Debating PBS's "Muhammad" Documentary
MSNBC 'Countdown: Iraq' with Lester Holt
A new documentary on the founder of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, is sparking a war of words here in the states. At least one critic accuses the documentary producers and PBS, which partially funded the film, of trying to make converts to Islamic and using taxpayer dollars to do it. Here is a quick preview of what's causing all the controversy.
HOLT: Joining me to discuss his opposition to the documentary is Daniel Pipes, the founder of the Middle East Forum and a columnist of the "New York Post". Mr. Pipes, thanks for joining us tonight.
DANIEL PIPES, MIDDLE EASTERN FORUM: Thank you, Lester.
HOLT: You wrote in the column-you called the program a travesty and an "airbrushed and uncritical" documentary. Explain your opposition. Is it the editorial tone or the fact that it received some public funding?
PIPES: Well both, actually, Lester. First is the content of the film itself, which is a pious presentation, a missionizing presentation of Islam. There is nothing critical whatsoever in the film. Secondly, I am upset about the fact that our dollars, our taxpayer dollars have gone to pay for this film that glorifies and spreads the Islamic message.
HOLT: Of course, the focus of this is Muhammad, the prophet Muhammad. What's missing in your view that would make this a more accurate telling of the story?
PIPES: Well, let me note that, in 1998, PBS had a documentary on Jesus called "From Jesus to Christ," which was a critical, analytical, hard-hitting piece that looked at the most recent research. In contrast, the film on Muhammad that will be shown shortly is a film that is entirely pious, that is an attempt to show the validity of the Islamic faith. I don't think that is appropriate for PBS in general and certainly not appropriate-in fact, I think it's against the law for the U.S. taxpayer to fund.
HOLT: Mr. Pipes, there is another video that the U.S. [government] has put out that taxpayers are paying for called "Muslim as Apple Pie," a PR film that's going out to the Muslim world. Is that not the same in many ways?
PIPES: I have got my objections to the U.S. government presenting Islam as something that is American and as something that the U.S. government approves of and sponsors. What I'm against in general is the privileging of Islam.
I have full regard for the Islamic religion and for Muslims. I just think that we Americans have the constitution and have a whole set of practices and laws that concern the separation of religion and state, and those must be applied to Islam as well. And what we see in this movie, as we see in much else, is a special status for Islam.
And I'd like to point out that one of the two producers of this film is Michael Wolfe, who not long ago at beliefnet.com wrote an article called "Islam: The Next American Religion." "Is America a Muslim nation," he asked? "Here are seven reasons the answer may be yes." And he goes on to explain those reasons. This is a man who is out to proselytize.
HOLT: And we'll have to end this discussion, but Mr. Pipes, thanks so much for taking the time and talking with us tonight.
PIPES: Thank you.
HOLT: And, as you might expect, not everyone has been critical of the documentary on Muhammad. We wanted to hear from both sides of the story. And joining me from Los Angeles is Hussein Ibish, an expert on Arab issues and a spokesperson for the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee. Mr. Ibish has seen the film. Good evening to you. Thanks for joining us.
HUSSEIN IBISH, EXPERT ARAB ISSUES: It's great to be with you.
HOLT: Your view of this film, was it proselytizing?
IBISH: Oh no, I don't think so. And I think the notion that anyone is going to get converted by watching a two-hour documentary on Muslim traditions and the history of the prophet Muhammad is simply ridiculous.
We know where Mr. Pipes is coming from. He is opposed to any discourse on Islam in the United States that is anything other than critical. And that's basically what this is. But, you know PBS has had many documentaries. They did have that documentary bringing in new historical revelations about Jesus or claims about the life of Jesus.
You could do that, certainly, with Islam and the prophet Muhammad, but that's just a different movie. I mean, they just had an eight-part series called "Civilization and the Jews" that took all of Jewish traditions, which are also believed by Christians and Muslims, by the way, from the Old Testament, very seriously indeed. So this is all...
HOLT: Does this film deal at all with the history of violence that has been done in the name of Islam?
IBISH: Well, what the film does is it does definitely outline the life of Muhammad, which was not only the life of a prophet, but also the life of a statesman and a warrior, and it certainly doesn't sugarcoat that by any means. It talks about that.
But I think that the film focuses on the life of a prophet based on the traditions of Islam. And that's usual, in the same way that the documentary about-the eight-part series about the Jews in civilization took Jewish traditions seriously, the way most documentaries about Christian traditions, about Jesus and about the early church and things like that, take those traditions seriously.
You can't explain to Americans who have a lot of questions about Islam and what Muslims-most Muslims actually believe, without telling them that first. I think that's extremely important. And the film does that.HOLT: We'll have to end it right there. Hussein Ibish, thanks so much for coming on tonight.
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