The “Obsession” film: Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in America?
by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
I think we need to explore the meaning of this question, which was raised — and answered — by Colin Powell in a recent major interview: “The correct answer is, he [Obama] is not a Muslim. He’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is: ‘What if he is?’ Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That’s not America.”
Of course Colin Powell is only partly right. Fear and even hatred of Islam is a part of the actual America at this moment of our history. It is also true that in part of America there is a real effort of Muslims, Jews, and Christians to learn from each other, make peace with each other —and beyond.
In the warp and woof of all our communities, whether defined by “religion” or by “nation,” there are some streaks of blood woven in the fabric. And some streaks of respect and compassion and celebration of the One Who encompasses all “others.” Indeed, celebration of the One Whose infinitude can be reflected only through the diversity of our unique traditions. Whose Infinity can be honored only by honoring our differences.
Two parts of America. And, as usual, a third and larger part – uncertain, silent, more willing to honor sameness than difference, yet open to seeing “sameness” in Muslims and Jews and Christians and Buddhists.
Powell was appealing within and beyond the actual America to that patriotic vision of America that sings, “O beautiful for patriots’ dream that sees beyond the years/ Thine alabaster cities gleam – undimmed by human tears.” Now why did it take Colin Powell to say this? Why were not a slew of Senators, Presidential candidates, university presidents, heads of churches and synagogues, saying it?
Both a sweet and a sour way of answering that question occur to me.
Sour: Was it because he’s a retired general who actually led a war against a Muslim nation, and a former Secretary of State who justified a war against a Muslim nation? —so nobody could accuse him of being a “raghead-lover”? Because he’s not running for elected office in a country where many voters think Muslims are traitors?
Sweet: Is he actually in the process of doing tshuvah
(“turning,” repentance)? Has he come to the conclusion that his complicity in the second of those wars was a profound ethical as well as practical mistake, and is he doing at least some repair of the bloodshed that flowed from that mistake —some effort to prevent the blood that could yet flow from more fear and hatred of Islam?
There are related “Why’s” we need to ask. Why didn’t either Senator McCain or Senator Obama carry their campaigns into a mosque, after speaking at many synagogues and churches?
Why did Obama’s campaign feel they needed to apologize for sending a speaker to a meeting where one of the sponsors was CAIR – the Council on American-Islamic Relations? Evidently because CAIR is listed by the Ashford-Gonzales-Mukasy Department of Justice as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a case where a Muslim charity is accused of channeling money to an organization which is accused of assisting some terrorists.
Let us examine this “unindicted co-conspirator” business. The most clever –and most disgusting – thing about the label is that the Department of Justice can affix the label totally on its own. By definition, they have not even presented evidence to a grand jury that would justify indicting the organization on “probable cause,” let alone taking the case to a jury that could convict or acquit. Indeed, since CAIR is not a defendant, it cannot even be acquitted – although that did in fact happen to most of the people and groups whose actual indictment they got hooked onto. In that case, the government had years to amass the evidence they claimed showed support for terrorism. But a jury in Texas – hardly a hotbed of pro-Muslim sentiment—acquitted the defendants on almost all the charges, and was divided on a small number of them.
Indeed, an examination of CAIR’S website and a review of speakers at its national and local functions show that it condemns terrorism and participates with vigor in the normal processes of American democracy.
But the partially hung jury gave the government the opening to bring the case for retrial, and to keep alive the unsubstantiated smear against CAIR.
This is “Middle East McCarthyism.” A candidate as brave and as principled as Colin Powell is evidently trying to be, in his present reincarnation, would have denounced it. But a candidate who is himself thought by 13% of Americans to be a secret Muslim, and therefore to be a traitor, evidently felt he could not be that brave and principled.
The atmosphere of fear and hatred toward Islam has actually increased in the US during the last few years. Why? Partly because it has been deliberately stimulated. But partly because of what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Most people who do something that runs against ordinary rules of decent behavior want to believe there is some extremely important reason to do it. So if you spend almost a trillion dollars and send thousands of Americans to their deaths and thousands more to lose their legs, arms, eyes, genitals, minds, and souls – all in order to kill Muslims who are not terrorists, do not have weapons of mass destruction, and are citizens of a weak and defenseless nation — it becomes imperative to see Muslims and Islam – without distinctions—as extremely dangerous. Not quite human. Not real Americans. Not one more thread in the lovely multi-colored fabric of American democracy.
And of course the fear and rage had a root in the actions of a small number of terrorists who did claim Islam as their justification, even though the mainstream organizations and leaders of Islam and the vast majority of Muslims in the world condemned the terrorist attack.
But this disorganized fear and rage would have remained disorganized, inchoate, ineffective, if some organizations had not whipped it up.
Enter a DVD called “Obsession,” which a month ago was mailed as a free embedded ad to the readers of more than a dozen major newspapers. At the time I briefly remarked upon its distortions and promised you a more through assessment. Then big chunks of the American and world economy fell apart, and my attention turned to what our traditions teach about a flourishing abundance – and its choke-off.
Yet these two phenomena are not totally disconnected. Organized hatred of Islam might have even worse results if we were to fall further into economic crisis. During the Great Depression, clever organizers tried to turn fear and anger away from the “malefactors of great wealth” and “economic royalists” (as Franklin Roosevelt called them) to focus instead on Jewish targets. That effort mushroomed in America. In Germany, it took over.
Today, in Europe and America it is much less likely that Jews would be the targets of a populace frightened and enraged by economic disaster, or the targets of organizations hoping to deflect anger from the hyper-wealthy.
Muslims might become the target of opportunity.
And just as anti-Jewish rage in the 1930s was a danger not only to Jews but also to all who affirmed a free democracy and sought to reempower the poor and the middle class, so widespread rage against Muslims today would be a danger not only to Muslims.
“Obsession” is an attempt to make not a band of terrorists but all Islam the enemy. Bad enough in itself; even worse that it was deliberately sent to millions of homes through newspapers in the major “swing states” of presidential politics. It was an attempt to transform religious fear and ignorance into religious hatred, and hatred into an election tool.
I suppose the people who did this hoped that if they could change some votes in those key states they could save America and the world from leaders who were thoughtlessly “soft on terrorism” or “blind to the threat of Islam.” They may even have thought not that their ends justified their means but that their ends and means were in ethical coherence. But those who stirred racial hatred in the 19650s and ‘60s thought they were saving America from the disaster of cultural “mongrelization” in a soup of racial inferiority. And the McCarthyists of the 1950s thought their stirring fear and hatred of “subversives” was saving America from the disaster of Communist espionage and take-over. And those who imprisoned Japanese-Americans in the 1940s thought they were saving America from the disaster of widespread sabotage. (All of these folks probably hoped to increase their own power as byproduct; but who doesn’t?)
Indeed, their means and their ends did cohere. Repression born of fear will breed more repression born of hatred. There are two grounds to challenge their practices: the ground of caring for truth, and the ground of caring for love.
“Obsession” begins with images of cars and American flags burning, bombs exploding. Over them run words that say the film is not about Islam as a whole but about some violent “radical” branches of Islam. The words are visible; but no voice says them. They are hard to absorb while the eye is following fire and maimed bodies. In my experience as a watcher, the words serve not as an authentic framing for what happens in the film, but as an excuse for what in fact becomes an attack on Islam as a whole. (About halfway through the film, the commentators stop referring to “radical Islam” and start referring simply to “Islam.”)
The film never shows the millions of Muslims, leaders and grass-roots, who spoke their grief and horror at the World Trade Center murders. It does not show the meetings of Muslim scholars and teachers who issued fatwas (decrees) against killing civilians, or the work of Muslim organizations that not only called for dialogue but took part in it and patiently sent teachers to explain Islam to Jews and Christians. It does not show the work of Muslim charities trying to meet the needs of desperately poor families, of sick children, in countries as far-flung as Pakistan and Palestine.
When the film does show Muslims at prayer, it delivers the message that Muslims who become murderers are the same as those who pray – rather than counterposing the hundreds of millions who pray with the hundreds who kill.
On the other side of the same coin, the film ignores violence perpetrated in the names of religious and nationalist ideals when they are committed by Jews, Christians, Hindus, Communists, patriotic Americans. I do not mean only such acts as blowing up the Federal building in Oklahoma City or killing 29 Muslims prostrate in prayer in the Tomb of Abraham or murdering hundreds of Irish folk because they espouse one wrong flavor or another of Christianity.
I mean also this: Killing thousands of civilians is mass murder whether it is done by turning a truck or a plane with no national flag upon it into a bomb (“terrorism”), or dropping bombs from airplanes with a national flag proudly painted on them (“war”). For an American president who proclaims himself a born-again Christian and depends on the political heft of millions of born-again Christians to kill at least 300,000 Iraqis smells to me as much of religious terrorism as does the murder of 3,000 people in the World Trade Center by a band that proclaimed itself devout Muslims.
“Obsession” does not address this tug toward violence as it infects all our communities. It pretends that only Islam is infected, and all Islam at that.
And by doing this, it distracts us from addressing the real changes we need to make to wash away the bloody streaks in each and all of our traditions.
It also distracts us from addressing the real local needs and frustrations and oppressions that actually provide the heat that boils over into violence. It treats varied movements and disorganized upsurges that use violence as if they were all part of the same “international Muslim conspiracy” (I am deliberately echoing a slogan from the 19th and 20th centuries directed against Jews)— even when some of the attackers are Christians or secularists, even when most of the attacks are rooted in nationalism rather than Islam, even when some of the attacks are against foreign occupation troops rather than civilians, even when angry bands of unemployed, disaffected and uprooted young men who happen to come from Muslim families but have little interest in Islam smash and burn local stores as have their non-Muslim peers.
Just as Cold War ideology on both sides “justified” blood baths in Ukraine, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia as necessary to defeat the “capitalist conspiracy” without regard to the local needs and issues of the real live people, and “justified” blood baths in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, Vietnam, and Cambodia as necessary to defeat the “communist conspiracy” without regard to the local needs and issues of the real live people, so “Obsession”‘s ideology will make it impossible to address real needs, and beckons us all toward new bloodbaths in the place of necessary change.
Is there any truth at all in “Obsession”? Yes. We do need to be concerned about terrorism from any source, and even more so when it comes garbed in God. But there is too much falsity surrounding that spark of truth for us to trust “Obsession” as a teaching.
What to do?
Speak out against the obsessive fear of Islam. Speak out to highlight the most important line in Colin Powell’s interview. Speak out to political candidates, urging them to speak in all sorts of houses of worship if they speak in any. Speak out to the publishers of the newspapers that carried “Obsession” as an ad, asking them whether a DVD about the “International Jewish Conspiracy” would have found so quick acceptance, no matter how much the money offered their shrinking bank accounts. Speak out to their editors and columnists as well, asking them to critically analyze the film. Since the producers of “Obsession” have announced a follow-up film called “Relentless,” be proactive in addressing the future as well as the past.
Above all, do not leave the defense of Islam’s dignity and honor to Muslims alone. Christians and Jews must make clear that their own celebration of the One affirms the diversity that alone can express the Infinite. (For a multireligious effort to address “Obsession,” see the work of “Hate Hurts America” at http://www.obsessionwithhate.com .)
Ideally, speak out both in our different voices separately and in our different voices as a chorus: through interfaith committees where the medium becomes the message –- where calls for honoring all our traditions in the public sphere are modeled by honoring each other’s wisdoms in our direct contact with each other.
And listen – to the real sorrows and angers of different communities in the world, Arab and Muslim and Hispanic and African and Mountain White in the American West and Appalachia. Listen with the ears of our hearts before responding, and then respond. Through action.
The speaking out and the listening, even beyond our concern with truth, must flow from our concern for love. For the love that all our traditions teach: love your neighbor as yourself. For the deep and loving understanding that the Quran teaches: God brought into the world different cultures and communities not for us to hate and despise each other but to lovingly know and deeply experience each other in our diversity.
With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace –
* Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director, The Shalom Center http://www.shalomctr.org; co-author, The Tent of Abraham; author of Godwrestling — Round 2, Down-to-Earth Judaism, and a dozen other books on Jewish thought and practice, as well as books on US public policy. The Shalom Center voices a new prophetic agenda in Jewish, multireligious, and American life. To receive the weekly on-line Shalom Report, click on—