August 14, 2007 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

PBS can't tune out moderate Muslims

Americans have a pretty good chance after all to see "the film PBS doesn't want you to see."

That's how the producers of "Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center" describe their powerful documentary about moderate Muslims who refuse to be intimidated and silenced by extremists within their faith.

Four months ago, the Public Broadcasting Service squelched the 52-minute film as "unfair" and "alarmist"  in telling the stories of four Muslim professionals who stand up to activist imams and their followers in Denmark, Canada, France and the United States.

Now, though, viewers can decide for themselves whether the filmmakers were heavy handed in exploring answers to a haunting question since the Sept. 11 attacks: Why aren't we hearing more from Muslims who denounce terrorists and their hateful ideology?

As of Aug. 14, "Islam vs. Islamists" was scheduled to air on at least 40 public television stations in 18 states in the weeks leading up to the sixth anniversary of the attacks.

Director Martyn Burke and producers Frank Gaffney and Alex Alexiev understandably were disappointed that Oregon Public Broadcasting -- not PBS with its marketing support and supposed stamp of quality -- is distributing their baby.

Viewers may see the film on stations in 21 of the top 60 markets, including such big cities as Philadelphia, San Jose, San Francisco, Dallas, Detroit, Houston and Denver.

Also on board are stations in Tampa and Orlando, Fla.; Tempe, Ariz., Portland, Ore.; Muncie and Bloomington, Ind.;  Nashville and Memphis, Tenn.; Kansas City, Mo.; Columbus, Ohio; Birmingham, Ala., Providence, R.I.;  Lexington, Ky.; and Topeka, Kan.

More of the 200-odd independent programmers for 350 public stations are likely to pick up the documentary as they build fall lineups, said David Davis, OPB's vice president for national production.

"I've been pleased. We're seeing very good results," Davis said in an interview.

PBS and lead affiliate WETA, outside Washington, D.C., had pressed Burke, a Canadian, to lose his conservative American partners and soften the documentary's point of view. After the producers refused, PBS -- home to such irreproachable fare as Bill Moyers, "Frontline" and, ahem, "P.O.V." -- rejected "Islam vs. Islamists" for inclusion in its "America at a Crossroads" series in April.

The documentary defines Islamists as radical Muslims who want their religion's law, sharia, to become the basis of politics and society, even in non-Muslim democracies. The men profiled confront imams whom they say use Saudi oil wealth to spread an "insidious ideology" behind a false face of moderation in mosques throughout the West.

"I don't like terrorists, and I don't like the Islamists, period," Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, a Sufi Muslim leader in America and Britain who appears in the film, told the audience for a July 12 screening at The Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Gaffney argued that the left has made "common cause" with the Islamists by depicting them as part of mainstream Islam and rebuffing criticism as "hate speech."

Gaffney and Alexiev, who run the D.C.-based Center for Security Policy, beat up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gives taxpayers' money to PBS and invested $700,000 in their film. They accused it of "dumping" the documentary in Oregon to quell a political flap over the PBS ban.

But it looks like the fair-minded folks at OPB -- no hotbed of conservatism -- are hustling to get the film into as many homes in prime time as they can.

"When I saw the documentary," Davis said, "it immediately struck me that this was a very important subject that most Americans don't know much about -- the battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims."

To make it go down easier, OPB pulled a Ted Koppel by taping a separate, half-hour segment in which three Muslim Americans talk about the issues raised. This is hardly a humiliating adulteration, and so far all but five stations have opted to air it afterward.

One panelist, Phoenix physician Zuhdi Jasser, is portrayed in the film as vilified by fellow Muslims for speaking out against extremism.  The others are Rafia Zakaria, a Pakistan-born lawyer and professor at Indiana University, and Ahmed Rehab, the Cairo-born executive director of Chicago's chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, itself criticized as an apologist for terrorists.

Calls and e-mails from viewers who believe in free speech and want to make up their own minds could help convince more public TV stations to schedule "Islam vs. Islamists."  

Ken McIntyre is the Marilyn and Fred Guardabassi Fellow in Media and Public Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ken McIntyre Senior Editor, The Daily Signal, and Guardabassi Fellow in Media and Public Policy
The Daily Signal

First appeared on the McClatchy wire on Aug. 9, 2007