Judge Victor Valdivia once made a documentary that was banned at PBS for some reason. It was called PBS Pledge Drives: Satan's Fundraisers.
The films the media doesn't want you to see.
Islam vs. Islamists/Muslims Against Jihad compiles two controversial documentaries that deal with the fight between moderates and fundamentalists in the Islamic communities of Europe and North America. Despite all the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing by both the left and the right, these films deserve neither opprobrium nor canonization.
Facts of the Case
Islam vs. Islamists/Muslims Against Jihad consists of two documentaries that tell the story of how Muslim immigrants in Western democracies like the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and France are intimidated, through harassment, death threats, and ostracism from within the Muslim community. The stories of Naser Khader, a Danish legislator who is also a Muslim immigrant, and Mohamed Sifaoui, a documentary filmmaker and journalist living in France, are told in detail. Because of their outspoken condemnation of terrorism and theocracy, both men must travel with armies of bodyguards. Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a Muslim physician in Phoenix, Arizona, who led a rally protesting the 9/11 attacks, recalls how he has been labeled as anti-Islam by other Muslims for his work. There are also interviews with radical fundamentalist Muslims who wish to impose a theocratic society in the West based on sharia, or Islamic law. Film clips and photographs are added to highlight the conflicts between Muslims living in societies that are sometimes unfamiliar to them.
The story behind the making of Islam vs. Islamists is almost as tumultuous as the one it actually tells. In 2004, PBS commissioned a series of documentaries about Islam, terrorism, and Middle Eastern immigrants for its America at a Crossroads series. Director Martyn Burke (Pirates of Silicon Valley) agreed to explore why moderate Muslims in Europe and North America were so reticent to condemn terrorism by fundamentalists. The result was this film, but even before it could be broadcast, controversy erupted. PBS rejected it on the grounds that it was "inflammatory" and "biased" and also because one of Burke's producers, Frank Gaffney, is the outspoken leader of a Washington neo-conservative think tank. The film then made its way through various small screenings before finally airing, along with a subsequent companion piece named Muslims Against Jihad, on the Fox News Channel. Naturally, this led to various left-wing blogs railing against the film as anti-Muslim propaganda and various right-wing blogs asserting that the film was authoritative and that PBS rejected it purely because of the network's presumed liberal bias.
Actually, stripped of all the hype and fury, Islam vs. Islamists is neither great nor distasteful. It's a competent, thoughtful documentary that tells some intriguing stories, but is just too short and missing too much information to be definitive. The film makes a convincing argument that moderate Muslims in Western countries face harassment and vilification from more extremist and fundamentalist Muslims, usually imams, or clerics. The film also does a credible job of explaining the different forms of Islam, and how the most fundamentalist version, called Wahabi Islam, is the one that urges a more militant and extreme approach to politics and culture. The documentary is especially damning in laying out a case against the Saudi Arabian government for funding the construction of Wahabi mosques throughout North America as a way of appeasing Muslim critics of the Saudi regime's corruption and repression of dissidents. It's in these mosques that many of the more moderate Muslims are harassed and even threatened.
The film does a good job of outlining these sometimes complex stories clearly and understandably, without much sensationalizing. It has a bias, of course, as all documentaries do. It clearly favors the moderates and the fundamentalist imams do say things that many will find shocking and offensive. The problem, however, isn't that the film is biased, but that it leaves too many questions unanswered. For instance, exactly how prevalent are the views of the Wahabists amongst Muslims in Western societies? Is it a large percentage, or only a minor fraction? The film doesn't say, which leaves unclear exactly how much of a battle the moderates have to fight. In fact, it doesn't even address the issue of whether or not the moderates represent the mainstream of Muslims in the West, and the possibility of other divisions within that community. Nor does it, despite what the liner notes on the packaging claim, actually describe a plan about how to support the moderates and help them in their struggle.
The documentary raises another question. As depicted in the documentary, Muslims in the U.S. seem to be more integrated into the mainstream culture than Muslims in European countries. American moderates like Dr. Jasser have endured their fair share of harassment and name-calling, but they don't appear to fear for their lives the way Sifaoui and Khader do. Why is that exactly? When one European moderate mentions that she sometimes fears walking down the street in the Muslim area of the city where she lives, the idea of why there is a Muslim area of the city (a concept that will sound strange to many Americans) is left unexplored. Are Muslims in Europe segregated and cut off more than in the U.S.? Wouldn't this be relevant as to why European moderates are more isolated and why recruiters for radical organizations can enlist followers more easily? This seems like an important issue, and yet it's never addressed at all.
Part of the reason Islam vs. Islamists feels so incomplete is that it's so short. At less than an hour, it simply can't touch on all of the many complex issues relevant to this topic. So in theory, the companion documentary Muslims Against Jihad would seem to be a perfect place to fill in the holes from the first film. Unfortunately, the second film is far weaker than the first. Islam vs. Islamists is unfinished, but within its limitations is focused and easy to follow. Muslims Against Jihad, on the other hand, is meandering and choppy, wandering from subject to subject without really following any specific storyline. There's an attempt to outline a complex terror plot assembled in a Wahabi mosque in Canada that spanned Europe and the U.S., but it's described in such a confusing and incoherent manner that whatever shock we are meant to feel evaporates quickly. What's more, too much of Muslims just repeats the same stories told in Islam without adding much new embellishment. In fact, most of it appears to consist of little more than outtakes from the first film. There are more allegations against the Saudis, more death threats to the moderates, more outrageous statements by Wahabi clerics.
The only new addition in the second film is a brief segment on Abd al-Malik, an Algerian immigrant in France who was a radical fundamentalist for a time before renouncing his past and becoming a French rap star. His story highlights some of the challenges and difficulties faced by immigrant Muslims in Europe, and he discusses his past in detail. Still, it does seem slightly strange that the documentary chose to focus on him. A successful musician is not exactly representative of the struggles of Muslim immigrants, and maybe his story should have been balanced out with stories of other immigrants who were not as lucky in finding fame and fortune yet still renounce fundamentalism.
Given such offbeat choices and all the controversies that accompanied these documentaries, it seems strange that there are no extras of any kind whatsoever. More extra interviews or film footage would have possibly helped to fill in the gaps present in both films. It would have also helped to hear from the filmmakers as well to explain some of the decisions they made. The DVD packaging is especially bizarre. Though each film lasts less than an hour, and both could have comfortably fit onto one disc, each gets its own disc for no good reason. The anamorphic widescreen transfers and Dolby Digital Stereo mixes for each are both satisfactory.
Both films in Islam vs. Islamists/Muslims Against Jihad add to the discussion of the challenges and controversies Muslim immigrants in Western democracies frequently face. But by being so short and narrowly focused, they simply leave far too many important aspects of this story untold. Though both are at least worth watching and are not nearly as politicized as they've been made out to be, they are not comprehensive and should be accompanied by further research into this vital topic.
Islam vs. Islamists/Muslims Against Jihad are both acquitted of being right-wing anti-Muslim screeds. However, they are found guilty of not being as thorough and comprehensive as they should have been.
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