Thursday, April 12, 2007

There’s only one thing to do with the spiked PBS documentary, “Islam vs. Islamist: Voices from the Muslim Center.” Air it. If the Public Broadcasting Service won’t reconsider, this window on the struggle for the soul of Islam in the West — controversial and hard-hitting — will be picked up by some other network. It’s inevitable.

We watched “Islam vs. Islamists,” and several things stand out. The stories of embattled moderate Muslims in the contemporary United States, Canada, France and Denmark are gripping and too important to relegate to the dustbin. There’s too much original, never-before-seen material here, including interviews with a terror propagandist who knew Abu Musab Zarqawi. The propagandist was sentenced to prison last week in Denmark for his grim work. There’s the imam who helped manufacture the Danish cartoon crisis, and died two months ago. There are others who come on screen, ranging from peaceable conservative Muslims to reactionary firebrand imams. This material must be aired. The hard edge lent by this documentary’s producers — veteran filmmaker Martyn Burke, former Reagan Defense Department official Frank Gaffney and ex-RAND Corporation analyst Alex Alexiev — is guaranteed to spark the kind of vigorous debate over Islam’s rise in the West that the nation must have. The American public can judge the flying chips.

The stories speak for themselves when allowed to, but since the documentary is not yet available publicly, here’s a preview. Naser Khader in some respects is the heart of the film’s several threads. This Syrian-born Danish lawmaker’s life has been threatened for recommending (among other things) that would-be Islamists who want to establish Shariah in Denmark should move to Saudi Arabia. At issue is the alarming number of Muslims in Islamic communities in Western Europe and North America who expect to be governed by Islamic law in lieu of the established civil and criminal law in their new country. For simply asking the question, Mr. Khader’s life is imperiled. He is filmed travelling with heavy security.

There’s Mohamed Sifaoui. This Paris-based journalist risked his life filming an undercover expose on terrorists and extremists, including the covert filming of terrorists who vow to murder Mr. Khader if he ever reaches high office in Denmark. Mr. Sifaoui himself knows terrorist violence well. The Algerian newspaper he worked for years ago was bombed by militant terrorists moments after he left the building.

Or Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, the head of the Arizona Medical Association who condemns terrorist violence in a forum for democratic ideas, which he founded. He is depicted in the local newspaper, the Muslim Voice, as a rabid dog devouring innocent Muslims. There are others.

What distinguishes “Islam vs. Islamists,” beyond these stories of the embattled, is its access to and portrayals of critics, including violent ones, and the critics of like-minded moderates elsewhere. We are shown, inter alia, Abu Laban, the imam and late critic of Mr. Khader who toured the Middle East with cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed depicted as a pig to whip up resentment over the Danish cartoon controversy. Mr. Laban, who died of cancer in February, admits on camera that the cartoons he flourished for the maddened Islamist crowds never appeared in the newspaper Jyllands Posten. He is quoted denying that the terrorists filmed by Mr. Sifaoui vowing to kill Mr. Khader — his own associates — meant it is seriously. The threat “was a joke.” Some joke.

We see two men at intellectual and literal war with the West, the imprisoned Said Mansour, a Moroccan-born Dane, sentenced to three and a half years in prison on charges of propagandizing for terrorism, and Slimane Abderrahmane, the Algerian-born Dane held at Guantanamo for two years, who trained at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Abderrahmane tells his interviewer that the moment a Muslim enters the Danish parliament he ceases to be Muslim, since only Allah can make law.

The story of how and why PBS spiked this documentary is beginning to emerge, and it is not a savory story. PBS and its District of Columbia affiliate, WETA-TV, have been quite transparent in their communications to the producers that the film is biased. They have called it “alarmist and overreaching.” We’ll be curious to hear how the American public judges this documentary.

The back-story here is the bitter fight involving Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman Ken Tomlinson and his allies in their attempts to make public broadcasting more balanced, including with programming by conservatives. Mr. Tomlinson resigned from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in November 2005.

There will be legitimate criticism of this film. The haunting music which overlays the words and images of terrorist sympathizers is at times a bit overpowering. The lines are often less than clear distinguishing Muslims who may be sympathetic to Islamists and those who are not. Many Muslims themselves are not clear on this. This is one of the chief unresolved issues of Islam in the West today. Rather than bottle up this subject, we should let it loose.

“Islam vs. Islamists” is hard-hitting. Some will consider it biased. We don’t. The American people are grown up. They can handle it.

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