TCS Daily

Establishing Religion

By James Pinkerton - December 30, 2002 12:00 AM

Have you heard about the latest controversy swirling around PBS? Even before "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet," aired on December 18, the camel dung had been hitting the fan. But once the mess is cleaned up, the source of the problem-government subsidization of religion-will remain contentedly munching up tax money.

Writing under the headline "PBS, Recruiting for Islam" in the December 17 edition of The New York Post, Mideast watcher Daniel Pipes asked, "What's the best way to convert lots of Americans to Islam?" The answer, he said, is to make a two-hour program just like "Muhammad." Pipes, who had seen a preview, denounced the show for whitewashing Islam's bloody historical record, as well as its ill-treatment of women: "The heart of the film is nine talking heads competing with each other to praise Muhammad the most extravagantly."

Pipes is right about the show's theological and historical revisionism. I watched the program, too, and there's not a word or an image in the "documentary" that a Muslim proselytizer wouldn't want on the screen; indeed, every element of Muhammad's life-including his night flight to Jerusalem, then to heaven and then back home to Mecca-is treated not as a matter of religious faith or tradition, but as flat historical fact. And no wonder: the film was made by American converts to Islam and funded, mostly, by Arab Muslims-with a big assist from the Public Broadcasting System and its parent organization, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting System. In the words of Cal Thomas, my colleague on the Fox "Newswatch" show, the production was nothing more than an "infomercial for Islam."

How else could one describe a show in which the execution of 700 Jewish men in Medina in 627 and the enslavement of their wives and families is depicted, by all the talking heads, as a cruel necessity? Here are the words of Islamophile historian Karen Armstrong:

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. The Quran continues to tell Muslims to honor the People of the Book. And to honor their religion as authentic. And the Jewish tribes who had not rebelled, who had not given help to the Meccans, continued to live in Medina, completely unmolested. Muhammad was not trying to exterminate Jews. He was trying to get rid of very dangerous internal enemies.

One might ask, in the history of anti-Semitism, when did Jew-killers not declare that Jews were "dangerous internal enemies"? For that matter, all through history, haven't most exterminations been justified on the grounds that the dead were "dangerous internal enemies"? No doubt Armstrong believes what she says, but others believe differently, not only about what happened in Medina, but what the Quran preaches about Jews. This passage, for example, is from Sura 2:61:

They [the Children of Israel] were consigned to humiliation and wretchedness. They brought the wrath of God upon themselves, and this because they used to deny God's signs and kill His Prophets unjustly and because they disobeyed and were transgressors.

The point here isn't to prove or disprove anything about Islam, but rather to note that the thrust of "Muhammad" was so one-sided as to flunk any minimal journalistic or "public interest" standard of fairness and balance.

To be sure, PBS puts on many shows about religion, especially around this time of the year. But there's a huge difference in their tone, depending, seemingly, on the faith. And the bottom line is that while Islam is held as beyond criticism, Christianity, by contrast, is held to close scrutiny. For example, immediately after the airing of "Muhammad" in Washington last week, Channel 22 re-ran "The Face: Jesus in Art," an intellectually and visually sumptuous chronicle of the changing depictions of Jesus over the centuries. "The Face" was not at all irreverent, but still, it kept its distance from Christian faith; assertions and declarations were always modified with phrases such as "Christians believe..." or "It is thought..." And there's nothing wrong with that. But there shouldn't be a double standard, in which Islam is treated as revealed truth while Christianity is treated as a good topic for an art-history lesson.

As for "Muhammad," most of the reviews in the mainstream media were sympathetic, even positive. The Washington Post's Caryle Murphy called "Muhammad" "an absorbing rendition of his life enjoyable and informative film about a man who did indeed change the world." Jonathan Storm of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain told his readers, "This informative, heartfelt documentary may be a blessed opportunity for rest and reflection." Jonathan Curiel of The San Francisco Chronicle declared that Muhammad "was a humble man who was orphaned at an early age and who strongly identified with the poor and disadvantaged." Going further, Curiel wrote, "It sets the record straight about a man who has been demonized by those who know little or nothing about the substance of his life or his message." Going further still, Curiel added, "And it makes clear that Islam is a peaceful religion followed by people who are devoted to faith and helping others, even if some adherents (such as Osama Bin Laden) distort its teachings." To be sure, a few noted the one-sided nature of the presentation; The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley pointed out its "tiptoeing through history." However, even she lauded it as "the first serious attempt to tell the story of Muhammed on television."

So what to do? "Muhammad" critic Pipes had a cut-to-the-quick suggestion: "On behalf of taxpayers, a public-interest law firm should bring suit against the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, both to address this week's travesty and to win an injunction against any possible repetitions." Well, no. This country doesn't need any more litigation, especially litigation aimed at shutting down speech.

Instead of more courtroom antics, the country needs a serious political debate about why the government is funding and airing shows about religion-anybody's religion-in the first place. After all, if there's one issue that will always inflame passion, it's belief. No matter what's put on the screen, some adherents will feel slighted, and some non-adherents will feel left out, even jealous. Moreover, since there's a near infinity of denominations these days, groups of believers will always be stepping forward to claim their "fair share" of attention for their creed. And of course, especially after "Muhammad," each and every sect will want full script approval. Finally, what to do about atheists? They'll be antagonized by every depiction of any deity.

So what's the answer? The obvious solution is to get the government, in the form of public television, out of the business of putting on programs about religion. That was the wisdom of the Founders when they wrote the First Amendment to the Constitution, ordering Congress to "make no law respecting an establishment of religion"; in a strict-constructionist world, those words from the Bill of Rights would have blocked the airing of both "Muhammad" and "The Face." Yet even now, it isn't too late to go back to that founding wisdom, reminding taxpayers and citizens that public-television religion is public-sector-supported religion.

How did we get into this fine mess? The answer dates back to-when else?-the '60s. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was created by Congress in 1967; its structure was deliberately complicated, sort of like a series of matrioshka dolls, one piece hidden inside another inside another. The effect was to allow federal funds to slosh around from states to localities to producers with nobody quite figuring out who was responsible for greenlighting controversial shows. And there have been many, of course, from pro-Sandinista segments on "Frontline" anti-Republican rants from Bill Moyers. Shielded from much in the way of oversight, CPB funding became a flooding; in fiscal year 1969 the federal government gave CPB just $5 million. A decade later, that dollar total had swelled to $120.2 million.

In 1981, the incoming Reagan Administration had big plans to eliminate CPB appropriations altogether. But such paring was quickly pared by the powerful public TV lobby. In the mid-80s, the Reaganites managed to cut the budget by about 20 percent, but soon the upward tumescence of CPB money continued. By fiscal year 1989, the last year of the Reagan Revolution, spending amounted to $228 million-half again more than what the previous Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, had spent. And in the Bush 43 era, spending levels rise and rise; for fiscal 2003, it's projected to be $360 million, with steady increases in the "out years."

A few hardy souls still get worked up over such spending, holding fast to the quaint principle that Uncle Sam ought not to be in the ministry-of-culture business at all. The Cato Institute's Handbook for the 107th Congress notes that television and radio programs financed by the CPB "tend (with a few exceptions) to be aimed at the wealthier and better educated, and the selection process is inherently political." But for most Washingtonians, the battle to de-fund public television battle has not only been abandoned, but forgotten altogether.

This may seem strange in the new media era, when the Internet makes "public access" not only less costly, but also more feasible. After all, the Net already allows every religion to put up content freely available to any willing eyeball, as any websurfer knows.

So while public television is here to stay, one might at least hope that PBS-ers would take another look at airing overt religious propaganda. Otherwise, half the country will hate what's being shown, and the other half will want its own show to be shown. Here's a modest suggestion: if it's a no-win, it ought to be a no-go. But one shouldn't get one's hopes up, because Republicans as well as Democrats seem to agree that government-run television is a good idea, even when it endorses, even embraces, religious doctrines.



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