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Muslims

Thursday, May 9, at 9pm, 120 minutes

The events of September 11 left many Americans asking how such atrocities could be perpetrated in the name of religion: specifically, the religion of Islam. Yet even as U.S. opinion polls reflect a collective sense of mistrust toward a religion few Americans know much about, Islam continues to be one of the fastest growing religions in the United States and around the world today.

What does it mean to be a Muslim? How does their faith shape their lives, identities, and politics? Does Islam deserve its reputation as a patriarchal, authoritarian, and anti-Western religion? And what role does militancy play in the Muslim world?

FRONTLINE and the Independent Production Fund join forces to explore these and other questions in "Muslims," a special two-hour film investigating the different faces of Islam's worldwide resurgence. Reporting from Iran, Nigeria, Egypt, Malaysia, Turkey, and the United States, FRONTLINE tells the stories of Muslims struggling to define how Islam will shape their lives and societies.

"With tensions between Islam and the West at an all-time high, there is a need for a new perspective on Muslims and Islam," says Alvin H. Perlmutter, executive producer and director of the Independent Production Fund. "Through portraits of Muslims around the globe, we reveal the many diverse interpretations of Islam as well as the struggle to adapt to the modern world."

"Muslims" traces the social, historical, and political roots of the renewed interest in Islam worldwide, beginning at Cairo's Al Azhar Mosque-the oldest university in the world. It is here that viewers meet Sheik Abdul Mauwith, an Islamic scholar who staffs the phones of Al Azhar's Fatwa committee, responding to Muslims wanting to know what is right and wrong under Islamic or Shariah Law. In a society increasingly shaped by Western influence, he encourages Muslims to hold fast to the traditions of Islam.

The film places the Sheik's conflict in a global context: across the Islamic world, Muslims are challenged by the political, economic, and cultural influence of a dominant West.

"Some Muslims have become very conscious of the fact of dominance, and they have become exclusive," says Malaysian political scientist Chandra Muzaffer. "They have become inward looking-they have become reactive and sometimes very aggressive."

"After the end of colonialism÷people have attempted to return to their roots, as it were, to give life to their earlier cultures," adds Akbar Muhammad, associate professor of history at The State University of New York at Binghamton.

In Nigeria, "Muslims" explores this desire for a more Islamic society. Dr. Datti Ahmad, president of the Supreme Council on Shariah, argues that for Muslims, Islam is everything. "Islam is our culture÷we have no other culture," he says. "Anything that is un-Islamic you find is not accepted."

In the predominantly Muslim north of the country, an increasing number of states have reintroduced full Shariah Law, with its deterrent punishments of amputations, floggings and executions. "In the West, I think the emphasis is on human freedom," explains lawyer Muzzammil Hanga. "The overall emphasis in Islamic law is on communal harmony."

Hanga challenges the West's perception of Islam. "With the event of September 11," he says, "the West is frantically trying to establish two worlds: the forward looking Western world, and [its perception of a] backward, uncivilized Islamic world."

"Muslims" also travels to Iran, where viewers meet Hadi Semati, a professor of political science at Tehran University. Once a young revolutionary, Semati is now an adviser to Iran's President Khatami and an advocate of greater social freedom and political reform.

"Revolutions are really good for basically taking care of bad things, but the other question is whether they can build the positive side, " Semati says. "One could argue that we haven't been all that successful in bringing to life what we wanted-economic well-being and a sense of community, a sense of belonging."

The struggle between Muslim traditionalists and those favoring a more contemporary interpretation of the faith is being waged across the Muslim world. In Malaysia, feminist Muslim activist Zainah Anwar is caught in the conflict. Despite the rising influence of Malaysia's Islamic Party, which actively encourages women to veil and put their family before their career-Anwar is adamant that Islam is not a patriarchal religion.

"We found that it is not Islam that discriminates against women," Anwar says. "It is not the verses in the Quran, it is the way that these verses have been interpreted by men, living in patriarchal societies who wish to maintain their dominance, and their superiority and control over women."

For Muslims in the United States, meanwhile, a reassertion of their identity has led to confrontations with other ethnic and religious groups-particularly since September 11. In the Chicago suburb of Bridgeview, for example, an angry crowd shouting anti-Muslim slurs marched toward the local mosque. For many in the community, the event highlighted the intense frustrations Muslims experience as they strive to develop an American Muslim identity.

"The only thing I know how to be is an American÷an American Muslim," says one Bridgeview man. "When somebody questions my loyalty to this country, it's frustrating because I am an American-I was born and raised here."

The principal of a Muslim school in Illinois, Safaa Zarzour is hopeful that American Muslims can be an example for Muslims around the world. "I look at Muslims in the United States as being in a very unique position to be able to produce a model for how Islam can be lived [alongside] other religions and other people," he claims.

In closing, the film examines the form that Islam may take in the future. In Iran it discovers a vigorous debate about the role of religion in modern society. "Islam gives you a direction, gives you a light, so to speak," Hadi Semati concludes. "You don't have to necessarily solve every question in your life by Islam."

Following the broadcast, visit FRONTLINE's Web site, at www.pbs.org/frontline, for extended coverage of this story, including:

  • Expanded profiles and video of Muslims featured in this documentary and reports on how their faith shapes their lives, identities and politics;

  • What do Muslims believe? A primer on the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith;

  • Frequently Asked Questions about Islam, and the social and political aspects of its history;

  • A selection of readings, analyses and links on Islam and the forces of modernity and globalization confronting the faith;

  • A Teacher's Guide, maps, statistics, and more.

"Muslims" is a FRONTLINE co-production with the Independent Production Fund. Major funding for "Muslims" has been provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts and The William and Mary Greve Foundation. Additional funding has been provided by the Lilly Auchincloss Foundation and The Fetzer Institute.

The writers and producers are Graham Judd and Elena Mannes.

The senior producer is Martin Smith.

Alvin H. Perlmutter and Anisa Mehdi are the executive producers for the Independent Production Fund. David Fanning is the executive producer for FRONTLINE.

FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS.

Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers. National sponsorship is provided by EarthLink∆ and NPR∆.

FRONTLINE is closed-captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.

Press contacts for FRONTLINE:
Erin Martin Kane [erin_martin_kane@wgbh.org]
Chris Kelly [chris_kelly@wgbh.org]
(617) 300-3500

FRONTLINE XX/May 2002

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