegraph described Abdallah as “a rabble-rousing tele-Islamist” while The Atlantic roundly accused him of stirring the fury—even though Abdallah’s show aired three days after Youm7’s original story. NPR’s Steve Inskeep, co-host of Morning Edition, also blamed Al-Nas, in a piece in The Atlantic. Bill Keller, the former editor of The New York Times, followed this line in his column:

It’s pretty clear that the protests against that inane video were not spontaneous. Antisecular and anti-American zealots, beginning with a Cairo TV personality whose station is financed by Saudi fundamentalists, seized on the video as a way to mobilize pressure on the start-up governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

Keller is certainly right that the protests were deliberately stirred up, but wrong about who first did the stirring.

A spokesman for the US embassy in Cairo confirmed that his post had been monitoring local media reaction to the controversial film. But he added that they were focused on the content of the movie and not on which Egyptian media outlets were reporting on it, or on their political bias. “Our response to the video was based on the content of the video itself, not on who was sharing it in Egypt,” wrote David Linfield, acting press attaché at the US Cairo embassy, in an email.

Linfield said the embassy did pick up the warning signals in the daily local press briefs that get sent to Washington, DC. “We did,” Linfield said, in a subsequent phone interview from Cairo. “That’s why we started preparing and so on.” He said the embassy prepared a statement condemning the attempts of some individuals in the US to “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”

But as the embassy worked to douse the flames, others were fanning them.

 

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Emad Mekay has written for The New York Times, Bloomberg, and the Inter Press Service in the Middle East. A 2012 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, he is an Investigative Journalism Fellow at the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.