Then an obscure Florida preacher threatened to, and then burned a copy of the Koran, touching off deadly riots on the other side of the globe.
And on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a mob angered over a short video posted on YouTube -- or perhaps goaded by militants using the mob as cover for a planned assault -- attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing four diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, who was instrumental in the rebel victory over strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
By week's end, the protests spread through the Muslim world.
The reactions to perceived slights to the Prophet Muhammad baffle those outside the Muslim world. There was no violent uprising when the Taliban blew up ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. Nor did Jews kill anyone when Iranian newspapers ran cartoons reminiscent of Nazi propaganda.
There were non-violent protests, however, when the movies "The Passion of Christ" (by Jews who objected to their portrayal in the Mel Gibson film), "The Life of Brian" (by Christians who objected to its crude nature) and "Witness" (by the Amish who said they weren't portrayed accurately).
Why can't Muslims just shrug off perceived insults?
"Islamic law calls for death for anyone who insults Muhammad. This is the underlying cause for these murderous rages," Islamic scholar Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch, said in an email exchange with UPI.
"Also there is a concerted effort to intimidate any and all who do so, in order to stifle analysis of -- and resistance to -- jihad terror."
In his latest book, "Did Muhammad Exist," Spencer posits Islam was developed as a political tool to unite disparate parts of the Arabian empire in the seventh and eighth centuries. Making it a religion was the easiest way to achieve that unity.
Perhaps with the Arab Spring still in the air and an Arab Winter of Discontent approaching, a similar effort is under way now.
"Precisely," Spencer said. "This whole thing was orchestrated. The movie did not just come out and was very obscure. The Muslim Brotherhood went looking for a provocation."
The movie in question is a poorly done less-than-14-minute trailer for the "Innocence of Muslims" posted on YouTube July 2 and produced by a person using the pseudonym Sam Bacile. (Time magazine reported federal law enforcement officials identified the filmmaker as Nakoula Nakoula, a Coptic Christian who has been convicted of fraud.)
The clip portrays Muhammad as a power- and sex-crazed bisexual pedophile of indeterminate patrimony whose supporters cynically admit taking verses from the Jewish Torah and Christian New Testament and perverting them. At the end, drenched in blood, the actor portraying Muhammad declares: "Every non-Muslim is an infidel. Their lands, their women, their children are our spoils." The picture then turns to flames. The entire movie is said to be 2 hours long.
The Daily Beast reported the film was screened in June at a mostly empty theater on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles and Nakoula sat across the street in a restaurant during the screening.
The film's cast issued a statement saying they'd been duped. The cast said members were told they were making a war movie and most of the dialogue was dubbed after the actors had left. Actress Cindy Lee Garcia told Gawker the script from which she worked was titled "Desert Warriors." She also said Nakoula told the cast he was Egyptian and spoke Arabic. Tim Dax, another of the actors, told the blog Joe My God he never saw a whole script and was given his lines one day at a time.
Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American–Islamic Relations office in Chicago, said most Muslims, although deeply offended by the movie, reject the violence as well and attribute the violent demonstrations that swept from Afghanistan to Tunisia to "a few" members of the radical right.
"This Muslim is deeply offended by the attacks on my embassies," Rehab said in a telephone interview, blaming a cultural gap for the reaction.
"There is a cultural gap -- I wouldn't say a clash of civilizations. In the United States we hold sacred freedom of expression; in the Muslim world, we hold religion sacred -- Judaism and Christianity as well.
"When they perceive the West of not having the same reverence for religion, they're shocked and surprised. When we perceive the Muslim world not having the same freedom of speech, we're shocked and surprised.
"A cultural gap is at the root. We need cultural dialogue" between mainstream elements, Rehab said, adding he doesn't expect the "radical right" on either side to come together but "we must stop them from leading the conversation."
Rehab said Arab television has been filed with discussions of both the movie and the reaction to it.
"They're horrified," he said.
Mohammed Shafiq, head of the Ramadhan Foundation in Britain, called the clip "vile and disgusting" and called Bacile "evil."
"As Muslims we believe derogatory comments or depictions of any faith or its symbols is unacceptable and in particular in Islam it is totally forbidden to depict our Holy Prophet Muhammad in this way," Shafiq said in a statement, adding, "We urge the United States government to consider banning this film as it is promoting incitement to religious hatred. Sam Bacile has said Islam is a cancer. That to me is not an intellectual response to Islam but one of a man full of hatred."
Shafiq also condemned the violence that shook Benghazi and Cairo, where protesters tore down a U.S. flag on the embassy and replaced it with a banner representing militant Islam.
But Spencer said violence is at the very core of Islam
"Everything can be and is interpreted. But the Koran's calls to kill infidels [2:191, 4:89, 9:5] are enshrined by all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence as a general imperative to wage war against and subjugate unbelievers," Spencer said. "And the death penalty for blasphemy is also taught by all mainstream sects and schools."
Rehab disagreed, saying most Muslims don't interpret the verses the same way radicals do.
"There are tons of verses that insist on justice and compassion," Rehab said. "The majority way is the civilized way. The radicals on both sides insist on the violent interpretations. Am I surprised? No."
U.S. President Barack Obama twice demanded justice in remarks at the White House and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney warned: "America will not tolerate attacks against our citizens and against our embassies. We'll defend also our constitutional rights of speech and assembly and religion."
"There is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None," Obama said, dispatching warships and Marines to the region. "The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts. ...
"We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton eulogized Stevens.
"Chris Stevens fell in love with the Middle East as a young Peace Corps volunteer, teaching English in Morocco. He joined the Foreign Service, learned languages, won friends for America in distant places, and made other people's hopes his own," Clinton said.
"In the early days of the Libyan revolution I asked Chris to be our envoy to the rebel opposition. He arrived on a cargo ship in the Port of Benghazi and began building our relationships with Libya's revolutionaries. He risked his life to stop a tyrant, then gave his life trying to help build a better Libya.
"The world needs more Chris Stevenses. I spoke with his sister ... this morning and told her that he will be remembered as a hero by many nations."
Clinton emphasized the attack was carried out by a "small and savage group" but vowed the United States "will not rest until those responsible for these attacks are found and brought to justice."
"Violence like this is no way to honor religion or faith. And as long as there are those who would take innocent life in the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace," Clinton said.
Clinton Thursday addressed the film itself, calling it disgusting and reprehensible.
"It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose, to denigrate religion and provoke rage," she said.
Another complicating factor is a lack of understanding in the Muslim world of the concept of free speech and the U.S. government's lack of control over the film's production and distribution.
"It is hard for some people around the world to understand why the United States does not prevent movies like this from seeing the light of day," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
"For one, that is impossible in today's world, as you know. But, furthermore, and more importantly, our country has a long tradition of free expression, which is protected by law. Our government does not and cannot stop individual citizens from expressing their views.
"Those of us who care about religious tolerance and who respect religious beliefs must not allow a tiny minority of people to provoke conflict between different religions, cultures, and countries. All leaders must draw a stark line against violence."
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