Propaganda, Islam, and the Election — Shatha Almutawa

Shatha Almutawa

October 16, 2008

This Ramadan, Muslims and Arabs across the United States have come face to face with questions of identity and portrayal, as 28 million copies of the movie Obsession: Radical Islam's War against the West were distributed in fourteen swing states, in a blatant and large-scale misrepresentation of Muslims.  The DVDs were distributed by seventy newspapers including The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and were also mailed directly to registered voters shortly after the anniversary of 9/11.  The Detroit Free Press and two other newspapers refused to circulate the DVD because "distributing the piece would have been irresponsible and harmful."

And the film is, indeed, harmful.  The disclaimer at the beginning, that the movie is about radical Islam and not the majority of Muslims who are peaceful, is forgotten ten minutes into the movie when Khaled Abu Toameh, an Israeli Arab, says, "What is worrying is that there's a silent majority that is not speaking out in a very strong voice against these groups.  And I hope it's only out of fear and not out of sympathy with people like Osama ben Laden."  This quote summarizes the message of the movie:  Americans have no way of knowing which Muslim is an extremist who agrees with Osama ben Laden and which one is peaceful, and therefore ought to be suspicious of every Muslim.  

Aside from its prejudiced message, the movie makes several unfounded claims.  Walid Shoebat, "former PLO terrorist," claims that there are as many Muslim supporters of terrorism as there are Americans, and that these Muslims are all over the world.  Following footage of the pilgrimage in Mecca, the narrator asks, "[W]hat percentage of the Islamic world supports jihad?"  Abu Toameh answers, "The Muslim world consists of more than one billion people," and Daniel Pipes says that ten to fifteen percent support radical Islam.  He continues, "That is not to say that only ten percent are anti-American or anti-Zionist.  No, that's much larger."  

According to the Pew Charitable Foundation's Global Attitudes Project, people in Muslim countries predominantly view Islamic extremism as people in the West do, and are concerned that it poses a threat to their own countries.  The film fails to point out that according to quantifiable data, more Muslims oppose terrorism, especially suicide bombings, than ever in the past.  Nonie Darwish, the daughter of a "martyr," tells us that Jihad means "to conquer the world for Allah."  But Muslim leaders and scholars of Islam have repeatedly stated that Jihad does not mean holy war.  Muslims have defined and redefined this term countless times - to give only one example, the Muslim gay and lesbian community has claimed the term for their struggle for LGBT rights.  They, like many other Muslims, understand jihad according to its literal meaning: struggle, and in most cases it is internal struggle.  

The movie then claims that Muslims who do not agree with the terrorists are killed, even though Muslims have spoken out publicly against extremism without being killed, in the US and abroad, profesors and laymen, mullas and secular Muslims alike.  The American Muslim, a journal that was established in 1989, states that its mission is the "promotion of peace, justice, and reconciliation for all humanity."  One section on their website, "Muslim Voices Against Terrorism and Extremism" boasts hundreds of articles.  

Muslims and Arabs across the United States are speaking out against this misrepresentation, and they are joined by clergy across many denominations.  The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President of the Interfaith Alliance in Washington D.C., issued a public statement in which he wrote, "We firmly believe that everyone has a right to an opinion.  But when a cynical attempt is made to influence our nation's presidential election by stoking fear of one religious group we believe the media along with public officials, such as the Federal Election Commission, must establish who is trying to influence our politics through religious bigotry."  

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) investigated the Clarion Fund, which distributed the film, and found that "it is a front organization for an Israeli-based group, Aish HaTorah International."  CAIR filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission to investigate a foreign-based group trying to influence the outcome of the American elections.  Because of its 501(c)(3) status, Clarion Fund "can't engage in partisan politics," according to NPR's 2008 Election Campaign Secret Money Project.  But that is exactly what it does by distributing the film in such a way, inciting fear and prejudice among Americans and rendering the moderate Muslim and Arab majority invisible and voiceless.  

Shatha Almutawa is a PhD student in History of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is studying the interactions between Muslim and Jewish philosophy in the medieval period.

See all articles by Shatha Almutawa