Saturday, April 12, 2008
A new student documentary shows just how many sins of omission you need to commit to hammer the square peg of the Boston Mosque controversy into the round hole of the politically correct themes of tolerance and dialog.
[Disclosure: In the time I have been following the story of the controversial ISB, I have come to know many of the figures involved. I am now on the steering committee of Citizens for Peace and Tolerance, one of the groups sued by the Islamic group, though I was not involved at the time of the controversy. As always on this blog, this entry is my own and is in no way intended to represent the view of CPT or anyone else aside from myself. These are my reflections alone, and are neither pushed nor held back by any other consideration than my own candid thoughts allow.]
Last Thursday evening I went down to the Boston College campus to watch a new student-made film called "In Good Faith: The Building of a Mosque and a Community". The film promised a look at the Islamic Society of Boston, their mosque project and the controversies that have plagued it.
Funded through a grant from The Jacques Salmanowitz Program for Moral Courage in Documentary Film, BC junior Matt Porter took a year and half to complete the effort. If you take a moment to imagine every politically correct trope about dialog, tolerance, diversity, and respect for the other no matter who "the other" is and what they believe floating around college campuses today then you'll have a shot at understanding just what it was I sat through the other night.
The young filmmaker informed the audience repeatedly before and after the film that he considers himself a "journalist". That may be true, given the depths to which so many of those making such a profession have sunk, but I have news for Mr. Porter. If this film is any indication, he is not a journalist, but is in fact an activist and advocate. In Good Faith starts with a word of the day, "Dialog," and remains unwaveringly faithful to pushing its agenda regardless of what facts stand in its way. In fact, the degree to which facts are twisted -- or more often, ignored -- and claims are simply accepted in wide-eyed innocence unintentionally demonstrate just how empty and unhelpful such PC points of faith are in serving us in our attempts to understand and deal with the real world outside campus kumbaya sessions. This is not journalism. It does not inform, it simply builds illusions, pushing its agenda, creating heroes and villains without ever giving the viewer the information necessary to judge whether the filmmaker is leading them astray.
And astray he is leading them.
A quote from one of the local Muslims sets the stage for the film: "These are tough times for the Muslims..." And that pretty well lays out the thrust of the movie's narrative. Through a series of interviews and voice-overs, the filmmaker argues the case that Muslims are distrusted and persecuted in America, and that, at root, these problems are based on irrational fears that can cured through a combination of discussion and explaining away.
And that is what the film does. For something like the first thirty minutes we hear nothing about the various legal controversies that have plagued the mosque project. We are simply treated to a "get to know your local Muslim community" session -- a community trying to find its way in America, integrate and contribute as all immigrant communities have done since the founding of the republic.
When issues involving Islam are mentioned, they are explained away as swiftly as they emerge. All the problems plaguing the Islamic World -- its misogyny, its anti-Semitism, its sectarian conflicts, its homophobia, its terrorism and violent Jihad -- all are explained away as simply the results of political realities in coincidentally Muslim-majority countries. Women are badly treated in Saudi Arabia? Can't drive? No problem. This isn't Saudi Arabia, so it's not something we need to worry about, no matter how many Muslims arrive here or where they come from. This is America, after all, and men and their lifetimes of cultural inculcation are magically transformed after taking three steps in this Promised Land.
Interestingly, much of the apologizing for Islam's problematic aspects is done through the voice of former ISB spokesperson and attractive white convert, Jessica Masse. I suppose it's felt that the excusing carries more weight when communicated by someone who acknowledges it yet still makes the choice to don the hijab. Not all Americans may rest so assured, especially considering what many of those who have been affiliated with this mosque have stated on the record.
And that is where the film completely breaks down, turning what might have been a simple, yet frustratingly naive, PC fantasy into something worse than a lie.
Here's the quote that might have started off the film: "Jews will be 'scourged' because of their 'oppression, murder, and rape of the worshipers of Allah.'"
Those were the words of ISB trustee Walid Fitaihi, as revealed in a report from the ADL, in what would be a series of problematic quotes emanating from the Saudi-based mosque fund-raiser.
You'll have to remember that name yourself, because Walid Fitaihi, the man who may have single-handedly brought more embarrassment and unintentionally revealed more about this mosque and its backers than any other, is completely missing from the film.*
Why? Because there is absolutely no way of bringing Fitaihi into the picture and still maintaining the film's purpose to portray anyone who sounded the warning bells as an irrational paranoid. His very real history in Boston further weakens the case that dialog is the cure all that the film's maker and backers think it is. As I wrote back in May of 2007:
It emerged that Fitaihi, in more comfortable surroundings back home, had been more candid about his feelings. The Middle East Media Research Institute had found some of Fitaihi's writings. Shortly after September 11, Fitaihi had written:
"Despite the attacks of distortion coordinated by the Zionist lobby, to which it has recruited many of the influential media, there are initial signs that the intensive campaign of education about Islam has begun to bear fruit...Jewish institutions have begun to contact Muslim institutions and have called on us to hold dialogues with them and cooperate [with them]. They are afraid of the outcome of the Islamic-Christian dialogue through the churches, the mosques, and the universities..."
"Thus, the Muslim community in the U.S. in general, and in Boston in particular, has begun to trouble the Zionist lobby. The words of the Koran [3:113] on this matter are true: 'They will be humiliated wherever they are found, unless they are protected under a covenant with Allah, or a covenant with another people. They have incurred Allah's wrath and they have been afflicted with misery. That is because they continuously rejected the Signs of Allah and were after slaying the Prophets without just cause, and this resulted from their disobedience and their habit of transgression.'"
"The great Allah spoke words of truth. Their covenant with America is the strongest possible in the U.S., but it is weaker than they think, and one day their covenant with the [American] people will be cut off."
There were Rabbis and community members in Boston who came forward for dialog and wound up feeling used and deceived. How do you have serious dialog with someone who would look in your face and call you friend, then turn around and, by calling you a Prophet killer, demonstrate that they were just using you the moment they thought you weren't looking? Had it not been for MEMRI and the ADL, Fitaihi would have gotten away with it.
How do useful fools like David Gordis, Moshe Waldoks and the American Jewish Committee's Larry Lowenthal, all of whom figure prominently in this film, plan to keep "the other" honest? By handshakes and tea? I'd love to be a used car salesman when these guys come walking in the room. They think they know everything but they'd buy anything. I'm all for a dialog and having people like that who can go in and shake hands and talk -- I might get a little frustrated with them at times, but I respect that we need people like that as well -- but to allow themselves to be used in the manner that this film uses them, to bash those who take a less credulous view...that is a disgrace.
And used they are, as one advocate of interfaith relations after another, Jew and Catholic, is paraded before the camera to tell us not to worry, their luncheons can solve anything. Meanwhile they address absolutely nothing of substance and give us no assurance that they are even capable of doing so.
There's another figure who is never mentioned in the film, and that person is Sheik Ahmed Mansour. Himself a devout Muslim who fled his native Egypt under threat of death from the Muslim Brotherhood, he was the man who visited the ISB's Cambridge mosque and spoke out about the hate literature he found there. For his troubles, he was sued by the Islamic Society.
Now, it's awfully difficult to maintain the theme of "irrational Americans vs. innocent Muslims" when one of the subjects of the lawsuit is a Muslim. So, rather than doing with this what he did with many other glossed-over issues, writer/director Porter simply writes it out of the script altogether.
One of the unintentional howlers of the film is when Yousef Qaradhawi finally merits a mention during one of the movie's short efforts to address some of the ISB's critics. Qaradhawi, we are told, was "at one time a member of the Muslim Brotherhood...known more recently as an enigmatic talk show host who supported tolerance between Palestinians and Israelis..." In fact, Qaradhawi (Qaradawi) supports suicide bombings against Israelis, and is on record with a stream of anti-semitic and homophobic statements. The film goes on to retail the idea that the ISB's link to Qaradhawi never amounted to much, and that they cut ties with him altogether after he came out in support of suicide bombings against Americans in Iraq. But only then? Considering his record, a group that looks to a man like Qaradhawi (and he is far more influential, and wicked, than the label of "enigmatic talk show host" implies) for leadership -- he was, according to an ISB statement, a popular man within the community -- is worth being concerned about.
The ISB may have taken it as a hint that they had a problematic association on their hands when they had to have the Sheik in to their first major fund-raiser only by video hookup. He was banned from entering the United States by the Clinton Administration. The filmmaker might have noted it, rather than brushing it off by repeating the ISB's own boilerplate denials.
At every turn, the narration either downplays or mischaracterizes the group's connection to radicals and its leaders' repeated troubling connections. Only after its half-hour recruiting drive for Islam and its continuous parade of interviews of both Muslims and non-Muslims are finished, for the moment, soothing our concerns, do we start to hear from the film's foils -- BC Professor Dennis Hale and David Project attorney Jeff Robbins.
The day after I watched the film, I spoke to David Project head Charles Jacobs to discuss it with him. He told me that he had been approached by the filmmaker to sit for an interview. Jacobs said he asked whether Mr. Porter intended to research into the mosque critics' claims, the radical Saudi connections, etc... When Porter answered in the negative, Jacobs knew there was no point in allowing himself to simply be used and refused to appear on film.
Sadly, Prof. Hale, a target of the ISB's original lawsuit, did agree to sit, and I am sure he has now lived to regret it, because he is used merely as the film's bad guy, his concerns never seriously addressed or even considered. Hale is simply held up for ridicule for failing to be willing to engage in "dialog" with the ISB -- dialog being the cure to end all ills in the filmmaker's strangely naive worldview. Sadly, the rest of us don't all live in a world where the likes of Walid Fitaihi and Yousef Qaradhawi can simply be erased for the sake of convenience.
This ill-use of a fine man, Dennis Hale (I focus on Hale and not Robbins here since Robbins, at least, was there representing his client and not in his personal capacity), moves the film into something worse than simple naive fantasy. It now picks up where the ISB left off its work of personal destruction against those who would criticize.
And let's be clear here, no one doubts that there are many, many fine people in the rank and file of the mosque membership, and no one, that I have met at least, believes that anyone should be harassed for their membership there. Further, no one doubts the mosque leadership's ability to be sociable, participate in interfaith events and leave the doors open for all. Walid Fitaihi, after all, was able to conduct a very successful charm offensive and would have gotten away scott free with it if he hadn't written anything down.
That's not the point. The point is one of substance and long-term outlook. Who is running this mosque? Who is funding it? What is their ideology? What will they be teaching the children? Now? Ten years from now? These questions have some very disturbing answers to them.
During the short Q&A that followed the film, the young filmmaker was asked about this group that figures prominently in the leadership of the mosque -- the Muslim American Society. This is another name never mentioned in the film. It was pointed out that this group is, in fact, the American branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the fact that this is never addressed weakens the film. The answer? Something along the lines of, "Well, I can only report on what I saw here in Boston..." and then he went on to say that in his experience during the year and a half he's been working with them, he's seen nothing devious about them.
Well, that settles that, then. No need to worry about the Brotherhood here. It's all just youth groups and sleepovers...
What we have here is very sadly naive stuff. Understandable for a young guy looking to please his mentors seeking to indoctrinate him in the bromides of what pass for PC campus wisdom these days, and concerned about the difficulties his Muslim friends may encounter (we learn during Q&A that he had three Muslim roommates one year at school), and clearly unequipped to grapple with the complexities of the issues at play, things become far less sympathetic during our repeated screen encounters with AJC's Lowenthal -- a man old enough to know better.
Had the film stuck to the story of Muslims in America, told through the story of a mosque and community, we may have just had a silly piece of propaganda, not worth much, least of all a lengthy review (which, I assure you, is coming to a close shortly). But because it purports to address the very serious legal and cultural matters involved, does so in such a distorted and dishonest manner, and continues the personal attacks that made the ISB's lawsuits so damaging in the first place (all for the sake of dialog don't you know), it turns itself into something much worse.
I use the term dishonest advisedly. Matt Porter must have had access to all the same information that you or I had. In a year and a half it's simply not credible that he wouldn't or couldn't come across it, but where facts were inconvenient to taking the shortest route to his desired conclusion they were simply written out, or he retreats into "well, they seem like nice fellows to me."
Dialog is meaningless without absolute honesty. The more you have to cover and twist the facts, the more you show that tea, cookies and glad-handing are a waste of time. In the end, that's how this film actually manages to defeat its own purpose.
* There is so much missing here that I simply can't cover it all in one review. Those encountering the issue for the first time, or those needing a refresher simply must read my backgrounder article on the mosque in full: The Silencing. I wish I could see that everyone had a chance to read it, before seeing this movie.
Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Film Review: In Good Faith -- The Islamic Society of Boston Gets the Documentary Treatment.
TrackBack URL for this entry: http://www.solomonia.com/cgi-bin/mt4/mt-renamedtb.cgi/14544
Don't look at me, that's how Paul Begala described him. I'm now hearing all about how Israel no longer has to worry, because Rahm Emanuel would never let Obama sell Israel down the river due to his Jewish and IDF... Read More