Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"Obsession": Springing a September Surprise?

The Eye found a surprise when we opened up our copy of The Bulletin on Sunday - an insert containing a DVD of a documentary

Posted By on Tue, Sep 30, 2008 at 2:00 PM

The Eye found a surprise when we opened up our copy of The Bulletin on Sunday - an insert containing a DVD of a documentary called "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West."

Turns out we weren't the only ones who got a surprise - some 28 million copies of the DVD were shipped out last week in newspapers around the country, most of them in what are considered "swing states" in the presidential election.

To say the documentary is controversial is an understatement akin to saying that investing in the stock market contains a particle of risk. Editor & Publisher reports that at least one paper - the Greensboro (NC) News & Record - refused to distribute it. According to John Robinson, the paper's editor, the publisher "said it was divisive and plays on people's fears and served no educational purpose."

Closer to home - in Portland, in fact - the reaction was more heated: A crowd of about 75 gathered in front of The Oregonian's office yesterday morning to protest the inclusion of the DVD in Sunday's paper. "Spokespeople from various organizations and faiths took turns behind a podium on the sidewalk and denounced The Oregonian's connection to the 60-minute DVD, which they described as trying to incite fear of Muslims by assuming an educational tone and proceeding to all-too-hazily differentiate between Islam and terrorist organizations," Willamette Week reported. On Sunday, Oregonian Publisher Fred Stickel defended the decision to accept the insert: "There is a principle of freedom of speech involved here. I could find no reason to reject this."

So what's all the fuss about?

"Obsession" was produced in 2005 and got a lot of play on Fox News and CNN in the run-up to the 2006 elections. Rush Limbaugh, interviewing "Obsession's" director, editor and co-writer Wayne Kopping, had praise for it: "I really wish you the best in getting this out. It's shocking. It's stunning to see it."

The producer and other co-writer is Raphael Shore, a Canadian living in Israel. Shore is described as an employee of Aish HaTorah ("Fire of the Torah"), an Orthodox Jewish education organization headquartered in Jerusalem. The movie was produced and distributed by the Clarion Fund, which was founded by Shore about two years ago and describes itself as "a non-profit, non-partisan organization whose mission is to educate Americans about issues of national security. ... We are independent and do not accept funding from the U.S. Government, political institutions, or foreign organizations."

Just where the Clarion Fund does get its money is an interesting question; Shore refuses to reveal it. But there must be some deep pockets behind it - producing and distributing 28 million copies of a DVD isn't cheap.

The 60-minute documentary opens with scenes of the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 and terrorist bombings in Madrid, London and other cities. It's a skillfully edited and produced pastiche of interviews with various "experts" and clips of Islamic politicians and clerics ranting against Israel and America. The core thesis: Radical Islam is a fanatical global movement whose aim is the destruction of the West.

The opening sequence contains a cautionary note: "It is important to remember most Muslims are peaceful and do not support terror. This is not a film about them. This is a film about a radical world view and the threat that it poses to us all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike." There also are scenes of Islamic leaders denouncing terrorism, and toward the end there's an appeal to the Muslim majority to stand up and oppose terrorism. But those messages are undercut in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in the rest of the film.

One of the interviewees, Daniel Pipes, a prominent neo-con historian, commentator and Zionist, says that 10% to 15% of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world support radical Islam, and "the number who are anti-US or anti-Zionist is much higher." Walid Shoebat, identified as a "former PLO terrorist," adds that "15% is a huge number - this is as big as the United States of America. And the bad thing about it is they are spread all throughout." And Glen Jenvey, a Brit who is described as an "intelligence researcher," says ominously: "We are living with them. They are here."

Clearly, the take-away is that the Islamic terrorists are everywhere and you have no way of knowing who they are.

Critics charge that "Obsession" is fueling anti-Muslim hatred and hysteria. There's been speculation that the distribution of the movie in Dayton, OH was linked to an attack last Friday in which somebody sprayed a "chemical irritant" through a window into a mosque where some 300 worshipers were gathered for a Ramadan prayer service.

That incident and the distribution of "Obsession" might well be coincidence. But it's hard to believe that the wide-scale distribution of the movie in swing states just six weeks before the presidential election is a coincidence. According to the conventional wisdom, anything that stirs up worries about terrorism and national security helps John McCain.

The Associated Press reports that the Council for American-Islamic Relations, an American Muslim advocacy group, has asked the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether the Clarion Fund "is a 'front' for an Israel-based group with a stealth goal of helping" McCain. "In its complaint, CAIR cites New York Secretary of State records showing that three people who incorporated Clarion Fund also are employees or have been employees of Aish HaTorah International," according to The AP

While defending the decision to accept the insert on free-speech grounds, The Oregonian editorial board had some tough criticism for the movie itself, saying it "moves into shakier and arguably propagandistic territory ... in its lack of clear distinctions between what goes on inside, say, a mosque or school in Pakistan's frontier territories and one in the United States. We doubt that the fuzzing up of this was an accident. The scholarship and personal backgrounds of some of those who appeared in the video also is suspect. A man presented as a reformed terrorist on the DVD may not be what he claims to be and, beyond that, the origins and support for the Clarion Fund itself are, to say the least, fuzzy."

"While I recognize the newspaper's need for revenue, I wish The Blade had rejected this advertisement," wrote Jack Lessenberry, ombudsman for The Toledo (OH) Blade. "My sense was that its distribution was designed by those who placed the ad ... to inflame tensions during an election year."

Since The Bulletin has no ombudsman, maybe we need to ask Publisher Gordon Black whether he had any misgivings about putting the "Obsession" DVD in his paper.

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