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Shi'a Pundit

Devoted to the viewpoint of Islam of Muhammad SAW and Amir ul-Mumineen, Ali ibn Abi Talib SA, in the Shi'a Fatimi Ismaili Dawoodi Bohra tradition.

December 23, 2002

how media bias filters perception.

My friend Brian Tiemann is upset that his tax dollars are being used to document the life of the Prophet SAW. He is referring to PBS's series, Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet. There is a hysteric tinge to his post, which strikes me as out of character given his usually well-reasoned arguments about how PC's suck and Macs rule (usually written to counter arguments that Apple sucks and Microsoft rules).

Brian breathlessly quotes Daniel Pipe's critique of the documentary, which can basically be summed up as follows: [1] the documentary is "airbrushed and uncritical", [2] it ignores "scholarly" evidence that the dcetails of Muhamad's life are in dispute, even down to century and geographical region (!), and [3] that this documentary amounts to taxpayer-funded prosletyzing.

You can also read these three points as code: [1] The horrible evil of Islam and the Prophet SAW are so obvious that any characterization that doesn't outright condemn the faith is clearly a biased propaganda effort, perpetrated by the vast Muslim conspiracy. [2] The Petulant Fairness Principle demands that since some mean old researchers are investigating Jesus, then the history of Muhamad SAW is clearly false. [3] PBS documentaries are well-known to serve as prosletization vehicles (massive drain on the taxcuts-for-the-rich-depleted coffers that they are)

In response to [1], I think there is an expectation that since some of Islam's followers have done such horrible things, that there must be a corresponding taint on the image of the founder of the faith to explain it. The simple truth is that Muhamad's SAW life was devoted to establishing Islam, in the face of such implacable persecution (by pagan Arabs, and also by some local tribes of Jews) that it consumed him. I will be the first to stand up and accuse the suceeding Caliphates and dynasties (especially the Ummaiyads) of ignominy, but those accusations are well-recorded by Islamic sources and not airbrushed either. I find the selective cynicism of critics of Islam (such as Brian) to be founded more in reactionary fear rather than any rational assessment of history.

This leads into my response to point [2]. There is a 600 year gap between Jesus and Muhammad, and history degrades exponentially as you go farther back in time. Jesus lived centuries before the Bible was published, whereas Muhamad SAW was the vehicle of the Qur'an himself. The Qur'an existed as physical text within a few decades of Muhamad's SAW death, well within the lifetimes of his closest companions and the general memory of the populace and followers.[1]

Finally, point [3] is the most rife with hypocrisy. To imagine that a PBS documentary amounts to prosletization is absurd, even inane. PBS has given comprehensive and equally laudatory treatment to other major faiths (including Judaism and Christianity). The minor dissent referred to by Pipes[2] was a very minor part of the documentary about Christianity - but this doesn't stop biased people from applying different sets of standards.

Finally, Brian injects his own misconceptions to the debate by claiming that Islam is becoming counter culture, and that the PBS documentary will validate that:

The disaffected youth of today crave a non-American role model. They sneer when they see the Stars and Stripes on TV, even (and sometimes especially) after 9/11. It's cool to be non-American, even anti-American. Why watch Disney movies when you can take that beginning Japanese 101 for Anime-Watching course and pepper your speech with kawaii and gaijin and otaku? Why eat at McDonald's when you can eat take-out Thai? Why go to church with your clueless parents when you can go to a mosque?

...for someone wishing to make his fiery teenaged mark on the world, perhaps the most rebellious and self-righteous and purposefully inscrutable thing he can do-- the thing most surely guaranteed to piss off his parents, far more so than listening to Eminem or smoking-- would be to cheer 9/11 and/or convert to Islam.

Part of this bizarre viewpoint is driven by Brian's subscription to the Ar-Rahman Yahoo group which is partly populated by vocal muslim youth and hotheads of the kind that, were they Jewish, would be ideal recruitment fodder for the Jewish Defense League. Despite long conversations with Brian via email, his viewpoint of Islam is still that it is an extremist faith, with occassional outliers like myself, and that the religion is intrinsically opposed to the American way of life. As long as he self-filters his information about Islam through Ar Rahman one one hand and Daniel Pipes on the other, I'm afraid that paranoid conspiracy theories like "Islam is stealing our youth!" will persist.

Brian finishes his rant thusly:

... I'm not about to tolerate my tax money being used to fund positively-biased proselytizing films for those religions, to be shown on PBS right in the middle of a period when we're trying to find solace in our cherished traditions while so much of the world we grew up with changes right out from under us. Now's a time when we need the facts, and the other facts that back them up-- not propaganda designed to be divisive and to further an agenda which is profoundly counter to the spirit upon which this country was founded.

This strikes me as quintessentially anti-American. What kind of PC nonsense is it to say that Christmas is a "special cultural time" that is somehow defiled by the mere presence of Islam? Apparently, I missed how vulnerable the holiday was to desecration while being distracted by the Mercedes Benz commercial using "Silent Night" as its jingle, the Coca Cola Corporation-designed Official Mascot of the holiday on every street corner (draped in the corporate colors), and the season-coordinated plotlines across all sitcoms of every major network.

People observing Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Eid have more spirituality and culture associated with this time of year than people whose entire concept of Christmas is "drape the house with lights, put the Bing Crosby CD in the 5 disc changer, and go on a shopping spree!". Perhaps we should go after the Jews and the Blacks for daring to desecrate this Holy Commemoration of Commercialism with their unseemly displays of alien religion and cultures also?

And as for it being on PBS, that is PBS's job. It BELONGS on PBS. If someone has a problem with it, thats their prerogative, they don't have to phone in funds during the telethon. But whininng about tax dollars is as ignorant as it is asinine, because most of PBS's funding comes from viewers and corporate donors. Of the 171 member stations, 88 are community organizations, 56 are colleges/universities, 20 are state authorities and 7 are local educational or municipal authorities. Leading sources of revenue: members (23.5%); state governments (18.3%); CPB & federal grants/contracts (16.4%); businesses (16.1%); state colleges and universities (6.5%); and foundations (5.5%). It's not just liberals tuning in, either - 73.2% of all American television-owning families watch public television, averaging 8 hours a month.

AND - PBS overall does more to raise the level of debate and awareness and tolerance - all essential to our democracy - than the rest of television combined, so your "tax dollars" (negligible!!) are being put to the highest possible SNR use than they do anywhere else in government.

Brian's assertion that this PBS documentary is prosletization is simply absurd. I can't even stomach responding to that charge any further, especially is he hasn't even seen the documenttary, only bothered to read about it from Islam-haters or polemicists like Pipes. Brian, watch the damn documentary yourself and then tell me if its prosletizing or not.

And how in God's name does the documentary threaten Brian's ability to "find solace in our cherished traditions" ?? Will Brian be putting a star on his Christmas tree and sudddenly little Cousin Johnny turns on PBS, sees a muezzin, and is suddenly compelled to burn the tree down? Likewise, from whence the charge that the documentary is "divisive" ?? Perhaps all those subversive Muslims should wear the cross during the holiday season as a show of solidarity? (memo to Kwanzaa displays and Menorahs: you're next).

Christmas is a holiday that transcends religion -its a universal theme of inclusion, tolerance, and hope. I find the airing of PBS's documentary on Muhamad SAW to be appropriate. And I reject any argument that it is "insensitive" or otherwise innapropriate to be nothing morethan politically-correct fearful paranoia.

Brian's vision of Islam is not extreme, nor is his reaction out of the ordinary. The simple truth is, that our faith will be held to a different standard than Christianity or Judaism or atheism. The fact is that any attempt at bringing information about Islam to light that doesn't fit with this dark portrayal will automatically be dismissed as "propaganda".

And the existence of "moderate" muslims is irrelevant. This is why we, as "moderate" muslims, shoudl stop wasting our time. The battle is long lost. There isn't any point in even engaging Brian in debate, because no matter how many pages of text you write, no matter how much progress you make, no matter how many clever analogies and subtle points you are able to invoke, the debate is already lost.

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Nahj-ul Balagha

About Shi'a Pundit

Shi'a Pundit was launched in 2002 during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The blog focuses on issues pertaining to Shi'a Islam in the west and in the Islamic world. The author is a member of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community. Bohras adhere to the Shi'a Fatimi tradition of Islam, headed by the 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (TUS).

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