Friday, October 19, 2007


Rafia Zakaria
Daily Times, Pakistan

One of the most daunting challenges facing America today is to realise
that choosing those Muslims that look most Western and thus least
threatening, and reviling others as Islamofascist, is a prejudiced and
misguided stance.

In recent days, the Public Broadcasting Channel (PBS) in the United
States has been airing a series of documentaries on the challenges
facing America in the post-9/11 world. Perhaps predictably, many if
not all such documentaries focus on themes such as Islam in America,
`Reform in Islam and the like.

One of these documentaries, entitled "Islam vs. Islamists", has
recently become the subject of controversy. PBS producers decided to
withdraw it from the line-up, owing to concerns that the documentary
"demonises Islam". The 52-minute film, which cost US$675,000 to make,
focuses on the conflicts between `moderate' Muslims and Islamists that
have erupted since 9/11. The producers of the documentary have decried
the move by PBS executives as unwarranted censorship and have appeared
in news and media outlets defending their work.

The controversy is illustrative of several things. First, it
demonstrates the near-frenzied desire among Western media, in their
attempt to overcome their ignorance of Islam, to come up with neat
definitions of terms such as "moderate" Muslim, "conservative" Muslim
and of course "Islamist". Now relegated to the floor of a cutting room
at PBS, this film takes a particular stance on the issue. It paints
some "moderate" Muslims, in this case a chosen few as the `good'
Muslims. These `good' Muslims are reviled and castigated by the `bad'
or Islamist Muslims who subject them to threats of violence and

On its face, the stated aim of the film's producers, both of whom
belong to neo-conservative think tanks, is to illustrate how moderate
Muslims are often persecuted in their attempt to defend their faith
from extremists. Taken by itself this is a venerable goal — recent
events in Pakistan have illustrated only too well the struggles of
moderate Muslims in taking on the incipient extremism spreading within
their faith and the challenging obstacles they face in doing so.

The troubling aspect of the film is its attempt to brand what kind of
Muslim counts as acceptable or unacceptable, especially within Western
contexts. In choosing certain people to represent Islam and suggesting
that only liberal and progressive notions of Islam are acceptable or
good, the makers of the film seek to advance an argument that fails to
respect the distinction between conservative and extremist Muslims.
This distinction between religious "conservatism" and religious
"extremism" is crucial: one is an orthodox (even traditional)
interpretation of religion (in this case Islam) while the latter
manifests a streak that invariably uses religion for political
purposes and even justifies killing others by branding them as infidel.

In other words, while efforts such as campaigns to establish Sharia
tribunals in Ontario (which are presented as examples of what the bad
or `Islamist' Muslims do in the film) can be criticised politically
for their religious conservatism, they cannot be criminalised and
treated like extremist campaigns that justify terrorism and the taking
of innocent lives. To conflate religious extremism with religious
conservatism is not only to make the mistake of alienating millions of
Muslims who are peaceful but conservative, but also minimises the
grotesque acts of extremist Muslims who are actively involved in

Equally worthy of discussion is the politics of those behind the
documentary. Frank Gaffney, one of the lead creators of the film is
head of the neo-conservative hawk policy institute, Centre for
Security Policy. A stalwart in his support for the war in Iraq,
Gaffney in a recent presentation argued that Tehran "is working toward
a nuclear capability that could destroy America as we know it" even
suggesting that the Iranians are set to produce a nuclear weapon that
would detonate itself over space and return America "to a
pre-industrial society in the blink of an eye".

Gaffney's views pose an interesting and pressing question to liberal
Muslims in the West: Does hatred for fundamentalist Islam justify
aligning oneself with neo-conservative agendas? In other words, does
the reality of the tyranny of oppression and hatred unleashed by
conservative Imams justify supporting an equally barbaric and cruel
military expansionist agenda that involves the death and obliteration
of millions of innocent civilians? Ultimately, does fighting one form
of extreme fundamentalism require supporting another simply to insure
that at least one of these is vanquished?

The framing of this choice, and that it requires one to choose between
two evils, is in many ways the most damning geopolitical dilemma
facing Muslims in the West. Added to the temptation of joining forces
with the neo-cons bent on profiting from demonising Muslims is the
fact that those who have chosen to join forces with them have reaped
immense rewards. For instance, a Somali-born Dutch former MP is a
fellow at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute and is
reaping rich rewards from her autobiography, which presents Islam as
inherently violent and oppressive. Similarly, another writer, a
frequent guest on the conservative Glenn Beck show, has been painted
as a hero by Western media. Being the kind of `moderate' Muslim the
American neo-conservatives want you to be is indeed becoming a quick
trip to instant fame and fortune.

The aim of the `America at a Crossroads' series of which the canned
documentary was a part, is to present an overview of the challenges
facing the United States in a post-9/11 world. In choosing not to air
the documentary, PBS seems to have made its most persuasive statement
regarding the message they were attempting to send. Indeed, one of the
most daunting challenges facing America today is to realise that
choosing those Muslims that look most Western and thus least
threatening, and reviling others as Islamofascist, is a prejudiced and
misguided stance.

Religious extremism is undoubtedly a reality and must be countered,
but its ideological antidote is not a different kind of fundamentalism
but rather a campaign against all fundamentalisms, religious or otherwise.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she
teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She
can be contacted at rafia.zakaria @



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