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The Ombudsman Column

Muhammad on PBS: Was It Good for the Jews?

The question in the headline on this column is not meant to be frivolous. For Jews and their families in America in the 1930s, '40s and '50s — and even to some extent today — events from time to time in this country and elsewhere in the world often provoked that question in the privacy of living rooms and kitchens. Whether one was an immigrant or native-born, history had made small Jewish populations sensitive to the meaning of events big and small.

So, this brings me to what I consider, in the greater scheme of things, to be a small event: a three-hour documentary, produced and first broadcast by the BBC in 2011, titled "The Life of Muhammad" that aired on PBS on Aug. 20 of this year. I wrote about this at the time, posted some emails from viewers who were critical in one way or another of the film, and gave my views.

I noted that, given the events of our current times, it was actually surprising how little mail I got about a program devoted to the life of a sixth century prophet who would found what has become the world's second largest religion. And I theorized that it "may mean that many viewers saw this as informative, a useful primer on what is known and cannot be known about this man, and more even-handed than provocative." I added: "That would also be my view."

I had read perhaps six or eight newspaper and online film reviews and cited one in the Los Angeles Times that seemed to me to best capture the general reaction to the program, which was favorable.

However, I also reported that "the U.S.-based, pro-Israel, media watch group known as CAMERA has headlined a critique — originally posted in The Algemeiner, which bills itself as "the fastest growing Jewish newspaper in America" — claiming that "PBS Includes Vicious Anti-Semites in Show About Mohammad." Although readers of the column could click on the link provided to read the full CAMERA critique, I did not deal with the details in the column, which was relatively brief and also dealt at the top with a brewing flap between PBS's Frontline investigative series and the National Football League.

A New Entry

Then two weeks ago — about seven weeks after my column appeared — Dexter Van Zile, writing on behalf of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) where he is the Christian Media Analyst, emailed that "you did not respond to the specific allegations raised in this [CAMERA] article. The producers did not respond to these allegations either. This is troubling because the specifics are quite damning and are not something that can be glossed over or ignored."

Specifically, he wrote: "One source, Sheikh Ikrema Sabri, (the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem), engaged in Holocaust denial and invoked The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a well-known anti-Semitic forgery, as a credible source of information about the Jewish people. He has also accused Jews of wanting to destroy the Al Aksa Mosque. This allegation has been used to incite violence against Jews for decades.

"Another source, Abdur Raheem Green, declared that Mustafa Kamal Attaturk, the founder of modern Turkey, was 'an extremely, thoroughly unpleasant, nasty kafir. He was a Jew, he was a Jew.' In one instance (not mentioned in the article), Green stated that 'The purpose of the jizya is to make the Jew and the Christian know that they are inferior and subjugated to Islam, OK?' Elsewhere in this same video, he states that 'It is from Islam to create an environment where people are pressurized and encouraged to be upon the path of haq [embrace Islam] . . . '

"Your failure to address the anti-Semitism of the sources who appeared in the documentary is troubling because their statements bear directly on the message offered in the documentary in which they appear — that Islam, in its truest form, as enunciated by Muhammad, does not promote hostility toward Jews. There is a logical problem here that transparency requires be made known to PBS viewers. The problem is this: Anti-Semites are appearing in documentary that states that anti-Semitism is not an authentic expression of the Muslim faith as enunciated by its founder Muhammed. If anti-Semitism is not a legitimate part of the faith, then why are these people in the documentary and invoked as credible sources about Islam?"

He also points out that "PBS editorial standards state that 'the audience generally should be able to know not only who the sources of information are, but also why they were chosen and what their potential biases might be.' This standard was not met in the documentary and as PBS Ombudsman, you have an obligation to say so."

Differing Views

Actually, I would have an obligation to say so if I agreed with his assessment. But, although Van Zile correctly cites one segment of PBS standards, I do not agree with the thrust of the overall critique, or with his assessment of the "message offered in the documentary," which I'll explain as we go along.

Also, just so there is no confusion among readers, those citations above mentioned by Van Zile and CAMERA do not appear in the documentary.

Van Zile does raise important challenges, as CAMERA frequently does, although the organization is dominated by the self-interest of calling out anything that they evaluate as an inaccurate or unfair portrayal of Israel or Israeli interests, of reporting on the Middle East and of anything that they believe conveys anti-Semitism.

They also tend to engage at times, in my opinion, in extreme and provocative headlines on their dispatches to subscribers that impute anti-Israel or anti-Semitic motives to their targets. On Aug. 19 they sent a message to subscribers about two films — which I wrote about Aug. 21 and Sept. 4 — in the documentary series POV that was headlined "PBS Doubles Down on Anti-Israeli Films" and then four days later came the CAMERA release headlined "PBS Includes Vicious Anti-Semites in Show About Muhammad."

The Producer Responds

I forwarded Van Zile's letter to PBS and to Faris Kermani, the London-based, British-Pakistani producer/director of "The Life of Muhammad," for his response.

Here is what he e-mailed: "Sheikh Sabri is the ex-Mufti of Jerusalem and he was filmed for the sequence that talked about Muhammad's Night Journey from Jerusalem to the Seventh Heaven. The Sheikh spoke only about the importance of that story in Muslim mythology and, as he has an association with Jerusalem, we deemed him to be the right person to discuss this topic.

"Abdur Raheem Green is a British Muslim preacher who holds conservative views and, as we wanted a wide range of opinion in the film, we interviewed him. In the context of what he spoke about, he was not espousing anti-Jewish views and talked mainly about the marriages and the conditions of Jews during the Muslim rule in Spain. In fact the whole tone of the programme in Episode 2 was to condemn very strongly the prevailing anti-Semitic feelings in the Middle East.

"Over the course of producing this series, we interviewed a wide range of scholars of religion and Islam and sought to share a diverse group of opinions, utilizing a number of researchers and advisors. The film does not embrace or affirm any particular point of view but rather to use these opinions and findings to create a historical picture of Muhammad's world and beliefs."

In response to further questions from me about his awareness of the background of these two individuals, Kermani wrote: "My team and I were aware of the background and credentials of all of the participants in this film. Sheikh Sabri and Abdur Raheem Green were chosen for the segments in which they appeared for the reasons I outlined earlier. Our goal in making LIFE OF MUHAMMAD was to include a wide-range of voices, including scholars who have very diverse opinions about the historical and interpreted nature of Islam. As the producers of this film, we believe we have created an insightful documentary that helps people understand the origins of this major world religion."

My Thoughts

I have no reason to change my initial thoughts about this film; that it succeeded as an informative and useful primer on the life of the man who founded Islam and about whom most non-Muslims probably know very little.

There were some 36 different people interviewed during the three-hour film. All of them were identified on screen, although not with much detail. On the other hand, most documentaries with so many different interviews tend not to go into much greater detail. Aside from the two people that CAMERA and Van Zile focus on, there were also two strong, present-day critics of Islam interviewed, Robert Spencer and Nonie Darwish, as I reported in my initial column.

Both Sheikh Ikrema Sabri and Abdur-Raheem Green have relatively brief comments recorded in the film and, with one exception, they had nothing to do with Jews. That one exception came in a discussion among several scholars and program participants about a controversial battle in 627 A.D. and the actions and fate of a Jewish tribe within the besieged city of Medina where Muhammad was as well.

A professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ella Landau-Tasseron, says on screen: "There is, by the way, no record of any actual attack of the Jews against the Prophet or anything like that." But later in the discussion, Nonie Darwish, identified only as the author of "Now They Call Me Infidel," says: "This is the first holocaust against the Jews. How can a prophet order a massacre of 800 men even if they tried to kill him? He could have banished them or he could have moved."

Green, identified as with the Islamic Education & Research Academy in London, then responds: "It had nothing to do with the fact that they were Jews. They could have been a Christian tribe or any other tribe, it wasn't a holocaust. It wasn't done directed at the Jews because of their religion. If that was the case then it would have set a precedent in Muslim history and we would not have found the golden age of Jewish Enlightenment taking place under the Muslims in Spain, if this claim was true then we would have found the position of Jews throughout Islamic history would have been very, very different."

The discussion then moves on to how this incident has impacted the outlook of Islam towards the Jewish world. The Muslim narrator, Rageh Omaar, describes this impact: "spreading like a virus across the Muslim world is a new form of anti-Semitism that claims some form of legitimacy from the Qur'an. Its offensive rants are to most Muslim and non-Muslim ears abhorrent and vile."

What PBS Viewers Saw

My sense, as a viewer and ombudsman, was that the PBS viewer saw a three-hour production that was meant to shed light on the life of Muhammad and that also dealt, rather forthrightly and along with many other issues, with the issue of anti-Semitism and its origins within the Islamic world. Whatever the views of the two individuals singled out by CAMERA, their participation dealt with Islamic history and religion and did not appear to inject any anti-Semitic views into the program.

I'm not quarreling with CAMERA's research on the background or some of the past utterances of these two men. But my sense is that they are being used in this case to undermine a film about Muhammad and Islam that struck me, and most of the reviewers that I've read, as informative and straight-forward, not as an attempt to indoctrinate viewers.

'An Arguable Point'

CAMERA ended its original critique by saying, "Viewers who watch the PBS series will recognize it as a clear attempt to indoctrinate people with the idea that the violence being done in the name of Islam is contrary to what Muhammad taught his followers." But then they go on to say, "It's an arguable point." Well, yes it is. And that's the point. This program rather well lays out what is known, what may or may not be true, and what is unknown about that time almost 1,500 years ago.

As for those editorial standards, I have written a number of times that they are so comprehensive that they enable almost any side to be argued. Van Zile is correct that those standards say, in part, that the "audience generally" should also know "why they were chosen [as sources] or what their potential biases might be." So, technically, PBS could be said to be in violation of that general standard because not much information was given about any of the 36 people interviewed. Nor is it likely that any documentary with so many voices would have much detail.

But there is another section in PBS guidelines called "Roles and Responsibilities" that states: "Primary responsibility for content necessarily rests with the producer; generally, producers create the content, particularly on television, and are uniquely positioned to control its elements. Not only would it be impractical for PBS to second-guess the producer's decisions at each step of the production process, but respect for that process demands that producers be allowed the freedom required for creativity to flourish. Thus, in selecting content for distribution, PBS must rely heavily on the producer's honesty, integrity, talent, skill, and good faith. Producers of content for PBS have an obligation to inform themselves about and adhere to these Standards and Policies and all applicable PBS production and funding guidelines."

CAMERA also argues that "the show's producers might want to do a better job of picking out their sources when making their case." I think that is a point that can be debated, at least in the case of Green. But Sabri is the head of the Supreme Islamic Council and a former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem so it would not be at all unusual to include him among three dozen people to discuss Muhammad. And it should not be a surprise to anyone that there are undoubtedly large numbers of Muslims these days who harbor strong, antagonistic feelings about Jews and Israel. There are also many who harbor such views about Islam.

So here, too, I don't come down hard on the producers who say they sought a diverse collection of people to interview.

Red Flags

When I asked PBS officials if they knew about, or had been told by the producers about, the backgrounds of the two men singled out by CAMERA, they said no. But they didn't fault the producers because they said that they were specifically aiming for a broad perspective of views and backgrounds within the Islamic community as well as among Christian and Jewish voices on the program. And they say they couldn't vet every person to see what they'd said or written over their careers and that "we really have to trust the producers to do that."

The PBS internal "roles" standards, one official said, are meant to keep programmers from "getting in to the weeds" in that fashion. On a subject like Islam, one official said, someone is going to be upset no matter what you do and we felt it was important that we present a wide perspective of people to weigh in, to make sure it was an even-handed, historical telling that didn't get into polemics and to make sure that there were counter-points.

If I were a programmer at PBS and this film were being purchased from an independent producer, I would expect the fullest disclosure from the producer, at least about any potential red flags that could go up from within an American audience. That doesn't mean that the producer should be second-guessed or that the program should not have been bought by PBS and broadcast. But it does mean that one should ask or be made be aware of what might follow programs on controversial subjects.