Exploring Islam's pull

`Frontline' shows diversity of world's Muslim cultures

May 09, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Muslims opens slow and for a while seems unsure of where it wants to go. But those who stay with this two-hour Frontline report on PBS tonight will be rewarded with an understanding of modern-day Islam unlike anything television has ever been able to deliver before.

And that is no small matter of public service in a nation where many of us are still wondering how terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center could be carried out in the name of this religion, and how someone like Osama bin Laden could call it a "holy" war.

This is not a history of Islam. Public television already provided some of that last year with Islam: Empire of Faith, by Baltimore filmmaker Robert Gardner. The primary focus of Muslims involves the political and social roots of the renewed interest and tremendous growth of Islam worldwide, particularly in the last 20 years or so. The film moves through Egypt, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Turkey and the United States to tell its story.

At virtually every stop, one element is the same: the way that country's version of Islam today was shaped in reaction to colonialism and the West. That is where much of the hate comes from -- reaction to repressive and corrupt regimes controlled by or beholden to the West.

"During the last 23 years, we have tried to stand on our feet, and the Western countries they do not want this. They want a country to depend on them and be controlled by them. But now we are independent," says Mahdi Hadavi, one of 300 ayatollahs in Iran, where the revolution of 1979, televised nightly for Americans on ABC's Nightline, resulted in Islamic scholars controlling the country today.

Akbar Muhammed, a Muslim professor of African Studies at the State University of New York, Binghampton, says, "After colonialism, people have attempted to return to their roots, to give life to their earlier cultures. We don't want to be like Europe. ... We want to bring back Islam."

While the first half hour or so feels more like a college world survey course than it needs to, the structure of moving from country to country does effectively highlight the great diversity of Muslim life.

In Nigeria, for example, Sharia Courts (a code for living based on the Koran, Islam's sacred text), harshly punishes women who do not cover their heads in public, while Turkey bans Muslim women from even wearing head scarves in public offices and universities.

Muslims goes a long way in challenging stereotypes taught by commercial television with its easy answers. And, if we learned nothing else from bin Laden, it is that we can no longer afford the ignorance of easy answers when it comes to Muslims.

"You ask why you see bin Laden's pictures all over the place," says I. Datti Amad, president of the Supreme Council in Kano, Nigeria. "You see his pictures painted there because the people regard him as a hero. They feel he is the one man who has given the U.S. a run for its money. The one country that is killing Muslims all over the world. The one country that is regarded by these people as the worst enemy of Muslims and Islam. He has given that country a run for the money, and they love him."

A cold dose of reality

In this May "sweeps" month of nostalgia, trivia and cooked-up, self-congratulatory television history, it is worth making an effort to see just how marvelous history on television can be with Gulag on The Learning Channel tonight at 9.

This award-winning British documentary tells the story of the horrible network of labor camps, mines, laboratories, factories and Siberian cities that devoured an estimated 20 million lives from the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917 to the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953.

Interviews with politicians, camp survivors, guards, commandants and others who bore witness chronicle not just the brutality and degradation but also the systematic way Soviet citizens were routinely imprisoned in this surreal world even though the state knew they were innocent. Falsely convicting and then working innocent people to death was the price of modernization in the Soviet Union under Stalin.

This archaeology of horror is the kind of Russian history that intellectual Marxists don't teach in American universities.

Frontline

What: Muslims

When: 9 tonight

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26)

In brief: If you want to understand Muslims, start here.

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