Islam: Obsession Reorientation

As the recent film "Obsession" points out, Islamist radicalism poses a grave threat to the freedoms of constitutional democracies. But "Obsession" largely ignores potential solutions and a host of moderate Islamic voices that have gone unheard.

This fall a group called the Clarion Fund spent millions of dollars providing over 28 million copies of the film Obsession: Radical Islam’s War on the West to Americans, distributing the DVD as an insert in newspapers. This film hones in on the threat we face from a minority of violent extremists within Islam.

However, Obsession beats the threat drum so loudly that it drowns out the context surrounding the threat. The costly endeavor of distributing this film does not move us further away from the threat, because it is precisely outside the threat–in the broader realm of Islam which this film neglects–where the counter to the threat can be found.

Hamas and Hezbollah are real and we need to recognize this. But Islam itself is not a half-Hamas, half-Hezbollah monolith.

The film Obsession claims to be about the violent obsession of fanatic Muslims, but the film and support for the film suggest instead an obsession by some non-Muslims with the violent extremists within Islam. This is not the obsession we need, though it is almost all we have heard about Islam since September 11th, 2001. When facing a fire, incessantly crying “Fire! Fire! Fire!” will not make it stop burning. What we need is to reorient this obsession with the problem to focus instead on the solution.

In the broader context of Islam surrounding the minority fanatics, debates today are plentiful and multifaceted. These include Muslims arguing in favor of peace, prosperity, and pluralism. Indeed, some of the most deeply committed opponents of violent extremism in Islam are themselves Muslims. They are Muslims who worship God peacefully, Muslims who want their girls to attend school, Muslims who enjoy their friendships and professional collaboration with non-Muslims, Muslims who want to make a buck instead of a bomb.

A key element in effectively countering the threat we face is supporting Muslims who are the competitors to the fanatics who preach hatred and unleash violence worldwide. But in today’s world, there is scarce soil where such competition can take root and grow.

In many Muslim-majority areas of the world, the face of normalcy is hefty government censorship, education characterized by rote memorization at best or outright illiteracy at worst, and government meddling in clerical education. Add to this the Saudis’ vast, sustained Wahhabist proselytizing and satellite networks such as Hezbollah’s Al-Manar that promote hate and glorify suicide attacks. In such a context, little space remains for the alternative, internal voices which seek to be heard.

To counter the host of radical voices that fill the Muslim world, engagement of the private sector, including non-Muslims, is essential. (In case you haven’t noticed, the U.S. government has, to put it mildly, dropped the ball on this one. At present the U.S. government is structured to engage foreign governments, not foreign populations, and it has lacked the will power, commitment, and vision needed for vigorous, sustained, substantive engagement of Muslim populations. Given the magnitude and immediacy of the threat we face, holding our breaths waiting for dramatic change on this front would be dangerous.)

Private citizens who recognize the threat and who care about the freedoms we enjoy must take substantive, solution-oriented action. Foster critical thinking, provide positive role models, show what attractive alternatives to violent extremism would look like in day-to-day life–and do this in a culturally astute manner. Back local groups which seek to offer training in their regions about constitutions and protection of religious freedom. Support progressive Muslim novelists and filmmakers censored by their own governments. Develop mechanisms to help local populations circumvent censorship. Insist that the U.S. State Department stop using taxpayer dollars to coddle authoritarian regimes that are fiercely pro-censorship. Invest in private-sector broadcasting channels to provide television, radio, and internet platforms for Muslims casting visions for the future of peaceful pluralism.

Here are ten specific ideas for ways Americans and others–Muslims and non-Muslims together–can support efforts to counter the threat posed to us all by the obsession with violent extremism which has taken root in some Muslim populations.

1. Invest the millions that could go to make more Obsession-like films and their distribution instead in production of high-quality, culturally relevant media programming for children in regions at risk of violent extremism.

2. Declare 2009 “The Year of the Saudi Novel.” Translate Saudi novels into English, French, and other languages so others can hear these Saudi voices calling for reform and welcoming creative arts. Make these rich plots accessible to major filmmakers. And not least of all, make these novels–banned in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries–available in Arabic to Arabs. Next time you’re en route to the Middle East, buy one in London (a key publishing hub for progressive Arab books) and bring it with you–then leave it behind.

3. Host screenings of films by Muslims challenging and undermining violent extremism, for example the Tunisian film Making Of, the Algerian film Bab el-Oued, the Yemeni film Losing Bet. Clamor for films which are difficult to obtain, such as Youssef Chahine’s Destiny, to be available from Netflix and other film distribution outlets. (In Destiny, Muslims who value critical thinking and cooperate with non-Muslims in intellectual endeavors battle extremists claiming to represent Islam, but really only seeking political power, who manipulate youth into becoming religious fanatics.)

4. Start an NGO dedicated to building an audio library of substantive, constructive, and entertaining writings by Muslims. Purchase copyrights for these works and make the audio library available online, passed along via radio, distributed on CDs, etc.

5. Support translations of fiction and non-fiction, including religious texts.

6. Serialize fictional stories in text and audio so they can be shared via mobile phone.

7. Support filmmakers casting a vision for a hopeful future.

8. Build partnerships between professional artistic organizations in the US and in Muslim-majority countries to support artists. Partner writers with writers. Partner filmmakers with filmmakers. Partner puppeteers with puppeteers. Partner actors with actors.

9. Fund prizes to reward and draw attention to the highest quality, most substantive works in fiction, film, non-fiction, theater, cartoons, and many other media forms.

10. Develop internship programs to support aspiring creative Muslim minds otherwise squelched by rote memorization and government censorship. Start by enabling internships for funny Saudis–which, by the way, is not necessarily an oxymoron–at The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Jon, Stephen, how ’bout it? Just imagine uncensored Saudi Daily Show and Colbert Report style programs broadcast freely in Saudi Arabia . . . someday.

At the end of the film Obsession, after nearly an hour of video of Hezbollah rallies and the like, there is mention that moderate Muslims actually do exist, and there is encouragement to support them. OK, good. But then instead of funding distribution of the Obsession DVD, let’s fund the genuine competition to the obsession.

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