There have been numerous examples in recent years of Muslims reacting violently to perceived slights from the West against their faith, but some analysts doubt that the attacks on U.S. diplomats in Libya and Egypt on the anniversary of 9/11 fit neatly into this history of extremists defending the honor of Islam.
The mobs that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at a consulate in Libya and stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo supposedly were incited to violence by a YouTube trailer of a movie, produced by an Israeli American, that depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a pedophile and a fraud.
But Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, is skeptical.
"This movie trailer is the flimsiest of pretexts that they exploited to mobilize a mob and then use it as a cover for political violence," Mr. Moosa said. "People in Egypt and Libya are sufficiently literate to know the difference between something the U.S. government sponsors and something an individual artist does. But U.S. credibility is at an all-time low in the Muslim world, or sufficiently low, for people to exploit it to commit heinous crimes."
Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign- and defense-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the attacks were "probably timed for 9/11."
"These appear to be coordinated attacks," she said in a blog post. "How do I know? Because Egyptian intelligence warned about attacks on our interests. Because crowds need someone to get them somewhere. Because this is how extremists work."
Sam Bacile, a 56-year-old California real estate developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew, said he produced, directed and wrote the two-hour film, "Innocence of Muslims," a low-budget movie of such poor artistic quality that it makes episodes of the Three Stooges look Oscar-worthy by comparison.
The 14-minute trailer of the movie that purportedly set off the protests shows an amateur cast speaking a wooden dialogue of insults disguised as revelations about Muhammad, whose obedient followers are presented as a cadre of goons. It depicts Muhammad as a feckless philanderer who approved of child sexual abuse, among other overtly insulting claims.
Mr. Bacile is now in hiding, but he told the Associated Press in an interview that he thinks the movie will help his native land by exposing Islam's flaws to the world.
"Islam is a cancer, period," he said. "This is a political movie. The U.S. lost a lot of money and a lot of people in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we're fighting with ideas."
Mr. Bacile told the Associated Press that the film, shot in 2011 on a budget of about $5 million, was shown only once in its entirety, in a mostly empty theater in Hollywood earlier this year.
Bloggers noted Wednesday that the film was produced in English but dubbed in Arabic by unknown operators for a Muslim audience.
While some people question Mr. Bacile's film as the true source of the violence this week, there are many other examples of Muslims protesting and even resorting to violence against artists for disrespecting their religion, especially for showing depictions of Muhammad.
Displaying images of the prophet is forbidden in Islam.
In January, the U.S. military's accidental burning of copies of the Koran at a base in Afghanistan led to widespread violent protests, in which at least 41 people were killed and 270 persons were injured.
In 2007, a series of drawings by Swedish artist Lars Vilks depicted Muhammad as a dog. A newspaper published one of the drawings to illustrate an editorial on self-censorship and freedom of religion, leading to condemnations by Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and other Muslim countries.
In 2005, a Danish newspaper's publication of 12 caricatures of the prophet triggered riots in many Muslim countries. Protesters burned embassies and churches; at least 200 died. The cartoonist survived a murder attempt. In 2008, a bomb exploded outside the Danish Embassy in Pakistan killed eight people. Al Qaeda said it was revenge for the "insulting" drawings.
Muhammad appeared in an episode of the animated comedy show "South Park" in 2001, but his image was later removed from other episodes owing to the controversies about cartoons in the European newspapers.
In 1999, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel published a picture of Muhammad with other "moral apostles." The magazine became the target of protests and threats.
In 1988, author Salman Rushdie published his novel "The Satanic Verses," based in part on the life of Muhammad. Some Muslims considered it blasphemy, and a fatwa was issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then supreme leader of Iran, in 1989 calling for Mr. Rushdie's death.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.