In recent days, the Public Broadcasting Channel (PBS) in the United States has been airing a series of documentaries on the challenges facing America in the post-9/11 world. Perhaps predictably, many if not all such documentaries focus on themes such as Islam in America, Reform in Islam and the like.
One of these documentaries, entitled “Islam vs. Islamists,” has recently become the subject of controversy. PBS producers decided to withdraw it from the line-up, owing to concerns that the documentary “demonises Islam.” The 52-minute film, which cost US$675,000 to make, focuses on the conflicts between “moderate” Muslims and Islamists that have erupted since 9/11. The producers of the documentary have decried the move by PBS executives as unwarranted censorship and have appeared in news and media outlets defending their work.
The controversy is illustrative of several things. First, it demonstrates the near-frenzied desire among Western media, in their attempt to overcome their ignorance of Islam, to come up with neat definitions of terms such as “moderate” Muslim, “conservative” Muslim and of course “Islamist.” Now relegated to the floor of a cutting room at PBS, this film takes a particular stance on the issue. It paints some “moderate” Muslims, in this case a chosen few as the “good” Muslims. These “good” Muslims are reviled and castigated by the “bad” or Islamist Muslims who subject them to threats of violence and persecution.
On its face, the stated aim of the film’s producers, both of whom belong to neo-conservative think tanks, is to illustrate how moderate Muslims are often persecuted in their attempt to defend their faith from extremists. Taken by itself this is a venerable goal – recent events in Pakistan have illustrated only too well the struggles of moderate Muslims in taking on the incipient extremism spreading within their faith and the challenging obstacles they face in doing so.
The troubling aspect of the film is its attempt to brand what kind of Muslim counts as acceptable or unacceptable, especially within Western contexts. In choosing certain people to represent Islam and suggesting that only liberal and progressive notions of Islam are acceptable or good, the makers of the film seek to advance an argument that fails to respect the distinction between conservative and extremist Muslims. This distinction between religious “conservatism” and religious “extremism” is crucial: one is an orthodox (even traditional) interpretation of religion (in this case Islam) while the latter manifests a streak that invariably uses religion for political purposes and even justifies killing others by branding them as infidel.
In other words, while efforts such as campaigns to establish Sharia tribunals in Ontario (which are presented as examples of what the bad or “Islamist” Muslims do in the film) can be criticised politically for their religious conservatism, they cannot be criminalised and treated like extremist campaigns that justify terrorism and the taking of innocent lives. To conflate religious extremism with religious conservatism is not only to make the mistake of alienating millions of Muslims who are peaceful but conservative, but also minimises the grotesque acts of extremist Muslims who are actively involved in terrorism.
Equally worthy of discussion is the politics of those behind the documentary. Frank Gaffney, one of the lead creators of the film is head of the neo-conservative hawk policy institute, Centre for Security Policy. A stalwart in his support for the war in Iraq, Gaffney in a recent presentation argued that Tehran “is working toward a nuclear capability that could destroy America as we know it,” even suggesting that the Iranians are set to produce a nuclear weapon that would detonate itself over space and return America “to a pre-industrial society in the blink of an eye.”
Gaffney’s views pose an interesting and pressing question to liberal Muslims in the West: Does hatred for fundamentalist Islam justify aligning oneself with neo-conservative agendas? In other words, does the reality of the tyranny of oppression and hatred unleashed by conservative Imams justify supporting an equally barbaric and cruel military expansionist agenda that involves the death and obliteration of millions of innocent civilians? Ultimately, does fighting one form of extreme fundamentalism require supporting another simply to insure that at least one of these is vanquished?
The framing of this choice, and that it requires one to choose between two evils, is in many ways the most damning geopolitical dilemma facing Muslims in the West. Added to the temptation of joining forces with the neo-cons bent on profiting from demonising Muslims is the fact that those who have chosen to join forces with them have reaped immense rewards. For instance, a Somali-born Dutch former MP is a fellow at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute and is reaping rich rewards from her autobiography, which presents Islam as inherently violent and oppressive. Similarly, another writer, a frequent guest on the conservative Glenn Beck show, has been painted as a hero by Western media. Being the kind of “moderate” Muslim the American neo-conservatives want you to be is indeed becoming a quick trip to instant fame and fortune.
The aim of the “America at a Crossroads” series of which the canned documentary was a part, is to present an overview of the challenges facing the United States in a post-9/11 world. In choosing not to air the documentary, PBS seems to have made its most persuasive statement regarding the message they were attempting to send. Indeed, one of the most daunting challenges facing America today is to realise that choosing those Muslims that look most Western and thus least threatening, and reviling others as Islamofascist, is a prejudiced and misguided stance.
Religious extremism is undoubtedly a reality and must be countered, but its ideological antidote is not a different kind of fundamentalism but rather a campaign against all fundamentalisms, religious or otherwise.
Rafia Zakaria is associate editor of altmuslim.com and an attorney and member of the Asian American Network Against Abuse of Women. She teaches courses on constitutional law and political philosophy. This article previously appeared in Daily Times (Pakistan).