Documentarians battle America’s PBS TV to get Islam film on the air, reports Karoun Demirjian
The film features grainy footage and dramatic music, presenting itself as a stark look at the way fundamentalist Muslims in America and Europe crush dissent by their more moderate co-religionists.But the very production of “Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center” has highlighted sharply different views about the state of Islam in the United States and showcased how intensely sensitive that subject remains.
PBS, which commissioned the project, is delaying airing the film after protests that it is anti-Muslim. Now its creators are launching a public campaign against PBS to get it shown.
The hourlong documentary is one of 22 episodes funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for PBS’ “America at a Crossroads” series, which examines post-Sept. 11 subjects such as terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the experience of American troops overseas and global perspectives on U.S. foreign policy.
“Islam vs. Islamists” follows the efforts of socially liberal Muslims in America and Europe to reclaim their religion from political extremism by speaking out against ultra-conservative imams in a sort of modern-day Muslim reformation.
But the film never made it into the initial lineup of 11 shows that aired recently. A film about widespread discrimination against Muslims, “The Muslim Americans,” did air as part of the series.
The producers and subjects of the “Islam vs. Islamists” film, who began to show it in private screenings last month, say that PBS began to demand what the producers saw as unrealistic editorial changes after the series’ advisers, acting on criticism from such Muslim groups as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Nation of Islam, claimed the documentary unfairly portrayed Muslim religious leaders. They say their experience with PBS proves the point of their film: that moderate Muslims have no platform from which to criticize extremists in their own religion.
“I can’t see what they object to, except that they don’t want to see the true plight against modern-day Muslims,” says Hedieh Mirahmadi, a representative of a moderate imam who spoke at a screening in Washington that was organized by the film’s producers. “Not being able to see the political reality means that it may come to root in a very dangerous way.”
Mirahmadi argues, for example, that the Saudi-based Wahhabist movement, a fundamentalist form of Islam, has spread across the U.S.
Mary Stewart, a spokeswoman for WETA, the PBS station in Washington, and executive producer for the Crossroads series, said in a phone interview that even though the film hadn’t made the cut for the first 11 parts that were broadcast, it would be aired as soon as PBS feels that it has been satisfactorily edited.
“It is a film with a lot of promise,” she said. “But every film that comes through PBS goes through editorial standards. They have received notes on what editorial changes would need to be made to bring it up to standards for PBS.”Producers and hosts of the Crossroads series have publicly accused the production team for “Islam vs. Islamists” of showing an editorial slant by being overly alarmist and demonizing imams.But defenders of the documentary say it merely portrays, in realistic terms, the divisions within the Islamic community in the West.
The Muslims portrayed in the movie – including Naser Khader, the Danish parliamentarian who spoke out against Imam Ahmed Abu Laban and others leading the riots over last year’s cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad – say that PBS does not want to consider Western Muslims as a variegated group.
“In my opinion, we don’t have a crisis of civilizations, we have just one clash,” Khader says. “It is in Muslim society, between Islamists and those who say `yes’ to democracy and modernity.”
Speaking for the film’s production team, Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, a Washington national security think tank, insists that the film is finished and says PBS’ refusal to budge on editorial demands meant that the film’s relationship with the network was finished too. “They’re insisting on structural changes that would essentially eviscerate the message of the film,” he says.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided $675,000 for the production of “Islam vs. Islamists,” nearly all federal funds. Some members of Congress saw the film at a showing late April. A Corporation for Public Broadcasting spokesman said it is committed to finding a way to publicly show the film.