Obsession is not an honest critique of violent radicalism. Instead, it is a propaganda piece that seeks to cast a wide net of suspicion against Muslims.
You have to wonder about a film that could muster no better an endorsement to adorn its poster than that of CNN's resident right-wing extremist Glenn Beck. "Obsession is without exaggeration one of the most important films of our time," says Beck. (Who would accuse Glenn Beck of exaggerating?)
The film Beck is lauding, Obsession: Islam's Radical War against the West, is a 2005 work of anti-Muslim propaganda that has recently been widely distributed via an unprecedented campaign.
Of course, there is no denying that there are those who have misused Islam to promote an anti-Western militant ideology that is responsible for the tragic 9/11 attacks and other deplorable terrorist acts around the globe. Few would disagree that al-Qaeda and its imitators are ruthless enemies that the United States must deal with forcefully.
But Obsession is not an honest critique of violent radicalism. Instead, it is a propaganda piece that seeks to cast a wide net of suspicion against Muslims by blurring the line between violent radicalism and mainstream Islam. As such, it does not call on credible experts and reputable scholars but resorts to shady characters like "former-terrorist" Walid Shoebat, who has made such outlandish statements as, "Islam is not the religion of God; Islam is the devil."
In a recent commentary responding to the distribution of Obsession, Jeff VanDenBerg, director of Middle East Studies at Drury University, called the film "a blatant piece of anti-Muslim propaganda." He also wrote: "The film Obsession plays to the crudest stereotypes and promotes the simplest solutions. In the end, this kind of thinking will do far more to harm American security than it will to help it." (News-Leader, 9/17/08)
Obsession begins with a brief disclaimer that states: "It is important to remember that most Muslims are peaceful and do not support terror." However, the remainder of the film distorts facts and events in an attempt to convince its audience of the exact opposite.
The film's ultimate goal is to lay the grounds for a larger religious war that goes beyond our national security interests and has only two beneficiaries: radical evangelicals who hold an apocalyptic worldview and war profiteers who gamble at the expense of thousands of American lives and trillions of tax-payer dollars.
Toward that end, Obsession employs two main tactics.
First, it exploits Americans' unfamiliarity with Islam and Muslims to suggest that deviant groups are somehow representative of most, if not all, Muslims. It scours the Muslim world for bizarre incidents and falsely projects them as the accepted norm. It then concludes that the Muslim world is an overall radical hotbed that wishes death and destruction upon the West. In fact, while the Muslim world has its share of fanatics, they comprise a tiny fraction of the population and are highly at odds with a mainstream society that aspires to peace and prosperity.
Second, Obsession exploits the legitimate apprehension that many feel in this country as a result of 9/11 and attempts to instigate a state of full-blown hysteria. Only widespread hysteria could make questionable military excursions such as the Iraq occupation a possible sell yet again. In fact, America faces no imminent threat from Muslim nations, who are themselves wary of the minority radicals in their midst. No Muslim nation has ever attacked our homeland, and none is likely to ever initiate such an attack.
Sensational content aside, Obsession ought to peak our interest for two reasons. The first is the gargantuan size of the operation: 28 million free copies distributed via 70 major daily newspapers. That could cost tens of millions of dollars if we assume even conservative advertising rates. The second reason is how surprisingly little we know about the operation itself.
All we know is that the film's distribution is paid for by a shadowy organization called the Clarion Fund. For an entity so well-endowed, the Clarion Fund's website offers no relevant information about its identity or its source of funding. Its 990 forms are not yet public.
Three important questions are begging to be asked:
First, who exactly is this Clarion Fund, and what is its source of funding? The public has a right to know, and reporters have a responsibility to investigate.
Second, the film is being distributed only in swing states with the obvious strategic goal of swaying the elections. That should automatically put the burden on both candidates to speak out and clearly communicate their positions on this film and its distribution tactics. Voters have a right to know where the candidates stand, and journalists have a responsibility to ask.
Third, given the sheer size of this operation and its self-described political nature, it is baffling to note the apathy with which it has been met on our primetime network election coverage. It does not just affect Muslims, but all Americans, when sensationalism threatens to hijack honest and informed debate on the key issues in the biggest decision of our generation.
On all three fronts, the silence must be broken.
Ahmed Rehab is strategic communications director for the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.