PBS, including Rocky Mountain Public Broadcasting, recently broadcast a series of films titled "America at a Crossroads" --a week-long, $20 million cinematic exploration of the tough choices facing the country in the wake of 9/11. The films proved to be less earthshaking than the tale of one that wasn't broadcast.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided $675,000 for the production of "Islam vs. Islamists," nearly all of that in federal funds. The film hasn't made it to the airwaves. The producer claims it is being "suppressed" by PBS.
PBS counters that the producers haven't finished the network's "production and review process."
While the standoff continues, some of us who have seen the film can attest it is a professional, well-researched and thoroughly compelling work.
From the start, the "Crossroads" project was controversial. It was an initiative of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the funding arm of PBS, which isn't supposed to make programming decisions. Even a group of public TV station managers complained that the "Crossroads" project was an expensive idea, needlessly duplicating programs already aired on PBS.
So far, so typical of the chronically strapped, internally conflicted non-commercial service.
A total of 22 films were made under the initiative; so far 11 have aired. The next, "Kansas to Kandahar," is slated for June 11 locally on Channel 6. The film "Islam v. Islamists: Voices From the Muslim Center," by Martyn Burke, is the compelling story of the political/religious divide among followers of Islam. Through personal interviews, it chronicles the efforts of certain moderate Muslims to speak out within their communities, and reports on how they have been verbally attacked and physically threatened by traditional Islamists.
"Censorship is a word being thrown around," according to producer-director Burke, who previously produced "Pirates of Silicon Valley" and "The Hollywood Ten."
Burke claims his film was dropped for political reasons, among them the fact that two of his co-producers, Frank Gaffney and Alex Alexiev, are neo-conservatives from the Center for Security Policy.
A week ago, a spokeswoman for PBS said the film was still being edited and would be made available soon. Today PBS released a statement charging the producers with attacking the editorial process rather than working to complete the film.
Burke said that is simply not true.
According to Burke, PBS derailed his project in unethical ways.
WETA the Washington, D.C., PBS station producing the series, urged him to eliminate a key perspective of the film: The claim that Muslim radicals are pushing to establish "parallel societies" in America and Europe governed by Shariah law rather than sectarian courts.
"PBS said there's nothing wrong with enclaves not ruled by the laws of the Western countries they're in, the opposite of what we and the film's moderates believe," Burke said. Additionally, WETA asked Burke to fire his colleagues. He declined.
After grants were issued, the "Crossroads" managers commissioned a new film that overlapped with "Islam vs. Islamists" and competed for the same interview subjects.
WETA appointed an advisory board that includes Aminah Beverly McCloud, director of World Islamic Studies at DePaul University. In "a complete violation of journalistic tenets," Burke said, McCloud showed rough-cut segments of the film to Nation of Islam officials, who are a subject of the documentary. They threatened to sue.
The whole experience represents "the most inept, heavy-handed way to administer a series I have ever seen," Burke said. (As a freelance producer he's worked for seven major networks.)
The film opens with a case in Copenhagen, where fundamentalist Muslims attempted to enforce sharia or Islamic law outside the system of Danish law, forging an Islamic "parallel society." Naser Khader, an elected member of the Danish parliament, speaks for the middle, discussing the death threats he receives regularly from organized extremists.
"It reminds me of what happened in the '30s in Germany," he says. His isn't the only reference to fascist tactics chronicled in the film. One area where moderates split from extremists is the Islamists' "obsession with sexuality," according to a Canadian Muslim moderate TV host. He, too, has been threatened by radical Islamists.
A Phoenix physician, Zuhdi Jasser, a moderate Muslim, who argues for the separation of religion and politics, organized a rally for Muslims Against Terrorism-and met with objections from local Muslim clerics. He makes the point that most Muslims are non-violent, but that many accept the Islamist view that America is to blame for all of the Muslim world's problems.
The film's climax is an exploration of the Danish cartoon crisis, and how it was manipulated to incite extremists.
PBS responded that, "additional films from 'America at a Crossroads' will air individually in the coming months; several have already been scheduled. "At the time we scheduled the April series, 'Islam vs. Islamists' had not completed the production and review process for PBS. They still have not. "Rather than working within the established editorial process, as did all of the other producers in the series, the producers of Islam vs. Islamists have instead decided to attack the process.
"'Islam vs. Islamists' covers topics that are timely and relevant, and the film was included in the initiative because of its potential merit. We sincerely hope that the producers of 'Islam vs. Islamists' will put their energies into completing work on the film."
Burke says his film is complete. He also stresses that it is "non-partisan."
In his dealings with WETA, he said, "we hit a pocket within PBS riddled with conflicts of interest and almost corrupt practices. We just hit something that stunk."
When will you get a chance to see the film? That remains to be seen. But keeping a film from interested viewers in the age of Internet streaming video is increasingly a losing game. Eventually it should and will be released to a wide audience to judge for itself.