Jewish World Review Dec. 17, 2002 / 12 Teves, 5763

PBS: Missionary
for Islam?

By Daniel Pipes | What would be the single best way to convert lots of Americans to Islam?

Forget print, go to film. Put together a handsome documentary with an original musical score that presents Islam's prophet Muhammad in the most glowing manner, indeed, as a model of perfection. Round up Muslim and non-Muslim enthusiasts to endorse the nobility and truth of his message. Splice the story of his life with vignettes of winsome American Muslims testifying to the justice and beauty of their Islamic faith.

Then procure U.S. taxpayer sponsorship for the film. Get it shown at prime time on the most high-minded television network. Oh, and screen it at least once during the holiday season, when anyone out of synch with Christmas might be especially susceptible to Islam's appeal.

And that is precisely what the producers of "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet" have done. In a documentary The Washington Post calls "absorbing, ... enjoyable and informative" and the Los Angeles Times describes as "thoughtful, flowing, visually stunning," exotic images of the desert and medieval miniatures mix with scenes of New York City and the American flag. Born- and convert-American Muslims speak affectingly about their personal bond to their prophet.

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) will show this two-hour documentary across the United States initially on Wednesday, Dec. 18th, in the evening, then repeat it in most areas. The film's largest tranche of funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, "a private, non-profit corporation created by Congress" which in fiscal 2002 received $350 million in taxpayers' funds.

The heart of the film consists of nine talking heads competing with each other to praise Muhammad the most extravagantly. As a result, not one of them criticizes him. Some of their efforts are laughable, as when one commentator states that allegations about Muhammad contracting a marriage of convenience with a rich, older woman named Khadija are wrong for "he deeply, deeply loved Khadija." Oh, and his many marriages were "an act of faith, not of lust."

Other apologetics are more consequential. What Muhammad did for women, viewers learn, was "amazing" - his condemning female infanticide, giving legal rights to wives, permitting divorce, and protecting their inheritance rights. But no commentator is so impolite as to note that however admirable this was in the seventh century, Muslim women today suffer widely from genital mutilation, forced marriages, purdah, illiteracy, sexual apartheid, polygamy, and honor killings.

The film treats religious beliefs -- such as Muhammad's "Night Journey," when the Qur'an says he went to heaven and entered the divine presence -- as historical facts. Muslim wars are presented as only defensive and reluctant. All this smacks of a film shown by missionaries, not a prime-time documentary.

Move to the present and the political correctness is stifling. Hostility is said to be "hurled" at American Muslims since 9/11 --- but there's no mention about the prior and vastly greater Muslim hostility "hurled" at Americans, killing several thousand. The narrator exaggerates the number of American Muslims, overestimates their rate of growth, and wrongly states they are the country's "most diverse" religious community.

But these are details. "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet" is an outrage on two main counts. First, PBS has betrayed its viewers by presenting an air-brushed and uncritical documentary of a topic that has both world historical and contemporary significance. Its patronizing film might be fine for an Islamic Sunday school class (the Philadelphia Inquirer calls the film a "blessed opportunity for rest and reflection"), but not for a national audience.

For example, PBS ignores an ongoing scholarly reassessment of Muhammad's life that disputes every detail -- down to the century and region Muhammad lived in -- of its film. This silence is especially odd when contrasted with the 1998 PBS documentary, "From Jesus to Christ," which focuses almost exclusively on the work of cutting-edge scholars and presents the latest in critical thinking on Jesus.

Second, the U.S. government must never fund a documentary whose obvious intent is to glorify a religion and proselytize for it. Doing so flies in the face of every American tradition, custom, norm, law, and regulation. On behalf of taxpayers, a public-interest law firm should bring suit against the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, both to address this week's travesty and to win an injunction against any possible repetitions.

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JWR contributor Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of several books, most recently Militant Islam Reaches America. Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Daniel Pipes