A Film Too Hot To Handle
PBS cites bias and alarmism in suspending the airing of a documentary on Islamic moderates and extremists
Not ready for prime time: That's the verdict of the Public Broadcasting Service on a film that treats moderate Muslims and their struggle against Islamist extremism.
A dispute over the documentary has been building ever since WETA, the Washington-based PBS affiliate, excluded Islam vs. Islamists: Voices From the Muslim Center from the opening lineup of its America at a Crossroads series in mid-April. PBS faulted the film for being alarmist, one-sided, and short on context.
Moving between America and Europe, the documentary tells the story of several outspoken moderate Muslims who have waged an often lonely struggle against individuals and organizations that try to advance the Islamist social-political agenda. For their efforts, moderates like the Syrian-born Danish parliamentarian Naser Kader and Arizona physician and activist Zuhdi Jasser have received hateful criticism and even threats of violence. The film also introduces us to the Islamists, ranging from prominent imams to editors of Muslim newspapers to street toughs in groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir. We learn about the Islamists' efforts to fan controversies or to create "parallel societies" in which Islamic law replaces secular civic law. We even hear these champions of enforced puritanism denounce the moderates as extremists.
For the moment, though, only a small circle of viewers, including some members of Congress who attended a screening last week, will have a chance to judge whether the treatment is fair. While the film's producers contend that their documentary has effectively been spiked, WETA spokesperson Mary Stewart says that it will still be considered if the filmmakers make changes that "are not very drastic."
But the extent and nature of the changes and, in some cases, the questionable objectivity of advisers who proposed them are precisely what have the filmmakers up in arms. All reflect what they charge is an "ideological vendetta" directed against not only the film's point of view but also two of its producers, Frank Gaffney and Alex Alexiev, both senior staffers in a conservative Washington advocacy group, the Center for Security Policy. The film's third producer, Martyn Burke, a Canadian filmmaker who describes himself as a JFK Democrat, says the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the original funder, selected Islam vs. Islamists for the series before handing all the films over to WETA. PBS responds that the CPB selections were based on rough cuts of the films and in any case are not binding on WETA.
More significantly, though, Burke claims that the criticism from series producers Leo Eaton and Jeff Bieber was far from minor-and even included a critique of the Nation of Islam segment by a reviewer who supports the black separatist group.
In memos to the filmmakers, the producers called for two substantial changes. The first was for a stronger narrative arc in order to clarify the point of the film. "What do you want your audience to think/feel at the end (other than a fear of all Muslim organizations that aren't liberal and western)?" Eaton asked. Eaton also found the "voice" too alarmist for a "fair and accurate documentary looking at today's struggle between forces of moderation and extremism."
Criticism. It is easy to see some merit in the criticisms. The film is long on ominous music, and it might have attempted to capture some sense of where the "silent majority" of Muslims stand. Burke, for his part, says that he tried to respond to the objections without betraying his journalistic integrity.
Which raises the salient question: What constitutes balance when depicting Muslim moderates and Islamists? Series host Robert MacNeil faulted the film for presenting only firebrand fundamentalist imams, which is almost like saying that the moderate imams portrayed somehow don't count as real Muslims. However unintentionally, MacNeil echoes what Islamists often say about outspoken liberal or moderate Muslims: that they aren't authentic believers.
One might also ask why such exacting standards of balance were not imposed on some of the other films in the series, notably The Muslim Americans. Panned as "dull" and "misleading" by the New York Times, it offers as a model of moderation a prominent California imam whose pre-9/11 preaching was, some critics charge, anything but moderate.
Flawed but important, Islam vs. Islamists deserves the verdict of a larger audience.
This story appears in the May 7, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.