“Jihad” on PBS

April 16, 2007

“Jihad,” the first program in PBS’ “America at a Crossroad” series which aired on Sunday would have been a fine journalistic achievement, since documentation that it marshals is truly impressive, and the narrative is lucid and logical – were it not for the decision to insert right upfront a sentence that belongs not in a documentary, but in a propaganda piece: “Islam is a peaceful religion.”

While its purpose of shielding the authors from the charge that they attack Islam itself through the negative comment about Islamic behavior makes some political sense, this statement is not helping to understand what is going on – perhaps because it is so utterly nonsensical.

There are two reasons for that. First of all, prior to 9/11 Islam was routinely perceived in the West as a militant religion. Islam as “religion of peace” is, paradoxically, a post-9/11 notion. Secondly, as I showed in “The Pitfall of Truth,” once Mohammed died, it became simply impossible to know what Islam is, and what it is not; his death of necessity fragmented Islam into as many Islams as there are people who care to have an opinion. Mr. McNeil who hosted the program is certainly entitled to his view of Islam as peaceful – just as Mr. Bin Laden is entitled to his view that Islam is violent. When talking of Islam as “peaceful,” Mr. McNeil should have stressed that he was just expressing his personal opinion of Islam, not some absolute Truth about Islam – which is impossible to know.

Documentaries should be about facts, and time has long come to get past the protective screen of piety and subject religion in general, and Islam (which causes such bloody stir nowadays) in particular to an unsentimental scrutiny that is free of fear of offending, and is motivated only by the desire to understand what is going on. Such effort would have tremendously improved the “Jihad” documentary. But even lacking that, there was no need to spoil it with an utterly meaningless, albeit admittedly politically correct, piece of empty propaganda.

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