Last Wednesday, PBS aired "The Muslim Americans," a documentary film that had been heavily promoted as one of the highlights of "Crossroads," the station's new 11-part series about post-9/11 America. Given its subject of Islam in America and the fact that it is produced by two icons of American public television, series host and moderator Robin McNeil and the PBS NewsHour, interest in the documentary was understandably high.
For me, the documentary was of additional interest. I am the co-executive producer (alongside director Martyn Burke and Frank Gaffney) of "Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center," a film PBS spiked. In my view, "The Muslim Americans" was commissioned and funded outside of the rigorous "Crossroads" competition for the specific objective of replacing our film. Robin McNeil, as a key decision maker for "Crossroads," was apparently granted a sweetheart deal to produce his own film behind the scenes. Quite apart from this personal interest, I was keenly interested to see what American Islam would look like through PBS's lens. What I found was public broadcasting at its worst.
From some of the trailers I had seen, I was prepared for the show to be a puff piece for Islam. It was that and a lot worse. It was, in fact, a propaganda film for Islamism. For example, "The Muslim Americans" refused to acknowledge even the potential for home-grown Islamic extremism in the US. Nor did the documentary exhibit any interest in finding out about Islamic radicalism and its implications for America and its Muslim community.
The overall impression the viewer was left with was that life for American Muslims after 9/11 had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Hate crimes, discrimination, racial profiling and airport hassles, Muslim mosques firmly "in the crosshairs of law enforcement" -- this, apparently, was now typical of Muslim life in America. One of the interviewees even claims that she stopped attending mosque out of fear that doing so would get her labeled as a "terrorist." Interestingly, this message seems to have escaped many of her co-religionists, since the mosques shown in the documentary were invariably full.
Despite this supposed record of mistreatment by government and fellow citizens, the Muslims in the film hold no grudges and remain both highly patriotic Americans and more devoted to their faith. As for the rest of us, there is no reason to be concerned. The subject of Muslim radicalization, let alone terrorism, is never broached. To the extent that these things happen at all, we're told, they happen in Europe, not here.
Actually, there are a few things to be concerned about, we are informed both editorially and by various talking heads, but they have nothing to do with the Muslim community itself. These include "a small band of conservative and pro-Israeli groups" who besmirch upstanding Muslim organizations and "right-wing bloggers" who "exploit fear and ignorance" to try to "silence Muslims." And so, the viewer, as obviously intended by the producers, is left with the overwhelming impression of a Muslim community beleaguered yet, despite assorted injustices visited upon it by a heavy-handed government and a bigoted citizenry, determinedly at peace.
There is, of course, no doubt that the vast majority of American Muslims are peaceful and patriotic. But the idyllic picture that Robin McNeil and the NewsHour luminaries have put together is, at best, a misleading Potemkin village and, at worst, an example of the genre that was once called agitprop. How else do you explain the documentary's unwillingness to address the inconvenient fact that, since 9/11 alone, the Department of Justice has recorded 441 defendants, the vast majority of them Muslim, charged for terrorist-related crimes, resulting in 261 convictions with 150 cases still pending by June 2006?
The skewed message the film conveys is likely to be persuasive only to those who have remained blissfully unaware of the complex reality of Islam in America -- perhaps because they get most of their news from PBS and NPR. That reality includes the fact that while most Muslims are indeed decent, law-abiding citizens, much of what passes as the Muslim establishment in America is in the hands of zealous Islamists. More than a few of its leaders are extremists that not only preach radical Islamist ideologies and hatred, but aid and abet terrorism.
It is the extremism of these organizations and individuals that "The Muslim Americans," wittingly or not, whitewashes to the point of making the whole film look like a propaganda exercise. Examples are too numerous to list, but suffice it to say that most of the organizations and many of the individuals featured in the documentary easily fall into this category. Among them are organizations like the Council of Islamic American Relations, the Muslim Students Association, the Bridgeview mosque in Chicago, Masjid Al-Islam in Oakland and people like Hamza Yusuf, Abdul Malik Ali, Omid Safi and Dr. Aminah McCloud among many others. Since the producers of the film never even allude to the extremist inclinations of any of these key protagonists of their narrative, it is worth giving the reader a sampling of what they chose to ignore.
Start with Dr. Aminah McCloud, a professor at DePaul University and a well-known acolyte of the strident anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan. Shortly after 9/11, McCloud opined that America was becoming a "terrorist state like those nations we pretend to abhor." McCloud, who serves as an "advisor" to the "Crossroads" series, committed an egregious breach of journalistic ethics and confidentiality agreements by showing a rough cut of our film to her fellow activists in the Nation of Islam, one of the subjects of our film "Islam vs. Islamists." Despite such grievous misconduct, she is featured prominently in McNeil's film, raising the question of whether her appointment as an arbiter of moderate Islam was entirely coincidental.
Much in the same vein, prominent space is given by the producers to CAIR and its spokesman Ibrahim Hooper, with the narrator positively gushing over this "advocacy and civil rights" organization. Unmentioned are some uncomfortable details about CAIR's history, such as the fact that it is the direct progeny with identical leadership (including Hooper) of the Islamic Association of Palestine, a now-defunct financier of Hamas terrorism, and that several of CAIR's executives were sentenced to jail for terrorist activities while still in its employ.
The film's producers are similarly effusive with respect to yet another extremist organization, the Muslim Students Association. MSA's University of Michigan branch is portrayed in glowing terms as the paragon of religious tolerance and multi-cultural bonhomie. Yet, MSA is not only extremist, but the forerunner of Islamic extremism in America, having come into being as the first radical Muslim organization in America with the help of a group of Muslim Brothers and Saudi money as far back as 1963. Virtually all well-known members of the radical Islamist networks in the United States, such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and a dozen others are direct spin-offs from the MSA, by its own admission. And despite the accolades it receives in the film, the MSA and its 150 chapters through out U.S. academia remain as radical today as when the MSA-UCLA organ Al Talib had this to say about a "prominent Muslim activist":
When we hear someone refer to the great mujahideen Osama bin Laden as a terrorist, we should defend our brother and refer to him as a freedom fighter; someone who has forsaken wealth and power to fight in Allah's cause and speak out against oppressors.
Two other Muslim institutions given puff treatment in the film, while remaining bastions of radical Islam in reality, are the Bridgeview Mosque in Chicago and the Masjid Al-Islam in Oakland, California. The first of these was taken over by radical Wahhabi preachers and Hamas supporters in a dramatic conflict with moderate Muslims which was well-documented in a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune. None of this, predictably, merits a mention in McNeil's narrative.
The second is the Oakland mosque run by Imam Abdul Malik Ali, an African-American convert to Islam who is presented in the movie as the epitome of moderation and reason. In real life, Ali is a regular on the lecture circuit of Islamist radicals, where he is known for his vitriolic anti-Semitism and authoritative pronouncements such as "the Israelis knew about and were in control of 9/11" which "was staged to give an excuse to wage war against Muslims around the world."
Then there is the hope of American Islam, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, a convert running an Islamic seminary called Zaytouna in the Bay Area. Yusuf is described in fawning terms as the star of a new generation of American Muslims and a foremost modern interpreter of an "Islam rooted in the culture of America." The film's producers would have you believe he accomplishes this while still teaching a traditionalist form of the faith. How you can be rooted in American culture and, at the same time, believe that a rape victim must have four male witnesses to prove the crime, lest she be stoned to death for adultery, as the "traditionalist" shari'a norms require, remains unexplained.
The proof of Sheikh Hamza's democratic bona fides, to the producers, seems to be the fact that he met with President Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. Just how authoritative such an endorsement is could perhaps be judged by the fact that two other top Muslim leaders, Abdurachman Alamoudi and Sami al-Arian, who also met with the president, are currently serving prison terms for terrorist activities. Also left unmentioned in the touching cinematographic paeans to this star of Islamist modernity are some rather sordid details of his past and his violent tirades against America, as "a country that has little to be proud of in its past and less to be proud of in its present" with its "false gods" of "Jesus, or democracy or the Bill of Rights or any other element of this society that is held sacrosanct by the ill-informed peoples that make up this charade of a society…" So much for his sympathies for the "culture of America."
Last but far from least is Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who is given star billing and allowed to make authoritative editorial commentary throughout the documentary. This is the same gentleman who is on record with his belief that "American foreign policy is centered on dehumanizing Muslims." More disturbingly, Safi is also one of the five WETA/PBS advisors to "Crossroads," making him, like Dr. Aminah McCloud, both a referee and a player in the dubious games played by PBS with this series. This goes beyond a mere conflict of interest. It verges on outright corruption of the integrity of public broadcasting.
Asked once what socialist historiography should be about, the Bolshevik historian Mikhail Pokrovsky is said to have replied that it is "the projection of our glorious socialist present into the past." To adopt Pokrovsky's line in "The Muslim Americans," Robin McNeil and his colleagues have managed to produce a remarkably disingenuous spectacle, projecting politically correct make-believe onto the reality of radical Islam.