how media bias filters perception

My friend Brian Tiemann is upset that his tax dollars are being used to document the life of the Prophet SAW. He is referring to PBS's series, Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet. There is a hysteric tinge to his post, which strikes me as out of character given his usually well-reasoned arguments about how PC's suck and Macs rule (usually written to counter arguments that Apple sucks and Microsoft rules).

Brian breathlessly quotes Daniel Pipe's critique of the documentary, which can basically be summed up as follows: [1] the documentary is "airbrushed and uncritical", [2] it ignores "scholarly" evidence that the dcetails of Muhamad's life are in dispute, even down to century and geographical region (!), and [3] that this documentary amounts to taxpayer-funded prosletyzing.

You can also read these three points as code: [1] The horrible evil of Islam and the Prophet SAW are so obvious that any characterization that doesn't outright condemn the faith is clearly a biased propaganda effort, perpetrated by the vast Muslim conspiracy. [2] The Petulant Fairness Principle demands that since some mean old researchers are investigating Jesus, then the history of Muhamad SAW is clearly false. [3] PBS documentaries are well-known to serve as prosletization vehicles (massive drain on the taxcuts-for-the-rich-depleted coffers that they are)

In response to [1], I think there is an expectation that since some of Islam's followers have done such horrible things, that there must be a corresponding taint on the image of the founder of the faith to explain it. The simple truth is that Muhamad's SAW life was devoted to establishing Islam, in the face of such implacable persecution (by pagan Arabs, and also by some local tribes of Jews) that it consumed him. I will be the first to stand up and accuse the suceeding Caliphates and dynasties (especially the Ummaiyads) of ignominy, but those accusations are well-recorded by Islamic sources and not airbrushed either. I find the selective cynicism of critics of Islam (such as Brian) to be founded more in reactionary fear rather than any rational assessment of history.

This leads into my response to point [2]. There is a 600 year gap between Jesus and Muhammad, and history degrades exponentially as you go farther back in time. Jesus lived centuries before the Bible was published, whereas Muhamad SAW was the vehicle of the Qur'an himself. The Qur'an existed as physical text within a few decades of Muhamad's SAW death, well within the lifetimes of his closest companions and the general memory of the populace and followers.[1]

Finally, point [3] is the most rife with hypocrisy. To imagine that a PBS documentary amounts to prosletization is absurd, even inane. PBS has given comprehensive and equally laudatory treatment to other major faiths (including Judaism and Christianity). The minor dissent referred to by Pipes[2] was a very minor part of the documentary about Christianity - but this doesn't stop biased people from applying different sets of standards.

Finally, Brian injects his own misconceptions to the debate by claiming that Islam is becoming counter culture, and that the PBS documentary will validate that:

The disaffected youth of today crave a non-American role model. They sneer when they see the Stars and Stripes on TV, even (and sometimes especially) after 9/11. It's cool to be non-American, even anti-American. Why watch Disney movies when you can take that beginning Japanese 101 for Anime-Watching course and pepper your speech with kawaii and gaijin and otaku? Why eat at McDonald's when you can eat take-out Thai? Why go to church with your clueless parents when you can go to a mosque?

...for someone wishing to make his fiery teenaged mark on the world, perhaps the most rebellious and self-righteous and purposefully inscrutable thing he can do-- the thing most surely guaranteed to piss off his parents, far more so than listening to Eminem or smoking-- would be to cheer 9/11 and/or convert to Islam.

Part of this bizarre viewpoint is driven by Brian's subscription to the Ar-Rahman Yahoo group which is partly populated by vocal muslim youth and hotheads of the kind that, were they Jewish, would be ideal recruitment fodder for the Jewish Defense League. Despite long conversations with Brian via email, his viewpoint of Islam is still that it is an extremist faith, with occassional outliers like myself, and that the religion is intrinsically opposed to the American way of life. As long as he self-filters his information about Islam through Ar Rahman one one hand and Daniel Pipes on the other, I'm afraid that paranoid conspiracy theories like "Islam is stealing our youth!" will persist.

Brian finishes his rant thusly:

... I'm not about to tolerate my tax money being used to fund positively-biased proselytizing films for those religions, to be shown on PBS right in the middle of a period when we're trying to find solace in our cherished traditions while so much of the world we grew up with changes right out from under us. Now's a time when we need the facts, and the other facts that back them up-- not propaganda designed to be divisive and to further an agenda which is profoundly counter to the spirit upon which this country was founded.

I'll address this point in a subsequent post.

Brian's vision of Islam is not extreme, nor is his reaction out of the ordinary. The simple truth is, that our faith will be held to a different standard than Christianity or Judaism or atheism. The fact is that any attempt at bringing information about Islam to light that doesn't fit with this dark portrayal will automatically be dismissed as "propaganda".

And the existence of "moderate" muslims is irrelevant. This is why we, as "moderate" muslims, shoudl stop wasting our time. The battle is long lost. There isn't any point in even engaging Brian in debate, because no matter how many pages of text you write, no matter how much progress you make, no matter how many clever analogies and subtle points you are able to invoke, the debate is already lost.

UPDATE: Bill Allison comments with a very helpful analogy to the whole issue:

I remember the controversy that ensued when the University of North Carolina, I think it was, decided to require its incoming freshmen to read Michael Sells' work, Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations. Now, for what it is worth, I am generally opposed to specific requirements at the university level. ... So for me, the issue wasn't so much Sells' book, but the whole idea of telling students they had to read a particular book.

That said, I've been reading Sells' book, and so far have found it an engaging scholarly work well worth reading, if this sort of thing is one's cup of tea. It addresses, among other things, the limitations of translation -- certainly a theme that is of importance to anyone studying at the university level. I defer to those who know Arabic to assess Sells' own translations, but the commentaries he provides on the Suras he translates are quite helpful in understanding the their meaning and context.

I recall that, at the time of the UNC controversy, the work was criticized for translating only the early Suras, and ignoring the rest of the Qur'an (for the critics, this meant that Sells was whitewashing the Qur'an, and, by extension, Islam, and leaving out all the "awful" stuff). Yet the book was first published in 1999, and it's reasonable to ask why the critics imagine Sells, who's quite clear in his introduction on what he chose to translate and why, would be trying to whitewash anything. Just as it's reasonable to ask why a documentary aiming to show what Muslims believe about the Prophet (the transcript says, "This is the story that Muslims have passed down from generation to generation for 1400 years") should also contain, say, what Zen Buddhists believe about the Prophet.

[1] Let me also point out that many people of European descent tend to underestimate the fidelity of oral traditions compared to written texts. And we haven't even gone into how translations have affected the Bible (to which the Qur'an written in the original Arabic is immune).
[2] Brian's reliance on Pipes compounds his error. Pipes has built a reputation as an "honest" commentator on Islam, mainly by virtue of dishonest tactics. Ismail Royer has a pair of posts that I think well-illustrate by use of an example that Pipes is an unreliable commentator at best (to put it somewhat charitably).

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