Leaving Islam





Image of Early Islam

As Seen Through PBS lens

Not a pretty picture…

By A.H. Jaffor Ullah

Our e-mail accounts have been swamped for the last couple of days with the news that Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBS) -- which is equivalent to BBC -- would show a program entitled "Islam—Empire of Faith" on May 8, 2001. Robert Gardner produced this film to cover more than thousand years of turbulent history of mankind. Naturally, everyone who has some connection with Islam would be interested to view the PBS program. According to Mr. Gardner this program was part of a PBS series call Empires.

The PBS folks had hosted a web site to highlight how the film was made. Robert Gardner, the filmmaker, wrote an article in which he mentioned the complex nature of this new type of movie making. This is what is known as docu-drama. The director mentioned in his article that this docu-drama is going to be very different from other historical narratives. The two-and-a-half hour film most certainly showed a plethora of violence but apart from that what was new in this film? About a decade ago in television, I used to watch programs in which the director would re-create historical events. But those were mostly done on stories from Europe either from olden times or from mediaeval period. Yes, from the perspective of Islam it was something new. For this, Robert Gardner should be congratulated. The filming was outstanding. The reenactment was terrific but the substance was lacking. For technical perfection, the program should get A+++ rating. But for telling the viewer the complete story of Islam, Gardner’s movie will score a very low C++. May be the filmmaker thought the bulk of the viewer is going to be the western folks. If that is what was the assumption, then I would up grade one notch higher to B to B+.

After watching this lengthy two-and-a-half hour show, one may be lead to believe that Islamic empire ended with the demise of Suleiman the great, the fierce Ottoman ruler of Istanbul. From historical perspective, it is perhaps true. But the story of ever growing Islam didn’t quite end there. Turkey no doubt evolved after emergence of Kemal Pasha. But we had new royal family in Arabia. Most of the Islamic countries in world fell in the hands of despotic rulers. Except for Egypt where the Islamists had already assassinated one president for making truce with the Jews and where repeated attempts had been made to kill the present president, most countries are politically not stable at all.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan should cause concern for us all. Bangladesh’s politicians show their hatred for democracy. And it makes full sense now as to why they behave like this. Islam is not compatible with democracy. A few years ago Professor Ausaf Ali came to this conclusion while he wrote an article for Los Angeles Time. He took a lot of flak for his view. I wish Professor Ausaf Ali’s detractors could have viewed Robert Gardner’s film before they wrote those nasty comments. Yes folks, Islam is not compatible with democracy. Except for some few minutes here and there, the entire two-and-a-half hour show was studded with violence ad infinitum. It is appropriate to note here that in a recent Friday Times’ (Lahore, Pakistan) article, Khaled Ahmed also pointed out that Muslims in U.K. do not think that democracy is good for them. In the article entitled "Not so good news about British Pakistanis" Khaled Ahmed writes, "Much of Islamophobia in the UK has been aroused by the indecision in the Muslim mind about what kind of state he wants. British Muslim organizations, Hizb al-Tahrir and al-Muhajirun, who believe in caliphate and oppose democracy, opened their offices in Lahore in 2001."

The filmmaker used symbolism throughout the movie. For example, the curved sword, which symbolizes early Islam, was overused. When the program was finished, the images of desperate men on horse waving naked sword at each other would surely linger in viewers’ mind. Let us be honest here. Islam was not shown as a peaceful religion. The filmmaker was also very successful in showing that Islam’s mantra throughout was "Might is Right." The spread of Islam in neighboring Arab countries was a done through violent means. War, war, and war. That is what was portrayed in the aftermath of Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) receiving the Qur’anic verses through archangel Gabriel. Also, after the prophet’s demise, the religion was spread essentially through the benevolence of military power. How come then one could say that Islam is the religion of peace. This PBS movie about the empire builder of Islam blatantly tells us that Islam was anything but peaceful.

In the web site hosted by PBS, one could see that the filmmaker gloated about the technical innovation in filmmaking being used to come up with this movie. But one think was noticeable very clearly. The lip-synching in shots where the experts talk did not match with what they were talking. My thirteen years old son also pointed out this anomaly to me. This alludes to one think and that is the expert’s views were altered. Whatever they said originally during filming were masked and in its place new dialogues were added. Why did they do it? I got no clues. But one may be lead to thinking that the original commentary about Islam may have certain phrase politically not correct.

The other explanation could be that the filmmaker was under pressure to accommodate certain viewpoints. Whatever may the case be, this oddity (dialogue not matching the lip movement) would confound certain viewers and cast a show of doubt among viewers. While describing the Ottoman rule of fourteenth century, the narrator described recruitment of Christian minor boys from Balkan states for the position of Janizaries (military and bureaucracy) by Ottoman rulers. It was undoubtedly cruel to snatch away young boys from their family for the purpose of Janizaries; however, the naïve narrator saw only youthful beauty in the boys. The narrator (a woman) failed to see the cruelty Janizary system was imposing on Balkan families.

A significant amount of time was being spent on Ottoman empire because the main thrust of the program was on empire building. The viewers were shocked to hear the brutality that was inherent among Ottoman rulers. In cold voice, the narrator reminded us that a newly appointed Ottoman ruler would mercilessly eliminate their brothers to make sure that no one would conspire to overthrow the Sultan. What a dreadful thought! The entire segment on Ottoman Rulers was jammed with destruction and incidences of violence. What a way to introduce new viewers to the world of Islam! The filmmaker failed miserably to create a favorable view on Islam. All in all, violence was the main theme of the two and one-half hour program. It was really an overkill.

There were pockets of peaceful scenes in the two and one-half hour PBS program. We learned that European heathens who had participated in Crusade in 11th through 13th centuries came in contact with Saracens and learned how to spice up one’s food by using exotic spices. Also, they were exposed to fine things in life such as jewelry, silk, etc. We also learned that Saracens gave the Europeans the concept of banking, Arabic numeral. This is quite surprising that when the Muslim Empire builders were blithely immersed in hedonism, the Europeans were living in austerity. Therefore, when the West met the East, the former had a lot to learn from the nomadic empire builder. Now after six or seven centuries later, there is role reversal. The East through decadence had fallen behind. These days, things are so rotten in Islamic world that the Old Glory doesn’t mean much. For example, in Afghanistan, the Mullahs are out there to destroy the relics of past. When will they look to the future?

How would I like to remember the TV program "Islam—Empire of faith" in years to come? I will probably remember it as a violence-ridden program. The modern-day Islamists got the black eye for the sins of their forefathers of which not everyone was a sword waving megalomaniac. An ordinary television viewer in America who never had any background in Islam must be thinking now that Islamic empire was build by the sheer strength of Zulfikar (sword). But then, the early and mediaeval period had a plethora of violence. May be, the violence and brutality were norm in those days. Perhaps through this logic one apologist might say that all that brutality associated with Islamic invasion was part of the society in those yesteryears. That will be the only way one could defend the atrocities perpetrated by the sword waving soldiers who were riding high in the desert of Arabia. Violence went hand-in-hand with empire building. And Islamic Empire was no exception, either.

May 10, 2001







Articles Op-ed Authors Debates Leaving Islam FAQ
Comments Library Gallery Video Clips Books Sina's Challenge

  ©  copyright You may translate and publish the articles in this site only if you provide a link to the original page.