A documentary produced in Israel and screened widely throughout the U.S. is stirring furious debate over its depiction of Muslims.
The film, "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West," is gaining a quick following among conservative Americans, evangelicals and Jews. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is said to have seen the film and though it hasn't technically been released yet, segments have been screened several times on Fox News and shown on nearly 200 university campuses.
But critics of the film dismiss it as "fear-mongering" propaganda aimed at bashing Muslims and inciting bigotry and hate.
"Obsession" is a one-hour look at radical Islam with footage of Arab and Iranian television, interspersed with rallies from Nazi Germany in an attempt to draw parallels between the two. Comprised mostly of news clips from recent years, it includes scenes of thousands of people chanting "Death to America" and children talking about their dream of becoming a martyr. "I hope Bush dies in flames and I want to go to Ariel Sharon and stab him with a sword," one little girl in Bahrain tells the camera. The film also features interviews with prominent neo-conservative figures, like Daniel Pipes, who warn about the danger of radical Islam and its growing prominence in some circles.
Supporters of the film, which has been circulating since fall 2006, say if offers an important window into radical trends in the Muslim world.
"'Obsession' gives the picture that unfortunately no one else does," says Raphael Shore, the Canadian-Israeli living in Jerusalem who produced the film. "The average viewer tries to understand the conflict. It's difficult to connect all the dots and 'Obsession' does just that. It gives a coherence to a problem that people have been grappling with."
Critics, however, say the film is demagogic and insist it presents a fringe element as representative of broader religious trends - despite what its creators say are several disclaimers reminding viewers that "most Muslims do not support terror."
"It's a typical cherry picking of inflammatory images and splicing them together to create fear," Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said in a telephone interview from the group's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "When these smear techniques are used against any other religious or minority group, it is recognized as bigotry. When it's aimed at Islam or Muslims, it has gained unfortunate levels of acceptance within our society." The film, he said, "has an agenda to make Muslims look bad."
Republican and Jewish students groups have sponsored scores of screenings, most of which occurred without incident, the film's creators say. But protests and rising student tensions have begun accompanying the film on many campuses. A screening at Pace University in New York was canceled and rescheduled only months later after administrators pressured Hillel student leaders into calling off their event. And a recent Georgia Tech screening sponsored by the College Republicans required extra security as part of "Islamofascism Awareness Day."
To be sure, "Obsession" has a definite shock value. But Shore denies allegations that it is propaganda.
"Propaganda is a manipulation of facts; it's not showing the whole picture. It seems to me that this does not apply to the film. People say that we picked out the worst stuff, but it's the opposite. There was so much material that it was hard to choose."
Fueling the fire
Aside from the content itself, a number of other factors related to the film have fueled the flames of controversy. For one, it has a largely Jewish and pro-Israel distribution network, though Shore is trying to expand the film's appeal. According to news reports, at a screening earlier this year at New York University, distributors of the film required viewers to register at IsraelActivism.com, the Web site of Aish HaTorah's Hasbara Fellowships.
Shore, incidentally, was the director of both Aish HaTorah International and the Hasbara Fellowships, a pro-Israel advocacy group. But he says the film was an independent project.
He also tries to play down the film's Israel connection, simply because "It isn't helpful," he says. "I don't want it to be only Jewish and Israel-related.
"I don't understand why it's biased if Jews are behind the creation of an objective film," he says. "There's nothing wrong with Jews saying the radical Islamists are coming, just like there's nothing wrong with Jews in Nazi Germany saying the Nazis are coming."
The issue is further complicated as funding sources for the film remain hazy. Shore and director Wayne Kopping of South Africa are the only figures associated with the film willing to release their real names and appear in media interviews; the executive producer is listed as Peter Mier, while the production manager is listed as Brett Halperin. But Mier and Halperin are just aliases, Shore says. He describes the real Mier as a Canadian Jewish businessman who wanted to do something significant, but asked to remain anonymous for fear of his safety. According to Shore, about 80 percent of the film's $400,000 budget was provided by Mier.
"At the recommendation of a number of experts we worked with in making the film, many of the individuals and organizations who helped make this film possible requested anonymity," Shore explained during an online question-and-answer session on Fox.com. "Tragically, we've seen numerous times the response of the radicals to those who openly expose or disagree with them.
"Radical Muslims are a serious bunch," he later added, "and if they don't like the film, then God forbid..."
Shore also denies early reports that link the film to Honest Reporting, a pro-Israel media watchdog group.
On the organization's site, "Obsession" is described as "Honest Reporting's newest documentary film," but Shore says it's a mistake and that the film's creators have told Honest Reporting to take it off their site "a dozen times."
"It was a marriage of convenience to associate [my previous film] 'Relentless' with Honest Reporting. At the beginning, I thought I would do the same thing with 'Obsession.' I decided not to, but I considered it and that came out in the press."
This summer, the film will be released officially and will be available in retail outlets like Wal-Mart, Blockbuster and Target. Some 100,000 copies have already been sold through the film's Web site, www.Obsessionthemovie.com, and based on television ratings from Fox and CNN Headline News, which also broadcast segments of the documentary, Shore estimates that some 10 million viewers - including a large number of evangelical Christians - have already seen significant portions of the film.
"Many evangelical Christians are waking up and becoming passionate about this issue," says Shore. "There is a shock factor because people haven't seen this before. Now, they are seeing images of children being brainwashed, they see the passion and ideology of their religious leaders and they say, 'Gosh, that's scary.' But if people were exposed to this already, it wouldn't be so shocking."