Khaled Abdullah seems an unlikely person to find himself facing accusations of religious crimes. The top-billed host on al-Nas, a TV channel popular with Salafists, he is one of the country’s best-known Islamist personalities—and one of its most controversial too, famous for delivering inflammatory rhetoric with a finger-pointing flare. It’s Abdullah who is usually the one leveling charges of offending the faith.
This was the case on Sept. 9, when the host decided to air a clip of an obscure film called Innocence of Muslims on his show. The film centered on a take-down of the Prophet Muhammad, whose very depiction is considered a red line by many Muslims. It was painfully low-budget and amateurish, available only on YouTube. Until it appeared on Abdullah’s show, in fact, according to an in-depth report by McClatchy news service, not many people had paid it any mind.
That changed once Abdullah stepped into the mix. Prefacing the airing by warning his audience that the clip would be controversial—“No other TV channels would do this,” Abdullah said. “Respectable media should bring this out”—he channeled his trademark outrage against the film, which quickly began to go viral on the Internet.
Three days later, anger took hold on Cairo’s streets. Demonstrators stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, tearing down the American flag, then spent subsequent days clashing with police. Similar protests, often violent, soon spread throughout the Muslim world—one, in the Libyan city of Benghazi, led to an attack that took the life of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
This week, Egypt’s general prosecutor issued arrest warrants for eight people over the film—including seven Egyptian Coptic Christians thought to be behind the project. The move was seen as symbolic, with its targets all believed to be living abroad. But the nature of the charges—which include harming national unity and insulting religion—still sent a powerful message.
One liberal activist is now trying to send a message of his own. On Thursday, Amr Imam, a Cairo lawyer, filed a legal complaint of a similar bent—but this one has Abdullah in its sights.
In the complaint, Abdullah is accused of using his Sept. 9 show to create sectarian tension and instigate unrest. He could face jail time if convicted, but Imam says he doesn’t expect a legal win. Instead, he seems more concerned with making a point—that someone who uses religion as a weapon could just as soon find it used against himself. “This is a way of accusing him of insulting religion,” Imam says.
The complaint alleges that the furor surrounding the film has resulted in a blowback against Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up an estimated 10 percent of the population. It cites three additional men for related crimes—Abdullah’s co-host on the day the film was aired, another controversial religious personality accused of burning a Bible during the embassy protest, and a sheikh who allegedly uploaded the film to his YouTube channel. In seizing on the film, the complaint states, Abdullah and the others “instigated and committed blasphemy and discrimination.”
On his Sept. 9 show, Abdullah attempted to head off any accusations such as Imam’s, making sure to mention that the Coptic Church had condemned the film, as the McClatchy report notes, because “some will say we are inciting violence against Copts to create sectarianism.”
And he dismissed any talk of legal action when word of Imam’s attempt at litigation first emerged. “Religious figures have a say in political matters as well. Their opinions exceed the walls of mosques. But when people do not like what we have to say, they file a lawsuit. How is this democracy?” he told Daily News Egypt earlier this week.
Some observers have noted that Abdullah’s defense sounds something like an argument for freedom of expression, even where blasphemy is concerned. “In presenting the video, the broadcasters explained that they spread offensive speech because the public needed to be informed of in injustice,” author and NPR Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep wrote for The Atlantic. “In other words, al-Nas was using the freedom of speech in the same way it is exercised in other countries, including those in the West. Exposing outrages is a central role of the free media, after all.”
Imam argues that this is the kind of freedom of expression that Abdullah and others who have seized on the film have been railing against. And he paints his legal move as a way to voice the frustrations of many of his fellow liberals who have despaired over the channeling of religious passions in Egypt’s public discourse—which he says came to a head with the film. “Some Islamists use religion as a first line of defense in political confrontations,” he says.
But not everyone agrees that Imam’s intended message is the right one to send. “We’re defending freedom of expression,” says Ahmed Ezzat, the legal director for the Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. “So we can’t press charges against others over something they expressed, even if we disagree.”
With Hassan el-Naggar in Cairo.