Obsessed With Fear

A Controversial New Film Documentary Met a Cold Reception When Academics, Students and Scholars Examined its Message

On The Town | Alexandra Ruths, Anca Lucian, Anna Claessen | October 2006

Photo: Creative Commons

The European premiere of a controversial new documentary on the threat of Islamic extremist terrorism screened at the conference centre at Webster University Vienna met a cold reception by an audience of students, faculty and visiting scholars.

The two-hour film "Obsession" by the Jerusalem and New York based media watch group Honest Reporting was shown on the 11th of September, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre. It was followed by a heated discussion, led by a panel of IR and Media Communications faculty members, a representative of the American embassy and of the Austrian newspaper Standard- all of whom appreciated the documentary’s footage but overall took quite a critical stance towards it.

Composed of footage of sites of terrorism like New York, Bali, Istanbul, Madrid, London and Israel next to propaganda clips of Arab Media and interviews with experts on the Middle East, the film produced in Jerusalem left itself open to criticism for inadequate sourcing and limited explanatory content.

Responses to the film were mixed. "Really powerful images that stir up a lot of emotions and make you think," is how one student described it, whilst another angrily dismissed it as a "propaganda film about propaganda!"

The panel consisting of Scott Thompson, counsellor of the US missions to International Organizations in Vienna, Dr. Eric Frey -IR teacher and managing editor of der Standard-, Dr. Michael Freund -head of the Media Communications department at Webster and senior reporter at der Standard-, and hosted by Dr. Gregory Weeks -head of IR department at Webster- gave their individual overall impression on the documentary. However, for most of them, their expectations of a good documentary were not met by "Obsession".

"This is not the whole story", Dr Frey complained, while Dr. Freund doubted the film’s overall integrity.

The film opened with a powerful quote by the American philosopher Edmund Burke "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing" emphasizing the producers’ intention to lay bare the extreme threat radical Islam poses to the Western world. "If we pretend the problem is not there, we will never find a solution, we need to act", one of the interviewees stated at one point in the movie. Whether this [acting] is right or wrong "lies in the eye of the beholder", Dr. Weeks –panel chairman- later added. "The film called for making the moderate voices of the Islamic world heard and for recognition of the gravity of the so called global terrorist war."

However good its intentions, "Obsession" was criticised for its "one sidedness" and a habit of making generalizations. The movie claimed not to take sides, saying it was not about the entire Muslim community. "However there was only footage of extremist Muslims – often referring to them as the Muslims, not even differentiating between moderate Islam and radical sects" Dr. Freund critically noted.

The symbols used for constructing the title of the movie (Semi moon with a star for the letter "O" and a machinegun being part of the letter "N") already suggested the material would deal with the Muslims’ "obsession" with violence.

Students were outspoken in their criticism that the film did not deal with the sources of radical Islam, but rather attributed inherent aggression and violence to the entire Arab world.

"We don’t come out of the womb hating," said Saran Sholar, a Global Masters student from the United States. "Humans are taught to hate." In the film, radical leaders were shown screaming "Death to America," as were crowds of robed men shouted "America devours the world!"

Among the dozen commentators and interviewees in the film, three shared personal experiences with the hatred and uncontrollable anger driving terrorist actions.

Author Noni Darwish, a charismatic Egyptian woman in her forties, daughter of a Jihad martyr and national hero, spoke about terrorism and the underlying culture that produced it. A frequent contributor to the Jerusalem Post and Pakistan Today she vividly recalled what it was like to grow up in the midst of radical terrorism, indoctrinated with the ideologies such as fighting and dying for the Jihad.

A second commentator, former PLO member Walid Shoebat’s gaunt looks and serious features gave a slight hint to his troubled past when he spoke about his experiences in acts of terror, in prison and his life afterwards, emigrating to the US. Today an anti-Israel war activist, he gave an insight into the psyche of radical terrorist leaders and members.

Attractive former anchor for the Arabic news broadcast News World, Brigitta Gabriela talked about her time in Israel. In her interviews she passionately called for making the moderate voices of Islam heard, insisting on the importantce of empowering repressed Muslim people.

However the interviewees in the film did not look into the reasons for the socioeconomic discontent of the Islamic world.

"By ignoring the entire socioeconomic situation, the movie was meaningless", Dr. Freund criticised. Even though "Saudi Arabia is one of the most oppressive regimes in the region, which is a tough competition in that area," it wasn’t mentioned – possibly because of the Bush’s connection to their royal family.  Equally controversial, was the documentary’s suggested connection between Nazi Germany and radical Islam.

"This is what we call the typical American Nazi syndrome," Dr. Freund stated. He further warned against jumping to misleading conclusions the movie proposed, such as – "We have to react early and go to war, we can not live in denial but have to face the enormous danger."

There are similarities between the Nazi regime and the way radical Islamists indoctrinate the youth and brainwash their members. "If you listen to their [radical Muslims] speeches […] that’s their immediate strategic goal, just like Hitler’s in ‘Mein Kampf’" was Dr. Frey’s opinion. However it is impossible to draw comparisons at any other level.

"The Hitler comparison was politically misleading, it is not Nazi Germany for Nazi Germany was a powerful centred state," Dr. Frey added, meaning that there is no single unit representing all radical Muslims.

Panel members mentioned being struck by the violent footage from the Middle East Media but criticized the film for presenting what they felt was a misleading picture. As examples of how radical Islam demonizes its enemies, the movie brought up images such as the cartoons of Ariel Sharon drinking Palestinians’ blood, the statue of liberty’s face replaced by a skull, and a three year old saying Jews are pigs and monkeys.

All these images, according to "Obsession", run regularly on Middle East TV and help to produce the terrorists of tomorrow, making many of the Islamic world hate America.

But some saw that as a false assumption, as the Iranian student Mohammed explained: "These propaganda clips do not run 24/7 on TV," the Iranian student Mohammed said, "but only on special occasions like before a demonstration." The images of children reciting ‘Jihad poetry’ and cursing Ariel Sharon and America, "were of Palestinian and Lebanese origin and were faced daily with the loss of family members or friends. […] To them", he explained, "the Israeli and American leaders truly seem blood thirsty and cruel."

"Obsession" worked on a highly emotional level – rapid drumbeats and staccato sounds of the soundtrack overwhelmed many in the audience confronting the quickly changing, drastic and forceful pictures.

"The viewer has hardly any time to think or to ponder on the messages" Dr. Freund stated, which he felt revealed a lack of strong arguments. "Clips of hate speeches shouted by Islamic extremist leaders, images of young Islamic children playing with machine guns or shouting "Death to America" could easily carry an audience away on their emotions," he explained. "We’d be better off having boring documentaries about actual facts," said one student. To better understand the Islamic religion, it is necessary to "open our hearts to dialogue with the Muslim world," Saran Sholar suggested

Many felt that the actions of the West have contributed to the problem and that it is essential for us to comprehend the motives behind radical Muslims’ stand.

"It takes two to tango," Dr.Weeks said.

There seems to be a consensus, however, that "Obsession" is not suitable for a general audience.  "It could be even dangerous to show a documentary like this out of any context […], Dr Weeks said, "for people without background knowledge could easily misinterpret the picture ‘Obsession’ gives."

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