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Why films and cartoons of Muhammad spark violence

Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA

Iranian women shout anti-U.S. slogans in front of the Swiss embassy, which houses the U.S. interest section, in Tehran on Thursday. Reports from the Iranian capital said about 500 joined the protest of the Internet-circulated movie "Innocence of Muslims."

While the motivation behind the low-budget video "Innocence of Muslims" remains unclear, the reasons it has helped fuel attacks and protests at U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East and Africa are both emotional and political, experts say.

While it is true that images of Muhammad are not allowed in Islamic tradition, that doesn't explain the violent reaction, said Hassan Shibly, an imam and civil rights lawyer in Florida who works for the Council on American Islamic Relations.

The reason for the prohibition in the Quran was that Muhammad wanted to discourage idolatry, he explained.

"The Islamic tradition forbade depictions of any prophet or any holy people so that people throughout the years don’t start worshipping the prophet," Shibly said. "God is supposed to be the focus, not Muhammad or Jesus or anyone else."

Images of God, whom Muslims call Allah, also are not allowed because Muhammad believed that no picture could capture the creator, Shibly said. This is why the walls of mosques are typically decorated with abstract art and calligraphy.

The film, which has been blamed for fueling protests at U.S. diplomatic posts, including the violence at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, and Danish cartoons that caused so much protest in 2005 caused outrage among Muslims because they were seen as ridiculing or criticizing the prophet.

Actors and the assistant director of the film "Innocence of Muslims" told NBC News that the original spoken lines in the screenplay were dubbed over without their knowledge. NBC's Mike Taibbi reports.

"For Muslims, Muhammad is a sacred symbol," said John Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University. "Muhammad represents and embodies the religion of Islam. He’s not a god, but plays the role historically that Jesus played historically."

Images like these are now making their way, via the Internet to Muslim populations who have never before been exposed to sharp critiques of their faith, which also helps explain the level of anger they have stirred.

Esposito said the reaction resembles those in the West earlier in history.

He pointed to the uproar over 1988 Hollywood film "The Last Temptation of Christ." Director Martin Scorsese's adaptation of a book by the same name showed Jesus struggling with lust, depression and doubt, and  engaging in sex — in his imaginings — before snapping back to reality and dying on the cross. That movie was seen as blasphemy by some Christians, who — though not violent — were vocal enough to prevent the film from being shown in many parts of the United States.

Shibly stressed that there is no justification for the violence that took the lives of the four Americans in Libya, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, on Tuesday. CAIR on Wednesday issued a call for Muslims to ignore what it called the "trashy" anti-Islam film and has condemned the killings.

"It’s so hypocritical for (the attackers) to do these acts in the name of the prophet Muhammad,” said Shibly. "Muhammad didn’t win over his enemies by violence, he did so through compassion."

However, he says that insults to Muhammad hurt deeply.

"Muslims love the prophets of god more than we love our own parents, more than we love ourselves," said Shibly. "When people attack Muhammad, it definitely hurts us on an emotion level. But, that said, it doesn’t justify the violence. That’s just totally unacceptable."

"Innocence of Muslims" features wooden acting, poor dubbing, awkward sexual moments and ham-fisted insults, with none of the production values of "The Last Temptation of Christ," or any serious exploration of Islam. Experts said it would almost certainly have remained obscure had it not ignited the protests and violence after being circulated in Arabic via the Internet.

So far, it remains unclear who produced the film, and who funded it. Initially, the maker was identified as an Israeli-American man identified as Sam Bacile. But by Thursday, published reports were suggesting that it was the work of a group of anti-Islam Christians.

The latest reporting suggests that  Bacile is actually Egyptian-born Coptic Christian named Nakoula Basseley who lives in the Los Angeles area. The Copts are a minority in Egypt, and often victims of discrimination in the majority Muslim country, as well as attacks by extremists.

In a geopolitical context, said Esposito, the film plays right into the hands of extremists in the region who are using anti-American sentiment to advance their own goals.

"What we have here, and it’s significant symbolically ... on or around 9/11 (anniversary), two terrorist or extremist attacks in Benghazi and in Cairo. … They are attacking symbols of the U.S. They are playing to a population. … It would be anti-American, but (they are) using this (video) to legitimize what they are doing."

Shibly also wonders if the film itself was produced or circulated strategically to stir up well-known sensitivities.

"The sad thing is these people are doing it on purpose," he said. "And unfortunately these Muslims fell right into the trap."

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