- The Washington Times - Friday, December 13, 2002

A two-hour PBS documentary on the life of the prophet Muhammad, to air next week, is meant to help counter negative images of Muslims, according to its creators.
"Americans get most of their images about Islam and Muslims from the headlines. Demonstrations and shouting in the streets makes the news, and those images are repeated," said producer Alex Kronemer, an American convert to Islam with a master's degree in theology from Harvard University.
"We wanted to offer a counter to that, to help Americans understand that every Muslim is not Osama bin Laden," Mr. Kronemer said yesterday.
"Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet" will air on most of the 349 PBS affiliates nationwide Dec. 18, though District-based WETA will broadcast the program Dec. 26. PBS also plans to rebroadcast "Muslims," a two-hour "Frontline" special, on Dec. 19.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and author of "Militant Islam Reaches America," said yesterday that he had only "seen advance materials" of the production.
"But all of this suggests that the American taxpayer is subsidizing an attempt to proselytize Islam in America," Mr. Pipes said.
The production airs in an uncertain marketplace as Americans continue to assess their stand on Islam after September 11.
In the past two weeks, evangelist Pat Robertson took on President Bush, who visited a Washington mosque Dec. 5 and praised Muslims who "lead lives of honesty, integrity and morality."
In interviews with The Washington Times and ABC, Mr. Robertson called Islam "violent at its core," and said that Mr. Bush should refrain from religious commentary, as he "is not elected as chief theologian."
ABC characterized the dust-up as "a theological dispute which is driving a political wedge between President Bush and some of his conservative Christian allies."
Meanwhile, representatives from PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) said yesterday that they have received no negative responses from viewers about the new program, or its scheduled air time of Christmas week.
Producers say that their project has been a long time coming, and the direction has changed more than once.
"The ground kept shifting under our feet," Mr. Kronemer said.
Work began on the production three years ago, and was two-thirds complete when terrorists struck September 11. What began as a narrative documentary became a potential foil to public backlash against American Muslims after the attacks.
Initially, Mr. Kronemer and partner Michael Wolfe, also an Islam convert, sought out the perspectives of American Muslims.
The pair partnered with filmmaker Michael Schwartz, who said in a statement that he was struck "by the numerous affinities between basic American values and core Islamic beliefs" and that the production was intended for "a predominantly non-Muslim American audience."
The personal narratives helped the producers explain the life of Muhammad without having to show images of the 7th-century prophet considered offensive by Muslims.
"After 9/11, these perspectives became important in their own right to counter negative stereotypes," Mr. Kronemer said, adding that Americans themselves are subject to stereotyping overseas.
"In other countries, Americans are perceived as gun centered, and living in a very violent society," he said.
American-Muslim subjects in the production include a congressional aide, a critical care nurse, and a Brooklyn fire marshal and ground zero veteran who credits his faith in his decision to become a firefighter.
"The Koran teaches you that the saving of one life is as if you've saved all of humanity," he says in the program.
Personal stories are paired with biographical details of the prophet's life, as well as academic analysis, all meant to reveal "intrigue and faith, revolutionary ideas and bitter persecution, brutal war and brilliant diplomacy," according to a press release.
"Part of our subtext is that Muhammad is already in America, and is motivating people to do good things," Mr. Kronemer noted.
The program has received money from CPB's Diversity Fund, which has granted $1.2 million to five other projects that create "a biography of American culture and society in the 21st century," according to CPB President Robert Coonrod.
Funds have also come from Arabian Bulk Trading Ltd., the El-Hibri Foundation, the Sabadia Family Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Irfan Kathwari Foundation, the Qureishi Family trust, and about 4,000 individuals, according to the Islam Project, a nonprofit group that publicizes Muslim issues here and abroad.
PBS will offer educational materials on Islam at its Web site, beginning this weekend, including a "virtual Hajj" the pilgrimage to Mecca required of Muslims interactive timelines, a discussion forum and "more information about Muhammad and women, violence, other religions, the Quran, the Jews of Medina and America."
The show has generated the interest of the National Council of International Visitors and the Interfaith Alliance, which plan to organize local community viewing and discussion groups, according to the State Department's Office of International Information Programs.
In the meantime, PBS continues to cut a wide swath across religious programming.
According to the "Spirituality and Religion" section on its Web site, PBS lists 16 shows produced this year on a variety of faiths, including "From Jesus to Christ," "Dreams of Tibet," "Islam: Empire of Faith" and several programs based on the Holocaust.

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