"America at a Crossroads" veers to the right

The highly touted PBS series on Islam and terrorism casts a cold eye on Bush's Iraq disaster -- but fails to examine Mideast history or America's failed policies in the region.

Published April 17, 2007 11:48AM (EDT)

If anyone still believes that PBS has a left-wing bias, "America at a Crossroads," the $20 million, 12-hour series about Islam, terrorism and the post-9/11 world that kicked off Sunday night, should shut them up once and for all. "Crossroads" proves yet again that five years after the 9/11 attacks, the mainstream American media still can't bring itself to talk about the real causes of Arab and Muslim rage at the West.

"Crossroads" has its virtues, but it is fundamentally flawed. Several of its 11 independently produced films are excellent, one is positively brilliant, and most are worth watching. But few of the films break any new ground or represent an advance over the many excellent documentaries on the same subject made by Frontline, Wide Angle and P.O.V. That isn't the real problem, though. The real problem is "Crossroads'" almost complete failure to explore the history of the Middle East, the effect of Western policies on its people, and the political and historical grievances that are largely responsible for Muslim and Arab rage at the West.

Intellectually, historically and journalistically, this is inexcusable. It's outrageous to devote this much time and money to a subject and never deal directly with one of the central issues. It's as if someone made a 12-hour series about the Civil War and decided to omit slavery.

By ignoring the political issues that drive Muslim rage at the West, "Crossroads" by default supports the neoconservative analysis of Islam and the causes of Islamist terrorism. And this is far more insidious, and injurious to the full national debate that the series' producers claim they want. For "Crossroads" comes anointed as a kind of quasi-official statement about how Americans should think about 9/11, Islamist terrorism, and America's relations with the Arab/Muslim world. As a result, it has the potential to pass its intellectual blind spots on to the American people.

One episode, a virtual infomercial for Richard Perle, a leading neoconservative theorist and architect of the Iraq war, is so laughably biased -- and so unbalanced by any film giving equal time to a corresponding perspective on the left -- that it taints the entire series. Suffice it to say the Perle episode, which airs Tuesday night, is almost worth viewing just to see the opening, in which Perle pays specious karmic penance as he is confronted by angry antiwar protesters. In fact, the setup, like the entire film, is completely canned -- the filmmakers obviously made Perle do it to make him a more sympathetic figure. (If you think that Perle chose to leave his house in France to confront an antiwar demonstration while the cameras just happened to be rolling, I have one of his old Chalabi-for-President-of-Iraq stickers I'd like to sell you.)

The episode does fashion a fig leaf of journalistic integrity by showing Perle arguing with figures like Pat Buchanan and Richard Holbrooke. But this cannot overcome the fact that Perle gets to essentially narrate the film and gets the last word. Nor does it make up for disingenuous statements that go unchallenged. Perle tells a war protester that he never heard the administration saying that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9/11, when he knows full well that Dick Cheney, his soul mate on all things war-on-terror-related, has constantly implied that very thing.

Perle takes the high road throughout, claiming that if JFK were alive he'd be fighting the same noble, all-American fight to spread freedom and piously proclaiming that he's a Democrat and simply motivated by the do-gooder desire to spread freedom. We see him driving through Afghanistan, smiling smarmily and waxing poetic about how much he loves the Afghan people and how wonderful it is that Afghan women have more freedom now.

You would never know, listening to this grandfatherly figure, that he is a radical ideologue who, in the whack-job book he wrote with David Frum absurdly titled "An End to Evil," advocated attacking North Korea, argued that the Palestinians should not get a state of their own, and maintained that we should be ready to invade Iran and Syria. Nor would you know that he ardently subscribes to the beliefs of the Israeli right wing. Along with other prominent neocons, Perle wrote a notorious 1996 policy paper for incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that advocated, among other things, "rolling back" Syria, smashing the Palestinians into submission and toppling Saddam Hussein's regime and replacing it with (here the neocon drugs really kicked in) a Hashemite king. In their wisdom, the producers of "Crossroads" decided that viewers did not need to know any of these minor details.

Why did this embarrassing film make the cut? In the eyes of our media gatekeepers, taking their cue from Congress and their equally cowed or ignorant media brethren, even a discredited right-wing thinker like Perle is ready for prime time, while a left-wing thinker like Robert Fisk is not. After all, Perle's ideas are enshrined in the White House, while Fisk is a dangerous bomb-thrower whose opinions about the Middle East are too uncomfortable to be given wide circulation. Forget the fact that Perle and Bush's lovely little war has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, or that Fisk, who actually knows something about the Middle East, has been proven right time and again. The media bureaucracy plods dutifully on, playing by the same old rules.

Series host Robert MacNeil, presumably trying to justify the Perle film, told Current magazine, "By the time ["Crossroads"] gets to Perle, you have a very negative view of what's happening in Iraq." Never mind that "Crossroads" might have presented a negative view of what's happening in Iraq because that's the truth about what's happening in Iraq. If the series has been so unforgivably biased to the left as to show Bush's Iraq adventure in a negative light, its creators must immediately run a love letter to some neocon from the American Enterprise Institute. After all, we've had no opportunity to hear neocon ideas except on every network, every cable channel, the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, Fox News, all the major newsweeklies, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, the New Republic, Slate and just about every other media outlet. This intolerable censorship of failed right-wing ideas must cease!

"Crossroads" came to the air as a result of right-wing pressure and intellectual timidity. The project began during the tenures of Ken Tomlinson and Michael Pack, two conservatives who held top positions at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the government-run nonprofit that oversees PBS and its more than 300 local affiliates. Tomlinson was a Bush hack whose mandate as CPB board chairman was to tilt PBS's programming to the right. To do that, Tomlinson paid a consultant $14,000 to vet the Bill Moyers program "Now" for liberal bias, and hired two ombudsmen to monitor PBS news programming. Outrage over these practices and a damning internal report forced Tomlinson to resign in 2005. Pack, a conservative documentarian -- his résumé includes a sympathetic doc about Newt Gingrich and a film called "Hollywood vs. Religion" narrated by Michael Medved -- was brought in as CPB's executive vice president to make PBS's programming more conservative.

"Crossroads" was Pack's brainchild. In 2004, CPB put out a call for proposals about films dealing with terrorism, Islam and the post-9/11 world. It received 440 proposals, awarding full production funding to 21. But the series immediately became engulfed in controversy. Critics charged that the Perle episode and one called "Warriors," about U.S. troops in Iraq, were biased toward the Bush administration. These charges grew even louder when it was revealed that the original producer of the Perle episode, British filmmaker Brian Lapping, was a friend of Perle's. (Lapping eventually recused himself from the film. Karl Zinsmeister, a co-producer of "Warriors," also left the project after he took a job as Bush's chief domestic-policy advisor.)

Trying to overcome the perception that the series was biased, CPB turned the project over to WETA, Washington's public television station, which hired former PBS NewsHour anchor MacNeil, and shot down "Islam vs. Islamists," an episode co-produced by neocon pundit Frank Gaffney, alleging that moderate Muslims are intimidated by radical Islamists. The final result isn't terrible (I give its 11 episodes 2 A's, 3 B's, 5 C's and one F), but its failure to delve deeply into the crucial political and historical issues means that even the strongest films in the series end up being decontextualized and superficial.

This is particularly true of the solid two-hour film that kicked off the series Sunday night, "The Men Behind Jihad." "The Men Behind Jihad" offers an excellent introduction to the ideological fathers of Islamist terrorism -- and a withering critique of Bush's war on Iraq. It traces the origins of radical Islamism from Sayyid Qutb through Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. Its first-rate group of commentators include Malise Ruthven, Michael Scheuer and Lawrence Wright, author of "The Looming Tower" (which just won this year's Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction). The material on Qutb's surreal sojourn in Greeley, Colo., where Americans' fixations with their lawns and Qutb's fateful observation of a slow dance drove him into a pious frenzy of revulsion, is strikingly filmed. Scheuer, the former CIA analyst responsible for the bin Laden file, makes the most arresting political point, pointing out that Bush's war against Iraq greatly swelled the jihadists' cause. "The unexpected gift of the invasion of Iraq is more than Osama bin Laden ever hoped for," Scheuer says.

The film is one of the only ones in the series to touch, however briefly, on the political grievances that play a role in jihadist terror, and have led many Muslims to accept it. It notes in passing that Zawahiri became radicalized after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David peace treaty with Israel, and acknowledges at the end that "many Muslims see events in Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq as oppression, justifying more terrorism." But we are told nothing else about the Camp David treaty, or the events in Gaza or Lebanon, or indeed almost anything about Middle Eastern history. The complex dialectic between legitimate grievance and religious fanaticism as causes of jihadism is hinted at, but never explored. And since no other film in the series ever returns to this subject except in even more passing and superficial ways, the references remain almost meaningless.

There are two episodes of "Crossroads" that stand head and shoulders above the rest. The first and best, which airs Monday night, is a truly extraordinary film called "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience." Featuring unforgettable writing about Iraq, including the brilliant poetry of Brian Turner and extraordinary pieces by ordinary soldiers, and searing appearances by older-generation war-lit giants like Tim O'Brien and James Salter, this film brings the dreadful reality of Iraq home more than anything else I've seen.

The second standout episode, which runs Friday, is titled "Security versus Liberty: The Other War." It's a well-reported, chilling look at how Bush administration policies after 9/11 have eroded civil liberties and led to hideous perversions of justice. The film's closing report, about an FBI sting "terrorist-catching" operation that ruined an obviously harmless Arab-American pizza-shop owner's life, is searing. As the man's wife sobs, recounting how her little boy asked her what his father had done and why he couldn't see him anymore, many viewers will feel deeply ashamed of what Bush has done to America.

Not quite as outstanding, but also excellent, are three more episodes: "Struggle for the Soul of Islam: Inside Indonesia," "Gangs of Iraq" and the aforementioned opener about the origins of jihad. "Inside Indonesia," which airs Thursday, is an important and solidly reported look at the difficult balancing act the world's most populous Muslim nation must engage in as it contends with Islamists empowered by Indonesia's newly born democracy. "Gangs of Iraq," which airs Tuesday night, examines the enormous hurdles the U.S. faces as it tries to train Iraqi security forces.

Then there is "Faith Without Fear," airing Thursday, about Irshad Manji, an outspoken Canadian critic of Islam. This film is riveting to watch, but it's about a figure too eccentric to speak for anyone except herself, and its inclusion in the series is highly dubious. Manji is a peculiar figure. She makes some good points about the need for Islam to once again embrace ijtihad, or intellectual openness -- a position also espoused by the religious scholar Karen Armstrong. But Manji's attitude toward her religion seems so perversely critical that it's hard to believe she really believes either in Islam or any institutional religion at all.

Her attacks on Islam seem oddly gratuitous. As an atheist, I can't argue with what seems to be her corrosive view of religion. But she shows no understanding of the historical reasons why Islam has not yet had an Enlightenment and fully reconciled itself with the modern, secular world. I believe that it can and will, and I believe when it does it will more closely resemble the kind of religion Manji says she wants -- but the change is not going to be produced by someone as far out of the Arab and Muslim mainstream as she is. (Just how far out is revealed not only by her views on Islam, but by a New York Times Op-Ed piece she wrote about Israel's separation barrier, titled "How I Learned to Love the Wall.") Her appearance in "Crossroads," unbalanced by a corresponding film about, say, Hanan Ashrawi or Sari Nusseibeh or Tarik Ramadan or some Arab or Muslim whose views are actually representative, is all too predictable: The American media just loves Muslims like her.

Three other episodes are workmanlike: "Warriors," "Europe's 9/11" and "The Muslim Americans." "Warriors," which also airs Monday, about U.S. soldiers in Iraq, is vivid and at times touching but feels pretty familiar. And it sheds no light at all on the larger issues: It seems to function in the series like that traditional, patriotic statue placed next to the Vietnam Wall Memorial. "Europe's 9/11," which airs Wednesday, spends too much time on cops-and-robbers tales of chasing down the jihadists who blew up the train in Madrid and not enough examining the sociological roots of jihadist rage in Europe. "The Muslim Americans," which also airs Wednesday, is standard feel-good multiculturalism, perfectly decent but not offering much original insight.

"The Brotherhood," which airs Friday, is the show's second-weakest episode, and its problems highlight the entire series' shortcomings. It investigates the founding Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, asking ominously whether it is a covert radical organization that plans to secretly establish an Islamic reign or is a moderate and trustworthy group. Focusing on a wealthy financier suspected of funding al-Qaida, it has some decent reporting, but it's marred by an embarrassing narrative shtick in which Newsweek reporters Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball are constantly shown asking each other canned setup questions and being filmed in working-Joe-reporter poses. More substantively, its sensationalist, breaking-news approach gets in the way of a substantive analysis of the ambiguous position of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are indeed many questions about the multifaceted and evolving nature of this organization, but the film's either-or approach does not illuminate them.

Worse, the episode indulges in traditional, misleading U.S. media clichés that tacitly echo problematic neoconservative claims about Muslim terrorism. One of its segments deals with a prominent American Muslim, Abdurahman Alamoudi, who in 2004 was sentenced to 23 years for plotting to kill Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. Alamoudi is a favorite subject of neocon pundits because he was highly connected (he met with Presidents Clinton and Bush), made moderate statements -- and turned out to be plotting an outlandish murder.

Obviously, the film is justified in condemning him. But in the course of doing that, it shows a clip of him praising the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, and ominously implies that this is grounds for suspecting that he may be linked to al-Qaida. The episode does show an academic, Peter Mandaville, who says, "For him, Hamas is primarily a national liberation struggle of the Palestinian people against the foreign occupation of the state of Israel. It isn't terrorism for him." But as always with "Crossroads," this statement is never placed in any larger context, leaving the average viewer to come away with the impression that Mandaville is probably just a pointy-headed apologist for terrorists. The producers do not point out the fact that the overwhelming majority of people in the Middle East, while they may disapprove of terrorism as a tactic and of the austere version of Islam preached by Hamas and Hezbollah, support them as resistance fighters. (Not nearly as many support al-Qaida or its ilk, although the Iraq war increased the popular support for these international terrorist organizations.)

Americans may not like to admit it, but ignoring the truth about what people in the Middle East actually think is a big part of the reason we're bogged down in Iraq. Collapsing distinctions between groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, on the one hand, and ones like al-Qaida, on the other, is a key part of the neocon agenda. It underlies Bush's whole approach to the Middle East in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. It allowed Bush to paint Israel's war against Lebanon, which further eroded America's already dismal standing in the region, as part of his "war on terror." And it has gone unchallenged in Congress and the American media, in large part because to challenge it is to venture into the political minefield surrounding anything having to do with Israel. But it simply does not jibe with the realities or beliefs of the Middle East. Documentary films that uncritically repeat these conventional pieties reveal themselves to be either ignorant or biased. They shed no light on their subjects and tacitly support the neoconservative approach to the "war on terror" -- the very issue that they are supposedly examining.

"Crossroads" fails not because it doesn't adopt critics' views of neoconservative ideas, but because it doesn't even present them. It fails because it lacks intellectual honesty and journalistic rigor. Anyone who has studied the war of ideas over the causes of 9/11, Bush's response to it, and his "war on terror" knows that there are essentially two opposed sides in the debate. On the one hand, there are the "essentialists," who argue that Arab/Muslim rage against the West is pathological and peculiar to Islam. It is driven not by real political grievances, which they see as trumped up, but by humiliation at the failure of Islam to keep up with the West, the sickness of Arab civil society, a festering hatred of Western liberalism, democracy and secularism, and the desire to establish a universal Muslim state throughout the world, one that would surpass the glorious days of the Caliphate. Islamist terrorism is simply evil, full stop, and must be destroyed. Any attempts to ameliorate it by political or economic moves are naive at best and appeasement at worst.

The intellectual father of this position is the eminent Princeton Arabist Bernard Lewis, and some of its prominent advocates include Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol and (with some differences) Thomas Friedman. Usually combined with Wilsonian rhetoric about bringing freedom and democracy to benighted Arab states, this is the neoconservative view of Islam and the "war on terror." It dominated the Bush administration and was shared by virtually every public intellectual who supported Bush's war on Iraq. Many of those who hold it are strongly pro-Israel.

The opposing side could be called the "historical analysts." Those who hold it -- virtually all of whom opposed Bush's war against Iraq -- argue that Arab/Muslim rage against the West is in large part driven by specific historic injustices, most of which originated in the Western colonialist carving-up of the former Ottoman Empire after World War I. The West, in particular England, France and the United States, raised and then betrayed Arab hopes for independence, undermined fledgling democratic movements, and mouthed hypocritical pieties about "freedom," while it installed or supported dictators to protect Western political, military and economic interests. The overriding grievance, not just for Arabs but for Muslims throughout the world, remains Palestine. Arabs and Muslims throughout the world view the settling of Palestinian land by European Jews, the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians after Israel's 1948 war of independence and Israel's subsequent refusal to allow the refugees to return to their native land, as the West's ur-sin against the Arab and Muslim people. The U.S.'s one-sided support for Israel has poisoned the attitudes of the Arab/Muslim world against it.

Those who hold this position do not claim that Osama bin Laden was justified in launching his jihad against the West, or even that the Palestinian issue was his foremost grievance. (The presence of infidel Americans on holy Saudi soil was.) And they are prepared to agree with the essentialists that the Arab and Muslim world is plagued by corruption, despotism, stasis and desperately needs to reform to move into the modern world. However, they insist that jihadist rage must be understood in a broad historical context, and that Bush's "war on terror" is simplistic and counterproductive. Above all, they argue that until we drain the swamp by addressing root causes, terrorism will continue to bubble upward like a poison gas. To fight Islamist terror, it is necessary for the West in general and America in particular to win Arab hearts and minds by resolving historical grievances, of which the most pressing is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is nothing particularly radical about this position -- it is held by virtually every country in the world, and was recently espoused by the ultra-establishment Iraq Study Group.

My point here is not to argue for one position or the other, although I obviously subscribe to the latter. My point is that these two positions are the two inescapable poles of the debate, and that any serious attempt to deal with the post-9/11 world must directly engage with them. By failing to do so, "Crossroads" doomed itself to intellectual mediocrity and a quick ticket to oblivion.

Here's what "Crossroads" should have included. First, it should have devoted one film to this war of ideas, giving each side its due. Then it should have commissioned another film offering a historical survey of the Middle East starting in 1798, when Napoleon invaded Egypt, and ending today. This film would have looked at French and British colonialism and its effects on the development of Arab democracies. It would have talked about the Sykes-Picot Agreement that betrayed Arab nationalist hopes after WWI, and Great Britain's imperialist misadventures in Iraq, which so closely resemble our own. The Palestinian naqba, or catastrophe, would be covered. The film would examine the U.S.-backed coup in 1953 that removed Iranian leader Muhammad Mossadegh. The Suez crisis, the failure of Arab nationalism, America's long proxy war with the USSR in the Middle East, the Six-Day War and 1973 October war, and U.S. hypocrisy in dealing with Saddam Hussein would all be discussed. The Algerian government's fateful decision in 1991 to suspend elections when it became clear Islamists were going to win -- a decision followed by an appalling civil war that killed 200,000 people -- would be covered. And it would have looked at Israel's 2006 war against Lebanon.

In a perfect world, "Crossroads" would then have devoted a third film dealing with the Arab media and Arab/Muslim public opinion about the U.S. The fact is that few Americans know anything about what ordinary Arabs and Muslims think of our foreign policy. Yet this information is vital as America wages a war of ideas with radical Islam.

In an even more perfect world, there would have been a fourth film devoted exclusively to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And a fifth about Iran.

Finally, "Crossroads" should have included a sixth film examining why the Bush administration went to war against Iraq, and assessing whether it was wise to do so. (The Perle perspective could have been included here, balanced not by Newsweek reporters but by figures like Fisk, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky or Juan Cole.) The war on Iraq is the overriding issue of our time, and a national debate on it is necessary.

These new films would have been challenging, controversial, uncomfortable and inevitably critical both of Bush administration policies and of America's Middle East policies in general. Sacred cows like America's own dirty hands in the Middle East, and Israel, would have been put on the table. Conservatives would have screamed that the series blamed the U.S., endangered Israel and appeased terrorists. It would have taken guts to take these subjects on -- but the result would have been far more useful and stimulating to national debate than the ho-hum product CPB came up with.

PBS honchos are making a lot of noise about how this series proves that public TV is relevant again. Unfortunately, all it proves is that even five years after 9/11, the mainstream media in this country are still unwilling or unable to talk frankly about the Middle East. And until that changes, we'll be fighting the "war on terror" in the dark.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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