Thursday, October 1, 2015

Mistrials in the Court of Public Opinion

Last night, Amy and I watched an hour-long preview of the DVD release Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West. (I'm not sure how you can call an hour-long movie a "preview" when the full version is only 17 minutes longer, but I digress.) We got the DVD from a friend who lives in Charlotte, who had gotten it via its inclusion in a recent edition of The Charlotte Observer. We were in the mood for a movie, but it was getting late and we didn't want to invest in a two-hour romantic comedy, so we popped this disk in instead.

As a piece of documentary, it was interesting. Not the most exciting thing in the world, but definitely interesting. The film begins with a pretty clear explanation that it is talking exclusively about a particular minority subgroup of the Muslim population that promotes and engages in acts of violence, not about the majority of Muslims who are peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Most of the film consists of footage from Iranian and Arabian television broadcasts, with bits of commentary from a handful of folks (a former PLO terrorist, the daughter of a suicide bomber, an anti-Semitism expert, an ex-Hitler Youth officer, etc.) between clips. The television footage — especially the stuff showing children passionately reciting jihadist poetry and huge assemblies of people chanting "Death to America" — are intriguing enough. But the commentators serve to add the "personal touch" plea for awareness and action by all people (Muslim or otherwise).

After the film was over, Amy and I were both of the same frame of mind. You might assume we were angry at Islam or something. You'd be wrong. Our mindset was one of sadness on behalf of the children taught to hate and kill in the name of Allah. We had brief discussion about the movie, then turned off the lights to go to sleep. But just as we were doing so, Amy wanted to know more about the folks who produced the film. I had noticed that the copyright on the disc was for 2006, which seemed odd as I was seeing it for the first time in 2008. I had even rhetorically asked Amy earlier, "Why is this just now coming out, seven years after 9/11?" And we both wondered if the Observer was the only newspaper that participated in this distribution. So we got back out of bed to hover around the computer.

The movie's website wasn't able to quickly answer the question about which newspapers participated in the distribution of the DVD, so we started Googling around. (We later found some of that information on the movie's Wikipedia page.) We visited a handful of top results in our Google searches, and every site we found was criticizing the film, its producers, or the recent distribution. But what turned our mood from sadness into frustration was that none of the criticism was about factual inaccuracies in the film, but about tangential issues. Most of what we saw was one of the following:

  • Complaints from Muslim groups saying that the film enforces a negative stereotype of all Muslims and would encourage hate crimes against Muslims. I dunno. The movie does carry the disclaimer I mentioned at the beginning of the film, carries video footage of Tony Blair echoing the same sentiments in person at the end of the film, and everywhere in-between the commentators are careful to speak about "radical Islamists" or "jihadists" and appealing to the peaceful majority of Islam-dom to decry the violence of the radical wing thereof. I guess I don't see how this piece of film could possibly affect the Muslim stereotype more than is already done every time one of the Islamic terror groups gets mentioned on the evening news for perpetrating their violence d'jour.

  • Complaints that the film is clearly a political piece promoting a particular candidate for the U.S. Presidency. But I don't recall the movie or its packaging ever mentioning any such candidates or political parties. Unless I'm mistaken, the only times you see American political figures in the film is in radical Muslim propaganda footage portraying George W. Bush as evil (which is pretty common in American media, too). The claim is apparently that the film's backers are decidedly pro-McCain, anti-Obama. But that sentiment is simply not present in the film itself. You'd need out-of-band information to draw that conclusion, the most influential of which is the viewer's already-formed opinions about a particular candidate's ability and willingness to respond to the described threat.

In other words, what we quickly found by Googling around was the online equivalent of a mistrial.

To the Muslims concerned that documentaries on radical Islamic jihadists will enhance negative stereotypes of all Muslims: It is certainly disappointing that that's probably true for some viewers. Every documentary about Death Row enforces negative stereotypes of black males in some folks' minds. Every documentary about gang violence enforces negative stereotypes of the ethnic groups represented in those gangs. Every documentary about The Crusades or Christian abortion clinic bombers enforces negative stereotypes of Christians like myself, too. (Sheesh, the media tends to negatively portray even peaceful, law-abiding Christians, for that matter.) I think people cling to stereotypes because we all inherently like to categorize stuff, and stereotypes are the intellectually easy way to do that categorization. The questions that all folks who are victims of unfair stereotypes must ask of themselves is, "What am I doing to correct or refine that inaccurate stereotype?" Are you and I and the Jew and the black man and the Latino and the [insert stereotyped person here] supporting our respective stereotypes with our lives, or do we daily disprove that we are what the weak-minded claim we are? Do we speak out against the crimes committed by people "like us", or does our silence allow folks to assume we support those crimes?

I don't know if there's some political agenda behind the recent distribution of this film. My heart tells me there probably is. But if that's the point that everyone is dwelling on, am I alone in thinking that's sorta bad? Is the documentary a giant lie? If so, discredit it with the truth. But if it isn't — if, in fact, radical Islam is as the DVD suggests a historical recurrence of the pattern last seen in the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Nazi Germany — does it ultimately matter why the documentary was distributed? Would not the terrorism itself be considered a somewhat more high-priority issue than who paid what to inform us about it and why they did so? One would think so.

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