n a stunning move designed to "counter the negative image of Christian Fundamentalists," PBS officials announced today that they're beginning production of a lavish two-hour feature, Jesus: Legacy of a Messiah. Produced by a convert to Christianity and featuring interviews with gentle, introspective Fundamentalist Christians, the production is designed to offset the widespread representation of Christian Fundamentalism as harsh, vindictive, and unforgiving. "Christianity is really a soft thing," says one of the preachers interviewed. "It's not a hard thing."
The production tells the story of Jesus from his virgin birth through his crucifixion and miraculous resurrection, highlighting the truth and miraculous character of these events and showing how each of them has significant impact on the lives of believers today. The New Testament, says one participant, "is the most extraordinarily beautiful discourse." Of the angel Gabriel's appearance to the Virgin Mary to announce her mission as the Mother of God's Son, the same expert observes, "This is how the ineffable, incomprehensible, utterly transcendent, indescribable God makes itself known to us."
Don't check your PBS schedule just yet. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting would no doubt be the first to tell you that such credulity and proselytizing has no place on public television. And the idea that they would plump for Christian Fundamentalism is, of course, laughable.
But the above is not made up out of whole cloth. The quotations above all appear, in reference to Islam and the Koran rather than Christianity and the Bible, in Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, the real-life PBS production running during this Christmas season. In this handsome Christmas present from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, elements of Islamic faith such as Muhammad's prophetic claim and miraculous journey to Jerusalem (for which journey there is no evidence whatsoever except the word of Muhammad himself, who never went to Jerusalem in any ordinary manner) and the court of Heaven are presented without question or challenge from skeptics. Attractive Muslim believers show the positive impact of their faith in their lives. Common challenges to Islam that it encourages the oppression of women, as well as violence under the banner of jihad are examined, found wanting, and dismissed.
Muhammad, one commentator exclaims, "is the kind of person who combines political and military and social and religious and intellectual dimensions of life in ways that are important for those of us in the 21st century who are struggling to put together complete lives ourselves." I haven't heard a more open and direct evangelistic call since a man on 34th Street in New York handed me a Gospel tract and said, "Read this, brother. It could change your life."
But that street-corner preacher didn't have an endowment from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Indeed, Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet presents such an appealing picture of Islam that it has become the best argument yet to cut off PBS's public funding.
This "documentary" is just a small element of the broader multiculturalism movement, but against the backdrop of terrorist attacks all over the world it takes on an even more disquieting cast. Take, for example, its treatment of the concept of jihad. To hear PBS tell it, Muslims are just Methodists with hats and beards. "Jihad is misused," one expert informs us. "There is absolutely nothing in Islam that justifies the claim of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda or other similar groups to kill innocent civilians. That is unequivocally a crime under Islamic law. Acts of terror violence that have occurred in the name of Islam are not only wrong, they are contrary to Islam."
Very well. But here the producers of Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet had a real opportunity. Instead of flatly stating that terrorism cannot be justified by Islam, they could have explained why misunderstanding jihad isn't a faux pas restricted to the benighted Falwells and Robertsons of the world. They could have informed viewers why millions of Muslims endorse the violent jihad preached by Islamic organizations spanning the globe from Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Jemaah Islamiah in Southeast Asia, Al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya in Egypt, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, Al-Ummah in India, the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines, and so many others.
The documentary reports the views of Mohamed Zakariya, who is described by another Muslim as being among "the mildest people in our community." Zakariya states that "revenge, suicide bombing, things of that kind, they have no place in Islam." This is simply stated as fact. The producers pass up the opportunity to clarify opposing views held by quite prominent figures in the Islamic world, such as Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, the prestigious and respected Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Tantawi was quoted by President Bush last Fall at the United Nations as saying that "terrorism is a disease, and that Islam prohibits killing innocent civilians." But according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), last spring the same sheikh declared that suicide bombing was "the highest form of Jihad operations," and that "every martyrdom operation against any Israeli, including children, women, and teenagers, is a legitimate act according to [Islamic] religious law, and an Islamic commandment."
They could have answered
the question that has gone conspicuously unanswered by Muslim organizations
since September 11: If Osama and his ilk are so clearly misusing the concept
of jihad and committing acts that are plainly contrary to Islam, why are
all these terrorist groups able to win so many adherents among Muslims?
Why is Islamic terrorism not the province of a few disenfranchised and
desperate fanatics, but a worldwide phenomenon, everywhere capable of
commanding the loyalty of its adherents even unto a bloody and violent
This glaring omission is compounded by the fact that the production deals explicitly with Muhammad's notorious massacre of the Jewish Bani Qurayzah tribe an exercise of seventh-century warrior brutality of the kind that Muslim terrorists today invoke to justify their actions. But we would never know that from PBS. In the documentary, the well-known American convert to Islam Hamza Yusuf, clearly uncomfortable with the subject, notes that "uh, approximately 700 men, uh, were killed. Uh, they were executed. So, this definitely occurred." But to his rescue rushes Karen Armstrong, author of Islam: A Short History and indefatigable apologist for all things Islamic: "All that can be said is that this cannot be seen as anti-Semitism, per se. Muhammad had nothing against the Jewish people per se, or the Jewish religion."
Adds another expert: "On the Jewish side, they have used that [massacre] as a way of saying, well, you see, the Muslims hate the Jews and they kill them."
Ah. Muslim anti-Semitism is all a misrepresentation by the Jews. Surely it could have nothing to do with Koran verses such as the one that declares that the "People of the Book" (i.e., Jews and Christians) "incurred the curse of Allah and His wrath" so that "some He transformed into apes and swine" (Sura 5:60). [Editor's note: See David Klinghoffer.]
Muslim apologists such as Armstrong and the others involved in this documentary might charge me with taking this verse "out of context." Let them then explain why radical Muslims today so often refer to Jews as "sons of pigs and monkeys," as USA Today reporter Jack Kelley found Muslim schoolchildren doing in the West Bank. Let them elucidate why Muslim clerics in Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere routinely note, in the words of Sheikh Ibrahim Madhi of the Palestinian Authority, that Jews are "the enemies of Allah, the nation accursed in Allah's book. Allah described [them] as apes and pigs."
What would Karen Armstrong, or the "mild" Mohamed Zakariya, say to Ibrahim Mahdi or any of the other clerics who claim that Muhammad indeed had a great deal against the Jewish people and the Jewish religion? Armstrong also notes that "the Qur'an continues to tell Muslims to honor the People of the Book." What would she say to the Saudi Sheikh Marzouq Salem Al-Ghamdi, who recently preached in a Friday sermon at a mosque in Mecca that "the Jews and Christians are infidels, enemies of Allah, his Messenger, and the believers. They deny and curse Allah and his Messenger How can we draw near to these infidels?"
Sure, he's just a fanatical Wahhabi. But why do so many Muslims of all sects echo his words around the world? No answer is forthcoming from PBS.
For many, if not most, of its adherents, Islam may indeed be, as Mohamed Zakariya calls it, "a soft thing . . . not a hard thing." But for so many Muslims their religion is so clearly a "hard thing" that PBS could have performed a great service by explaining this dichotomy and elucidating the conflict within the Islamic world between the "soft" Muslims and the "hard" ones. Instead, Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet is nothing more than misleading propaganda. It's an abject failure as a source for the whole truth about Islam and a clarification of the bewildering features of the contemporary scene.
It would be wonderful if PBS's attractively packaged, sanitized version of Islam were the only Islam. But I'm not sure that Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi or Marzouq Salem Al-Ghamdi would even recognize it as their religion.
Robert Spencer is an adjunct fellow with the Free Congress Foundation and the author of Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World's Fastest Growing Faith.