Rebutting Obsession

Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, Eli Clifton, Jane Hunter and Robin Podolsky

Posted Dec 7, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Obsession - Historical Facts Topple Film’s Premise That Violent Muslim Fundamentalists are Nazis’ Heirs, Expose its Fear-mongering

by Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, Eli Clifton, Jane Hunter and Robin Podolsky

“If you want to get people to fight, you have to make them think there’s a threat and they’re in danger.” Itamar Marcus, Obsession

1. Whose Obsession And With What?

The film, Obsession, purports to be about national security issues; but it does not offer the kind of careful analysis that such crucially important topics deserve. Instead, it offers an agenda-driven combination of emotionally laden images, distortions, omissions and, deliberately or not, outright misstatements.

It is our assertion that this film’s title, Obsession, works as a command as much as a description. We believe that the attitudes and ideologies appearing to drive the film are mirror images of those that the makers of Obsession impute to what they dub “radical Islam:” a unifying, objectifying fear and hatred of a collection of disparate countries, religious orientations, ethnicities and political cliques that combines them into one powerful, inexplicable, alien enemy — one that, the film hints ominously, includes our Muslim fellow citizens and recent immigrants to our country. At a time of transition and economic pain for the United States, Obsession builds an epic narrative that allows the viewer to project all of his or her real and various fears and anxieties onto one externalized, hated foe.

Most dangerously, the film is structured to belie its ostensible disclaimer of any intention to portray the entirety of Islam as a violent and hateful religion. Stock footage of Muslims bowing in prayer or circling the Ka’aba at Mecca are interspersed with frightening images of gun-wielding youths and speakers who misuse traditional Islamic concepts such as jihad to incite violence. Eerie, “Middle Eastern”-sounding world-beat music sets off both sets of clips.

The frankly anti-Islamic message of Obsession is most apparent when the viewer is being warned about the “danger at home.” Undercutting the narrators’ assurances that the masses of peaceful, “good” Muslims are not to blame and ought not to feel insulted by any insinuation they might infer from Obsession, is the repetition of the word “infiltrated,” and the frightening message that the saboteurs among us may be indistinguishable by dress, manner or any outward sign — save that they are Muslim. To understand why this is dangerous, one need only remember the situation, during World War II, of Japanese Americans and the stigma faced earlier in the 20th century by non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants, including Jews1. Anyone needing reassurance after viewing Obsession might find it in remembering the degree to which all of those groups have, after all the fuss, helped to shape and become shaped by the culture of our country.

The Worst Accusation

Key to the Obsession narrative is an attempt to portray violent Islamic fundamentalism as a seamless continuation of Nazi fascism. Obsession strafes us with images, such as recurrent footage of the 9/11 attacks conflated with film from the Holocaust, to which we can’t help but respond viscerally. It means to conflate outrage against these crimes with an acceptance of the very particular politics of the film, and to imply that a failure to accept the latter is a betrayal of the victims of the former. We are asked to forget the Cold War decades that elapsed between World War II and the rise of violent fundamentalism in the Middle East in order to associate that fundamentalism with the movement that in the West has become a key signifier of radical evil.

The argument that what Obsession’s pundits persist in calling “radical Islam” is a direct ideological descendant of Nazi fascism, depends, as we will show, on staggering omissions and distortions. Any viewer who is effectively dissuaded from carrying on further research by fear of what the talking heads of Obsession dub political correctness, and what others might call a healthy curiosity, might come away from Obsession with a picture of history in which whole decades—those in which the Cold War and the struggles for independence by formerly colonized nations that configured much of international politics—never happened.

Obsession’s invocation of the now familiar right-wing meme, “politically correct” is augmented with pseudo-psychological reflections about “denial.” That discussion is punctuated with an image that has an inescapable, visceral effect on most Americans and any Jew watching the film: footage of a ranting Adolf Hitler. Itamar Marcus2 of Palestinian Media Watch compares “the press” of today to Neville Chamberlain.

The makers of Obsession wish for its audience to commit to the idea that “radical Islam” represents the sort of threat (that word is repeated over and over by the talking heads) that the Nazis did — and to regard their Muslim American neighbors with the suspicion that they might harbor within themselves just that degree of evil. The film juxtaposes footage of Hitler youth with awful scenes of very young children in Muslim and Arab societies purportedly being taught to envision themselves as soldiers and to parrot statements of deep contempt for Jews. (A professional translator has determined that, in at least one such scene that purports to children preparing to become suicide bombers, the on-screen translation is skewed to the point of misrepresentation. Please see Obsession’s Translation Errors.)

Some of the most repulsive footage shown is taken from a Syrian movie made for satellite television called Al-Shatat. The film presents the ancient blood libel, first propagated by the medieval Christian church, that Jews slaughter Christian children in order to use their blood in making the Passover ritual bread.

However, even Bernard Lewis, advocate of the “clash of civilizations” theory, indicates that such imagery did not gain immediate currency among Muslims during World War II but has increased dramatically since the 1967 war leading to the occupation and military rule by Israel, of land inhabited by Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens.3 It is imperative to bear in mind that, before the military conflicts occasioned by the establishment of the state of Israel, the Christian blood libel was almost unheard-of among Muslims. Most Muslim countries contained sizable Jewish populations that had been mostly stable for centuries, albeit, as minority cultures, vulnerable.

It is not our purpose here to try to untangle the knot of national awakenings, religious imperatives and material needs that came into conflict between nascent Israelis and Palestinians in the 20th century or to go into questions of what might have been done differently. We may simply observe that many Arabs in what the British occupiers called the Palestinian Mandate in the years before 1948 were excited at the prospect that their European overlords would leave the land and unwilling to accept a new influx of people whom they perceived as Western occupiers. On their own side, increasing numbers of Jews who entered Palestine as Nazism grew stronger and Eastern Europe roiled with political conflict considered themselves to be returning, in an hour of great need, to their legitimate, long-awaited homeland and could not perceive a difference between those Arabs who met them with hostility and the violent anti-Semites who had attacked them in the Diaspora.

Much is made, in Obsession, of the alliance, during World War II between the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and Adolf Hitler, and of the participation in the war of a brigade of Bosnian Muslims, on the Nazi side. (No mention is made of those Bosnian Muslims, who risked their lives in the anti-Nazi resistance; for example, the famous Dervis Korkut, who risked his life to save the Sarajevo Haggadah.4) Indeed, John Loftus, perhaps the most radical of Obsession’s pundits, asserts – with no evident documentation – that Muslims came from all over the Arab world to fight for the Nazis.

There is no question that the Mufti collaborated with the Nazis. Because of their hatred for Jews, al-Husseini saw in the Nazis allies for his central fight, resistance to what he considered European colonialism in the form of Zionism — which stood as an impediment to an independent Palestinian state.

Obsession implies that their shared antipathy toward Jews amounted to a unique sort of ideological agreement between the Mufti and the Nazi regime. However, while overarching conflicts do shape global events, alliances do not divide up neatly on the basis of seamless ideological agreement.

What might be regarded either as the Mufti’s opportunism or as his engagement with realpolitik had its many duplicates in the leaders of countries and political factions that are now regarded as allies of the West. For example, In Latvia, Estonia and other Eastern European collaborator states, there is little doubt that a shared cultural hatred of Jews, who were portrayed by local rightists and the new “liberating” Nazis as the beneficiaries of the previous Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, existed. During the Soviet occupation of September 1939 through June 1941, Gentile and Jewish Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were sent to Siberia, but the old anti-Semitic tropes sufficed to help to fuel the idea of Jewish special privileges. Yet there is very much doubt that the makers of Obsession would want to paint current NATO allies or pro-United States members of the European Union as incipient fascists – or intractable anti-Semites.

Other examples abound. Several key fighters for Irish independence from Britain, including figures who were prominent in the mainstream Irish party, Fianna Fail, and in the Irish Republican Army, which now shares a government with its formerly hated Protestant rivals, traveled to Germany during WWII. They sought friendly relations with the country that they regarded as a useful ally against their main enemy, England,5 as did the anti-British Iraqi rebel, Rashid Ali al-Kailani. The Finnish government not only fought with Germany on the Eastern Front but also fielded Jewish troops to fight by side-by-side with Nazis.6 (The protracted contemplation of that fact might make some members of Obsession’s intended audience far more nauseous than repeated viewings of Al-Shatat ever could.) Questions remain about whether Pope Pius XII7, a possible candidate for sainthood, refrained from challenging the Nazi regime openly because he regarded the Bolsheviks to be a worse evil. For that matter, anti-Zionists often point gleefully to those Zionists who worked with the German government to get Jews out of the country and into Palestine in order to save their lives.8

All of these forces and factions found points of agreement with which to appeal to the Nazi government to form practical arrangements based on what they believed to be their political and existential interests.

Anthropologist Osama Doumani, who lived in Palestine during the war, writes that the Mufti’s “pro-German stance represented an extant sentiment of a section of the Palestinian people at the time, certainly not a position held by all.” Writes Doumani: “Most Palestinians in the 1930s were still rural, illiterate or semi-literate people, living off the land. Even the townsfolk had no idea what Hitler stood for or what Nazism was all about. They would have been horrified to learn that he classified them, along with the Jews, toward the bottom of humanity!”

A look at the book, Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood, by Idith Zertal9, indicates that David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister, from May 14, 1948 until 1963) was one of the first Jewish political figures to make much of the Mufti’s alliance with Hitler; he did so in the context of Israel’s trial of Nazi administrator Adolf Eichmann in 1961 in service of the idea that only a strong, militarized Israel could protect world Jewry against the ongoing threat of anti-Semitism. According to Zertal, Ben-Gurion wanted to unite, in the public mind, the centuries-long history of European Jew-hatred with the newly kindled antagonism between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East in order to resist all political attempts to replace his government with one more sympathetic to the claims of Israel’s Arab citizens and neighbors or with displaced Arab refugees. This move was an attempt to invest Ben-Gurion’s political direction with the moral authority accorded to the struggles against Nazism and anti-Semitism. Zertal reports that State Prosecutor Gideon Hausner over-stressed the Mufti’s role in his interrogation of Eichmann on the orders of Ben-Gurion. Zertal indicates that, while Hitler and the advantages he could offer may have been important to al-Husseini, the Mufti was never of great importance to Hitler or to his staff.

It is worth noting here how strongly Ben-Gurion and his political allies objected to Hannah Arendt’s well-known book about the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil10; in particular to Arendt’s devastating portrait of Eichmann, not as a fascinating monster, but as a mediocre little man who supervised mass murder with the same striving diligence that he would have devoted to the export of paper clips, a corporate team player whose sole genius was in organization and who could only express himself in clichés. It is striking how offensive this portrait of Eichmann became to those who were engaged in spinning a grand narrative of an ongoing heroic battle. What looks to be the current hunger of the makers of Obsession for an epic struggle with a suitably impressive opponent resembles Ben-Gurion’s desire for a hideously impressive adversary to figure in the narrative of the need for his leadership.

World War II demonstrated how geopolitics makes for bedfellows that, looking backward, can appear very strange. We could find further illustrations of this idea by looking at the period that is entirely elided in Obsession, the decades of the Cold War.

The great divide between West and East after World War II ended, and until the fall of the Soviet Union, was not about Islam but about political and economic systems and access to raw materials. It is well to remember, in this context, that for a brief period, the emergent state of Israel was courted by the Soviets as much as by the United States, which had come out of the war as the West’s dominant power. Following the United States, the Soviet Union was the second nation to recognize Israel. Things changed, of course, as Israel became aligned firmly with the US and the longstanding cultural anti-Semitism of Russia and Eastern Europe became conflated with the USSR’s anti-religiosity. For much of this period, the dominant trends in the Arab world and within countries in which Islam was the majority religion were secular nationalism, including Pan-Arabism, and various sorts of Marxism. The program of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, for example, which emerged as the dominant voice and leading faction of the Palestinian national movement called, before acceding to a two-state solution, for the replacement of Israel, not with an Islamic state, but with a democratic secular state in which no religion would be distinguished with special prerogatives.11

As the alliance between the United States and Israel strengthened, each country shared with the other its own particular unpopularity in the Middle East. As bulwarks against Soviet influence, the United States threw its support behind several hated dictators, including Saddam Hussein and the autocratic shah of Iran.

Of course, for its part, the Soviet Union also was involved with equally atrocious dictators such as Syria’s Hafiz Assad and, eventually, found itself bogged down in a seemingly endless war of conquest in Afghanistan. Soviet brutality and contempt for Afghan independence fostered hatred, not only of socialist and left-wing movements but also for modernist Western-influenced culture.12

After 1967, the state of Israel took over land that was mostly owned by Palestinians but had been governed, uneasily and violently, by the king of Jordan. Israel maintained a policy opposed to the establishment of a neighboring Palestinian state and fought a constantly simmering, and sometimes boiling, war against Palestinian forces, in particular the PLO’s government in exile, based primarily in refugee camps in Lebanon. This PLO infrastructure maintained hospitals, libraries, social welfare organizations and many other community functions. The Palestinians, while officially supported in their aspirations by most Arab regimes, were often engaged in confrontations with those governments. Theirmovements tended to oppose such traditional hierarchal regimes as those in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Itinerant workers and businesspeople, with an average level of education higher than that in much of the Middle East, Palestinians tended to make trouble, forming labor unions, organizing students and despising monarchies on principle.13

In the 1980s, both the United States and Israel hit on the strategy of encouraging religious social movements as counter-forces to those — the Soviets and the PLO — they opposed. Fundamentalist movements that would evolve into the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Hamas were aided and, in some cases funded, by American and Israeli intelligence forces.14 (Ironically, according to Osama Doumani, the Fatah movement of the PLO had initially received some covert support from Israel in the hope that it would be a counterforce to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).) This support for fundamentalist Islamic groups coincided with the Lebanon war, in which much of the PLO infrastructure was destroyed. Generally speaking, religion began to replace nationalism after 1967. Islamic fundamentalism picked up steam in Egypt under Anwar Sadat in the early 1970s because he wanted to counter the Nasserites by promoting the Muslim Brotherhood, and was further advanced in 1979 by the rise to power, in Iran, of a government that granted significant state power to conservative mullahs, such as Ayatollah Khomeni. Hamas, as an organization, appeared in the ninth month of the first intifada, September 1988. Hezbollah and other Shi’ite resistance appeared in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the expulsion of the PLO.15

The collapse of the Soviet Union, the carnage in Lebanon, and the doubts and divisions growing within the nationalist left, created conditions in which fundamentalist forces were able to grow and to position themselves as a new, vigorous and wholesome force that would battle internal corruption along with all external forces that sought dominion.16

We see none of this history presented in Obsession. Instead, toward the end of the movie, footage of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center is intercut with scenes from the Holocaust. The emotional power of each set of images builds our vulnerability to the impact of the next.

2. Obsession: The Movie

Obsession opens with a quote from the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We are shown an image of a masked gunman, then offered the assurance that since “most Muslims are peaceful, this film is not talking about them”— after which what looks like a bloodstain becomes the traditional Islamic symbol, the Star and Crescent, to which is slowly added a gun. (The reader is invited to imagine how a clip of film made by a Muslim director, purporting to tell the “truth” about the West and opening with a similarly sinister image of a Christian Cross or Star of David would be received.) At this point the scary music, which has been keening quietly in the background, rises to a crescendo, and we are off.

The first commentator we see is Walid Shoebat. Shoebat now earns a living speaking and writing as an evangelical Christian who used to be a Muslim Palestinian terrorist. However, a report in the Jerusalem Post17 , a publication not usually noted for sympathies that might lead it to go easy on terrorism, questions whether Shoebat has ever been involved with any violent terrorist act or, as he claims, a practicing Muslim. Shoebat’s narration paints a picture of Americans going about their daily lives in innocent ignorance when, suddenly, we are plunged into trauma-recalling images of the Twin Towers in flames. In rapid succession, hideous pictures of the carnage in New York are juxtaposed of equally horrific footage from bombings in Madrid, London, Bali, and of the school hostage crisis in Beslan, Russia, during which hundreds of people died in the course of a government raid.

The inclusion of Beslan in this initial whirlwind tour of terrorist violence exemplifies the lack of careful analysis that characterizes Obsession. First of all, in contrast to the deliberate bombings first mentioned, there is no doubt that the way in which the raid on the school, occupied by armed Chechen rebels, was handled by the Russian government, is responsible for the enormous loss of life. Second, the conflation of a nationalist movement that arose out of a fight for sovereign independence, and against the annexation of its country into Russia, with the internationalist Al Qaeda, which fights for a worldwide Muslim Caliphate18 is an example of the failure of Obsession’s makers to put the events it considers into their own particular socio-economic context. Instead, the film’s director, Wayne Kopping said in an interview that this sequence is intended to show that these attacks are all fronts in the same war.19 (It will be interesting, as relations between the United States and Russia become more strained, to see how this simplified narrative plays out. Currently, the militarist right wing in the United States is pushing for NATO’s inclusion of Georgia and the Ukraine. This is a move that could oblige us to war with Russia if that nation attacks a NATO country. What then? Would not the Chechen rebels become our brave allies, as did fundamentalist forerunners of the Taliban in Afghanistan?)20

The introductory section of the film establishes the motif that will recur throughout: the double move in which we are assured that Muslims are not, in the main, sympathetic to terrorists — and are then confronted with stock images of praying Muslims accompanied by that same haunting music, which has, by now, become marked as a signifier for the alien menace, juxtaposed with violent leaders of Hezbollah and Hamas and angry young men destroying American flags. We are reminded pointedly that there are approximately a billion Muslims in the world. We are invited to wonder what percentage of them supports “radical Islam.” Then we are assured by Daniel Pipes that the figure is about 10 percent, maybe 15 percent. A few things need pointing out. First of all, 10 or 15 percent is nothing close to a majority. Second, we are not told what “support” means or what evidence backs this statistic. Is Pipes discussing armed fighters or people whose only show of support lies in expressing angry sentiments to a pollster?

It may be useful here to interject some recent polling data that serves to render Arab and Muslim attitudes toward the West and United States at once more complicated and more explicable than the way they are presented in this film. According to polls conducted this year by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, majorities in seven out of ten Muslim countries do indeed disapprove of terrorism (Jordan and Egypt are divided, although the sharp upward trend in the last two years in Jordan (32 percent increase) is to reject terrorism, as it is in Pakistan (23 percent increase). Only in Nigeria, in sub-Saharan Africa with its own preoccupying inter-religious dynamics, did a majority show sympathy for terrorism.) The vast majority of Western Muslims reject terrorism altogether. However, even within those populations in the Muslim world that reject terrorism and/or Osama bin Laden, negative opinions of the West remain high. It does not seem to be the case that disapproval of the West necessarily indicates sympathy for violent fundamentalism, although it is true that violent Islamic fundamentalists utilize anger at what is perceived as Western aggression as a means to recruit. Nor is disapproval of the West necessarily motivated by religion. Another recent poll, taken in Iran by, demonstrated a strong differentiation among many Iranians between Europe, which they tend to view favorably, and the United States, of which, at least as far as its policies go, they tend to disapprove. This same poll points to a significant plurality that would welcome negotiations with the United States and, also, a peace agreement to establish an independent Palestinian state — neighboring, not erasing, the state of Israel. This complicates the idea promoted by Obsession, that, for all Muslims, “the West” is seen as a monolith.

It does remain the case that, as anti-intuitive as it may seem to most Americans, Israel is still regarded throughout much of the Arab world, and other Muslim countries, such as Iran, as a provocative extension of the United States’ hegemonic power in the Middle East. Furthermore, the war in Iraq has driven down approval of the United States.21 Obsession promotes a “clash of civilizations” perspective. It’s as though all geopolitics comes down to a contest between two internally unified opponents: “the Muslim world” and “the West.” The film makes no mention of the intricacies of national, sectarian and cultural interests that intersect in both groupings and around which alliances have shifted in the past and will, certainly, shift again. Here is a small list of examples of the complicating factors that are not discussed in Obsession:

The convulsion of armed conflict among Sunni, Kurdish and Shia Muslims in Iraq following the deposition of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the extent to which separation into walled ethnic districts has been necessary to diminish the violence;

The extent to which conflicts between Islamic sects influence politics among Muslims generally;

The delicacy with which the (mostly Shia and Persian, not Arab) Iranian government at first abjured criticizing the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq, because that incursion resulted in the destruction of a ruthless enemy with which it had fought a war during the period when Saddam was backed by the United States;

The pragmatic alliance between Iran, which has a hybrid theocracy-parliamentary democracy, and Syria, the last Ba’athist, secular dictatorship;

The defeat, in Pakistan — by a coalition in which liberal (unscarfed!) Muslims pushing for democratic reforms were strong — of a repressive dictator who had been backed, as an ally in its ‘war on terror’ by the Bush administration;

And the situation in Africa’s Sudan, where one of the most horrifically genocidal acts ever committed by a Muslim-dominated government has been perpetrated in Darfur against fellow Muslims for reasons that have to do with politics, oil, money and “race,” and nothing at all to do with religion.

All of this is to demonstrate that attitudes among Muslims — Arab, Persian or otherwise — with regard to the United States and Europe are as situational and fluid as any other political actors’ would be.

Through the Looking Glass

The traditional Islamic concept of jihad is treated as crudely as all else in the film. Again, the ostensible message, that mainstream Muslims must be distinguished from fanatics, is undercut by juxtapositions of women who appear to be going about daily business on the street, people praying; preachers calling for jihad in a general way that could be taken to mean the traditional call for self-reflection and internal struggle — and Palestinian children reciting poetry in anticipation of their own violent deaths.

At this point, not for the only time, this film displays its own mirror image. Various Muslim speakers are shown suggesting that the United States is waging war on Islam and means to destroy it. This is, of course, just what Obsession is saying with regard to “radical Islam” and its intentions toward the West. Proponents of the film might argue that the United States is not bombing civilian Muslim targets; but, of course, that’s exactly how the bombing of Iraq and the carpet bombing of Lebanon by Israel, which is viewed as a U.S. proxy, with anti-personnel weapons during the summer conflict of 2006 are seen.

One of the uglier sequences in the film makes cynical use of Dr. Khaleel Mohammed of San Diego State University. Indeed, Dr. Mohammed has since condemned Obsession as a “vile piece of propaganda"22 for which he has been “used.” Dr.Mohammed reminds the audiences that the traditional meaning of the word jihad is indeed “self-struggle,” a meaning confirmed by the avuncular John Loftus (left), identified only as “a former federal prosecutor.“23 Just as the viewer may be settling into a sense of warm admiration for this admirable idea, up pops Shoebat again with the attention-getting remark, “Jihad may mean self-struggle… but so does Mein Kampf.” Suddenly, the nuanced meaning of jihad is obliterated, and we are advised that today, jihad “means struggle against the Jews.” Lest we misunderstand, we are treated to what has become viral YouTube footage of Sheikh Dr. Bakr al-Samarai having an especially wacky moment while preaching at Baghdad’s Al-Gailani mosque. Is the viewer to understand from this hateful image, employed in Obsession in connection with the concept of jihad, that those Muslims, in the United States and elsewhere, who take back the traditional use of the word and advocate for a jihad of the soul are to fear being labeled as terrorist sympathizers?

Obsession takes particular issue with the notion that antipathy for the United States in either the Arab or Muslim worlds (which often are conflated, or used as synonyms in this film, even when footage from a non-Arab country, such as Iran, is being shown—in fact, the film shifts from Arab to Farsi often, with no indication of such switching is given in the subtitles) might be attributable to any concrete set of causes. Speakers such as Nonie Darwish, a convert to Christianity and U.S. resident who was the daughter of an Egyptian army officer , insist that any attempt at introspection on the part of the people of the United States following the 9/11 attacks represents either craven self-hatred or a naïve misunderstanding of why the attacks were perpetrated.24 Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch assures us that contrary to what “academia and the media” might hint, there is nothing to be gained from trying to understand violent attacks on the United States by Islamic fundamentalists in terms of any causality at all other than “ideology.” We are not to wonder why such ideology might be persuasive and to whom. It just is.

Immediately thereafter, however, commentators begin to suggest an analysis that they find acceptable. Loftus reappears to observe, cannily enough, that for dictators, another enemy of the people serves as a convenient distraction. Other pundits, including Darwish, chime in to agree that a society can be effectively distracted from its own problems and internal inequalities by a mobilization against a common, external threat. No kidding. Again, Obsession mirrors itself.

If the viewer is willing to resist the scolding and risk the pollution of self-hatred that must accompany an attempt to figure out why this decade has seen such a sharp rise in violent Islamic fundamentalism, then what is presented in Obsession as hateful and demonizing Islamic propaganda might provide a clue. Many of the examples of so-called Islamist propaganda that are decried in the film turn out to be news footage of the war in Iraq or videos that incorporate such clips. Much of what is shown will appear extreme to American audiences who don’t watch foreign news broadcasts. We have learned to register a cliché when newscasters talk of “kicking down doors” and we have seen footage of the actual kicking; but we rarely see footage of what follows. The “propaganda” shows terrified women and children held at gunpoint, beatings, dead civilians, missile attacks on residential areas. A thickening anger on the part of viewers who identify more with the civilians than with the soldiers, and who have watched these images of an actual war, initiated by the United States, for years, can hardly be reduced to “ideology.”

3. What’s This in Aid Of?

Viewed cold, the film, titled Obsession, appears to be concerned with a single issue: what its subtitle calls “Radical Islam’s war against the West.” However, as has been well documented, the Clarion Fund, the 501(c)(3) organization that produced and promotes distribution of the film, appears to be composed of people with links to the organized conservative movement in the United States and to the Israeli political right.25

For fear of seeming partisan, and because he has had second thoughts about the hatred and suspicion that this film may provoke, Howard Gordon, executive producer of the TV series “24,” has recanted his endorsement of Obsession, which was quoted on the box containing the DVD. As quoted in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles,26 Gordon said: “The goal of co-existence and tolerance is not being served by films like Obsession.”

In this context, it is useful to look at a key talking point of 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain. It must be emphasized here that the use of this example is not intended to indicate that the McCain campaign had a direct hand in making or distributing Obsession, or that the Clarion Fund’s effort will cease after the November election. (To the contrary: a second film, The Third Jihad, expected to have a life after the election, is already in the works.) On the other hand, it is worth paying heed to the words of Tom Trento, founder of the website, who says: “I’m doing a major educational outreach effort with this movie that will continue long after the election, but certainly I have a goal to wake people up and have them vote intelligently for our national security … John McCain is the best choice.“27

Senator McCain has been consistent in referring to what he calls “the struggle against radical Islamic extremism” as a “transcendent struggle between good and evil.“28 McCain also has said: “Any president who does not regard this threat as transcending all others does not deserve to sit in the White House.“29 All other threats and in all contexts? (One immediately wonders about where nuclear proliferation or, in that context, the growing tension between the United States and Russia, or the threat of a global economic depression might fit.) Along those lines, it is not insignificant that, on October 6, a McCain adviser was widely quoted as wanting to “turn the page” on the economic crisis.

That favorite adjective, “transcendent,” is telling. We are not only being distracted from the manifold, unglamorous, murky aspects of our economic calamities, we are invited to direct our gaze upward — we are uplifted — into a glorious heroic narrative. In the face of squalid and baffling everyday frustrations, we are offered a gift of permanent meaning.30

Is there any problem? Of course. Just not like they say there is.

Certainly, some of the material drawn from popular Islamic cultures that Obsession displays is highly disturbing. There is a special perversity about children being taught to embrace a life of permanent warfare. The crudity and vehemence of categorical bias expressed against Jews and Americans is painful to watch and reflects a real antagonism. On the other hand, it would be wrong to imagine that the bias goes only in one direction. Al-Jazeera’s Stacey Kaufman has collected footage of small-town Ohio voters who turned out for a Sarah Palin rally referring (as though it were an insult) to Senator Barack Obama as a Muslim (he is, of course, a Christian); suggesting that when a “nigra” runs for president of the United States, he must be a manipulated front for some unseen force; and yelling abuse at Obama supporters, one of whom indicates that he has been called “the n-word” (he appears to be white) and threatened with physical harm.31 Doubtless most Americans would be embarrassed and insulted if this behavior was viewed overseas as representative of our country — and yet the behavior and the thinking behind it do characterize a small but dangerous minority.

In Obsession, other examples of what are presented as the unique problems associated with Arab culture also seem oddly familiar. Dr. Wahid ‘abd al-Maguid of the Al-Ahram Center for Political Studies, an Egyptian think tank, is shown in a television interview, decrying the tendency to “violence” in “the Arab culture,” and sure enough, the footage that follows includes exuberant celebrations of extreme violence, including the attack on the Twin Towers — in a rap song combining some ska with obvious American gangsta stylistic influences. Dr. al-Maguid might have been an American sociologist warning grimly of the corrupting effects on youth of the video game “Grand Theft Auto” — or one of those weedy “elitist” types ruing the bare-knuckled masculine style favored in “dude culture” and in certain right-wing sectors of this country.32 This is not to say that Arab cultures do not operate from their own specific imperatives. But the conflation of all such cultures, for an audience of people who are mostly unfamiliar with the complexities of the Middle East, is more misleading than useful. The few images of lone speakers who promote tolerance are contrasted with vociferous preachers of jihad, which is always presented to mean violence. This failure to reflect the complexity of Islam denies Muslims’ varied identities, their day to day activities and broad range of concerns. Obsession’s own denial of context and history not only misinforms its audience, it is liable to foment a hatred equal to that which does exist.

The part of that section of Obsession called “Jihad in the West,” depicting what it calls a threat of “infiltration” in the United States, might be the film’s most blatant appeal to the American viewer’s fear. Continuing the motif of simultaneous accusation and reassurance, we are warned by the pundits of Obsession that enemies walk among us. Says Nonie Darwish, “Of course, not all Muslims are like that, but America has to wake up. We have been infiltrated … and we are strangling ourselves with our political correctness.” More than once, the twin demons of the “the media” and “political correctness” are invoked to warn against any namby-pamby liberal tendencies toward excessive respect for the sensibilities of shady minority populations.

This shibboleth of “political correctness” has come to stand for a tangle of constructs according to which any critical thinking or provision of unflattering information about our government’s conduct, or even any search for a complex analysis, is at once egg-headed, “elitist,” actively disloyal and contemptuous of “ordinary” American folk. This dismissal of the demands on civic life incumbent on citizens of a constitutional republic founded by immigrants is, of course, as contemptuous in its assumptions about the capacity for thought of “ordinary” Americans as it is possible to be.

The internal enemy is portrayed through a spectrum of images, ranging from footage of flag desecrations by men from the Islamic Thinkers Society (a New York-based fringe group that wishes to establish an international Muslim caliphate and whose website depicts John McCain and Barack Obama as sinners), to European-born violent extremists, and the late Palestinian national leader Yassir Arafat (who was in the United States to conduct peace negotiations with the late Yitzhak Rabin, subsequently murdered by a violent fundamentalist of the Jewish, not Muslim, variety). Pundits such as Darwish and Steven Emerson of The Investigation Project indicate that the “deception” is so far advanced that “we are losing the battle.” Far more frightening than images of overt European radicals, such as Abu Hamza al-Masri, are the repeated hints by militarist pundits, such as Caroline Glick of the Center for Security Policy, who warns of a growing underground of “minorities,” and “immigrants” who may dress and act “like Americans” but are plotting our destruction. How the rest of us are to distinguish such people from the “good” Muslims is not made clear — although an article by Zeyno Baran posted to the Clarion Fund’s site, RadicalIslam.org33, indicates that all major Muslim civil rights organizations in the United States have been infiltrated and that the good Muslims don’t need to “organize politically” anyway. This is an extravagant claim. Members of anti-bias organizations such the Anti-Defamation League might be surprised to hear that their work, for respectable Jews, was never necessary.34

Any demurral this picture of the “Fifth Column” might stir is condemned preemptively as “denial.” The film ends with the implication that it is up to the “good” Muslims to prove themselves. As a positive example, we are shown a clip of Muslims marching and chanting, “Death to terrorists.”

4. An Alternative Vision

At one point, toward its conclusion, Obsession features footage of Muslim clerics calling for a world united under the guidance of Islam interspersed with images of bloody violence. The viewer is never told which of the clerics featured are calling for international missionary work and which are calling for armed conflict.

What might a Muslim audience, unfamiliar with the nuances of Western culture, make of footage devoted to calls by fundamentalist Christian preachers, to “bring the world” to their faith? Or footage of the unique culture of Christian “prayer warriors” speaking about their international ambitions? Particularly if such quotes were interspersed with footage of the Iraq war, along with the inflammatory rhetoric of those evangelical chaplains who aver that they are going to Iraq in order to fulfill a Christian mission.35

What if such a film were also to include footage of the bombing, by a right-wing extremist with ties to the white supremacist Christian Identity Church, of the federal building in Oklahoma City that resulted in over 100 deaths? And what might they then make of footage of the subsequently firebombed Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute Indiana, on the wall of which was written, “Remember Tim McVeigh”? Would it not be grossly unfair, even for people unfamiliar with the history and cultures of white American Christians to, after viewing such a film, regard all such people with suspicious distaste?

Should the United States government have declared martial law in white militia territories in the Northwest when they were at the height of their influence in the early 1980s? Should we have detained all young men with ties to white supremacist or Christian Identity organizations? Was not — is not—the violent combination of those forces genuinely dangerous? People can be both dangerous and, after being effectively isolated, marginalized. Timothy McVeigh was an eccentric, a pathetic figure, until he and his confederate actually managed to murder many people. The white supremacist, Christian Identity movement still bears watching. But its members don’t seem to be in any position to take over the country, and it’s just as well that our civil liberties were never curtailed in the effort to stop them.36

It is true that there are violent Muslim fundamentalists who regard themselves as engaged in a holy war against the West. Such people must not be allowed to murder anyone. But why should we echo their self-serving narratives of glorious, epic, transcendental struggle with complementary epic narratives of our own?37 And why on earth would we shrink from a cold-blooded analysis of how such groups rose to any position of influence — what conditions promote their growth and what developments would serve to isolate them?

Finally, since it is true that, as the makers of Obsession take care to state again and again, most Muslims are not in favor of terrorism, let alone actual terrorists, what is served by making our acceptance of the majority of our Muslim citizens conditional on their having rehearsed a set of denunciations and frantic denials? Doesn’t it make us more vulnerable to terror — to increasing numbers of us feeling terrified and alone — to inflame categorical prejudices based on religion or ethnic origin? Should we not meet our compatriots as we find them and evaluate each person on his or her own merit?

Obsession vs. the Facts, by Eli Clifton -  JewsOnFirst, an organization dedicated to the protection of the separation of church and state under the First Amendment, has published Rebutting Obsession: Historical Facts Topple Film’s Premise that Violent Muslim Fundamentalists are Nazis’ Heirs, Expose its Fear-mongering , a devastating critique of Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West. Obsession, a 2005 film that, in the name of exposing violent fundamentalism, casts suspicion on all Muslims, experienced increased exposure this fall, when the mysterious Clarion Fund initiated the unsolicited distribution of millions of DVD inserts inside swing state newspapers.  In support of the rebuttal, JewsOnFirst also offers a web-based slide presentation summarizing the key arguments, as well as profiles of the supposed experts interviewed in the film. (The slide presentation will soon be available for download as a PowerPoint presentation.)   Please see the original article at Jews on First for links to all of the footnotes