Last Wednesday, the Oregon Public Broadcasting Service announced it had reached an agreement with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) that seemed, at first blush, to represent a breakthrough: The national Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) would no longer prevent the airing of a film CPB commissioned as part of its “America at a Crossroads” series called “Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center.” Instead, PBS’ Oregon stations would make it available to the more than 350 other affiliates across the country.
As one of the film’s co-executive producers, I began to receive a number of congratulatory messages from all over the country. Most were from people who had followed the saga of this documentary about moderate Muslims who have courageously challenged co-religionists known as Islamists — adherents to a totalitarian political ideology seeking to dominate the Muslim faith and, in turn, the world. Like innumerable editorialists, bloggers and ordinary citizens around the country, the authors of these messages had been frustrated and outraged when PBS and its Washington flagship, WETA, culminated months of efforts to alter and then censor “Islam vs. Islamists” by refusing to broadcast it, as planned, as part of the “Crossroads” series rolled out last month. They assumed the Oregon announcement meant national distribution was imminent.
Unfortunately, the CPB’s arrangement with the Oregon PBS means no such thing. Far from the treatment accorded other “Crossroads” series programs — nationwide broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service, in prime-time with a substantial promotional budget — “Islam vs. Islamists” would simply be “made available” to PBS stations. Maybe some would decide to run it over the next few months. Maybe they would do so at 3 a.m. or Sunday afternoons when practically no one is watching. There are no guarantees of pick-up in any, let alone all, major markets.
Worse yet, the Oregon distributors have announced they will accompany the film with the equivalent of a consumer warning label — a “discussion” that will provide “context” for viewers. Presumably, this means the sort of “context” our film’s critics at PBS and WETA kept trying to impose on us: Changes they believed would make it, in their words, less “one-sided” (read, fairer to the Islamists) and less “alarmist.”
If past practice is any guide, those recruited to provide such “balance” will likely be representatives of organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim Students Association (MSA). Though these groups are well-known Saudi-funded, pro-Islamist fronts, their views were exclusively and highly sympathetically featured in a documentary called “The Muslim Americans.” PBS seemed to have no reservations about airing this wholly one-sided film during the “Crossroads” series roll-out in April.
In short, now that widespread criticism has made it impossible to sustain PBS’ suppression of “Islam vs. Islamists,” the anti-Islamist Muslims who are its subjects are to be remanded to decidedly second-class coverage. Call it CPB’s version of the “Rosa Parks treatment.”
Recall that Rosa Parks could have got to her job via public transportation — as long as she “knew her place” and agreed to ride in the back of the bus. So, too, moderate Muslims can have their stories, as recorded in a film produced with some $675,000 in public monies, shown on the public airwaves — in at least a few locations at some point in time.
But these heroic figures must know their place, too. And their place is not in prime time, nor national distribution. Only Islamists and their apologists are entitled to front-of-the-bus treatment from those like Robert MacNeil (the host of the “Crossroads” series and producer — thanks to a sweetheart deal — of “The Muslim Americans” show), Sharon Percy Rockefeller (wife of one senator and daughter of a former senator, Jay Rockefeller and Charles Percy, respectively, and president of WETA) and the handful of others responsible for PBS’ rejection of “Islam vs. Islamists.”
If ever there were a time when the American people are entitled to the most comprehensive presentation possible of information concerning the struggle for the soul and future of Islam, this should be it. After all, last week a Pew Research poll found roughly a quarter of the Muslim-American population thinks suicide bombing is legitimate in at least some circumstances. An even larger percentage claimed not to believe that Arabs perpetrated the attacks of on America of September 11, 2001.
The particular irony is that the whole idea behind “America at a Crossroads” was that it was intended to offer the American people 20 programs featuring differing viewpoints and a variety of stories that would, taken together, help inform the public about the post-September 11 world. This creative vision demands that the experiences and warnings of authentically moderate, pro-democratic and tolerant Muslims be treated at least as favorably as the portrayal of those in the Muslim community determined to stifle their voices. Certainly, public broadcasting should not be party to such suppression.
A bipartisan group of legislators have called for prompt, national distribution of “Islam vs. Islamists.” They have been as impressed by the quality of the film PBS doesn’t want you to see as they are outraged by how people entrusted with responsibility for the public airwaves have handled it and those involved in its production. The “Rosa Parks” treatment is not what they have in mind, what the courageous anti-Islamist Muslims deserve, nor what will be acceptable to the national audience that expects to be able to view this documentary without further delay.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is a partner in ABG Films Inc., which produced “Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center,” and is a columnist for The Washington Times.