David Shasha is a major progressive intellectual leader of the American Sephardic community. He writes an erudite weekly newsletter to an extensive mailing list of those interested in his wide-ranging discussions of subjects ranging over Sephardic Jewish identity, history, culture and politics.
David has written an absolutely brilliant review of Clarion Fund’s anti-Muslim documentary, Obsession. I am featuring his review here because several people have highly recommended Arthur Waskow’s critique of the film written for the Shalom Center. While I take nothing away from Arthur–who is one of the gedolim of the Jewish progressive-spiritual movement–and his insights into the film, reading his review made me realize how far superior and deeply eloquent David’s review is. In addition, David writes as a Sephardi, having deep familiarity with both Jewish and Muslim religious traditions.
Because I am a writer, when I come across someone of David’s talent I stand in awe with my hat off. He has, in my opinion, written the ultimate consideration of this film:
Uncovering the Obsessions of “Obsession”
Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West (Wayne Kopping, 2006)
by David Shasha
The problem with properly assessing propaganda and rhetorical excess is that often in the attempt to beat back the dangers inherent in unthinking ideologies the response to propaganda can itself paradoxically turn into propaganda.
It must be stated at the outset, as the ideas that are raised in any analysis of the Jewish attack on modern-day Muslim civilization are sure to be brutally contested, the basic facts of the realities that the propaganda film “Obsession” is based on:
• The contemporary Arab-Islamic world contains within it anachronistic and reactionary elements that proclaim violence against the non-Muslim world and against even those Muslims who do not abide their literalist readings of Islamic traditions, both written (Qur’an) and oral (Hadith and Shari’a).
• The Arab world since the Imperialist incursions of the Western European powers in the 18th century and the subsequent dismantling and ultimate defeat of the Ottoman Empire after World War I has led to a deeply strained relationship between it and the Western world.
• In recent centuries Arab-Muslim civilization has had a prolonged and often contentious battle waged between liberal modernists and atavistic traditionalists. The line between these groups has often been blurred with the institution of Western-approved dictatorships and/or kingdoms in Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia which have formed a bulwark against both the modernists as well as the religious extremists.
• The case of Iran broke this Western hegemony and marked the first time a Muslim theocracy succeeded in establishing itself in the Middle East. With the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, a beachhead of Islamic fundamentalism was established, thus creating a new political template in the region.
• Emerging from the Iranian Revolution was a cadre of anti-Western Mujahadeen that had become implicated in the larger schemes of the US Reagan administration against Soviet Imperialism. Islamic extremists in Afghanistan and elsewhere found themselves embroiled in the anti-Soviet Jihad that was in the main supported and encouraged by Washington.
• The natural enmity of the Muslim Jihadists for Soviet Communism did not ultimately preclude their anti-American animus; a matter that was conveniently forgotten by Reagan and his advisors. The Machiavellian strategies that produced the desired results against both the Soviets in Afghanistan as well as in what was called the Iran-Contra affair is something that has made concrete the power of the Jihadists in the region.
• The greatest Arab power in the region in recent years has been Saudi Arabia which has funded and provided a solid base of support for the Muslim extremists. It should be remembered that the West had raised the banner of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans and then continued to play an important role in the destabilization of the region by inserting itself into the internal political arrangements of the Arab world leading to Saudi dominance.
• The promotion and subsequent rejection of Feisal the Hashemite as a potential ruler of a new Arab caliphate led to the emergence of individual nation-states such as Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon and with that a balkanization of Arab politics in a region whose territories had been carved out artificially and whose leaders emerged in relation to Western interests.
• Underlying the new realities of the post-War Middle East was the foundational role of oil and its economic place in the global economic system which had been wrested by a new Western hegemony led by the United States.
• Unlike the various reconstruction plans instituted in Europe and Asia for the well-being of those decimated areas, the Middle East was exclusively seen as significant for the vital petroleum wealth that it had and regimes were judged not by good governance or for their democratic principles, but for their compliance with the new global Imperium.
• While Japan, Germany and Italy, the Axis powers defeated in the War, underwent an indispensable process of reconstruction after the traumas of a brutal war, the Arab world, which was just emerging from the foreign occupations of Britain, France and Italy, was thrown into a political maelstrom that has now become a power vacuum filled with competing ideological movements, one of which is fundamentalist Islam.
• Lastly, the role of an emerging independent state of Israel in the region has served not only to mark what many if not all Arabs see as a foreign accretion in the region, but as a symbol of Western hegemony which is thrown into the stew-pot of the political dysfunction that has characterized the region in the post-War period. It should not be forgotten that Israel, like the Reagan Adminstration’s flirtation with the Mujahadeen in the 1980s, sought to empower Muslim radicals as a foil to the secular PLO. These radicals, now organized as a political party called HAMAS, have supplanted the secular nationalist leadership.
To the best of my knowledge, regardless of what one believes about who is right and who is wrong in the Middle East, who is to blame for the state of affairs in the region, these are facts that cannot be contested. The socio-political realities may be open to interpretation, but the facts themselves are not. There can be no debate over the CIA-engineered coup in Iran as there can be no argument over the role of a Wahhabist Saudi Arabia as a regional power in the wake of the failure of Feisal to re-establish a central Arab-led government in the region.
Each of these facts is missing from the Jewish-produced documentary “Obsession.”
Using a canny mixture of incitement and factuality the producers of the film bookend their movie with the admission that the film is not an indictment of Islam itself, but just a certain part of it. When I use the word “incitement” I mean to say that the film is completely disingenuous as it offers the basic theme that it hammers over and over again that Islam is akin to Nazism and that the Arab world is in the grip of this Nazi-Islamic ideology.
Propaganda is a means to express an ideological viewpoint at the expense of a plurality of views within the parameters of an open debate. According to this definition we can see a ratiocination taking shape which stacks the deck of argument. And to those living in the Jewish community, the primary mechanism for the distribution of “Obsession,” this “obsession” with Radical Islamic ideology is something that we have become quite familiar with.
Generally, the Jewish community has internalized its own expansive understanding of Zionism which is left unquestioned – often militantly so. Discussion is circumscribed and topics are delineated in very precise ways. Certain topics are deemed licit and others illicit. A deeply paranoid sense of the Jewish self is promoted; a sense of Judaism as eternally persecuted and powerless in the face of a litany of typologically-similar enemies who appear in a history that is marked by perpetual violence and persecution.
Exceptions to this rule or alternative histories are rejected with all due prejudice. The mechanisms of the discourse are controlled by social and economic means. Those who dissent from the accepted discursive paradigms are locked out of the institutional network of Jewish organizational life while those – and this is not limited to Jews – who lock into the paradigms are lavished not only with praise and honors, but are provided the bounty and largesse of the well-funded institutions which dole out funds liberally for those on board with the agenda.
The new documentary film “Obsession” is thus populated with people who are now sadly familiar as the “usual suspects”: Daniel Pipes, Steve Emerson, Alan Dershowitz, Itamar Marcus, Caroline Glick and Robert Wistrich. In addition to these speakers, there is also a cadre of Arab “witnesses” to the dysfunction and evil of the Arab world. The Arab witnesses are thrown into the maelstrom of the propaganda effort and it would seem helpful that they have all passed through “conversion” experiences that have brought them to the commonplace Jewish position from once being part of what they now consider the hate of the Arab world.
This double rhetoric is an attempt to seal the deal: first it is to be proven that the Arab world is Nazi-like in the sense that the nefarious Jihadist ideology has permeated all levels of the culture – a culture that we are explicitly told at the beginning and end of the documentary is not radical in itself – and secondly this idea is reinforced by those who once served on the “front lines” of Jihad, people like Walid Shoebat, Brigitte Gabriel and Nonie Darwish who as converts are best able to “prove” the “truths” that the film’s producers are establishing about the Muslim world.
Embedded within this discourse are a deadening and repetitive array of media clips of screaming, lunatic Jihadis and their minions. Again, there is no need to deny that these people exist or to question the danger they pose not only to Jews and the West, but to the well-being of the Muslim world itself. Image after image is laced with stirringly bombastic music that often resembles the propaganda that the film decries. The rhetoric of the principles being interviewed eschews subtlety and intellectual heft and hammers home in propagandistic fashion that Arabs are Nazis and that’s all there is to the matter.
The equation of Arabs as Nazis, as the great Israeli scholar Idith Zertal has so brilliantly taught us, goes way back into the history of Zionist propaganda – back to the Mufti Amin al-Husseini and to the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser who predated Usama Bin Laden and Zaraqawi by decades. As she states in her brilliant book Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood (Cambridge University Press, 2005):
The Nazification of the enemy, whoever that enemy may be, and the transformation of security threats into danger of total annihilation of the state, seem to have characterized the way of speech of Israel’s political, social, and cultural elites, with very few exceptions. (p. 174)
It is not that Bin Laden and Zarqawi are not religious lunatics and dangerous fanatics who would kill anyone for any reason; it is that the rhetorical motif often does not distinguish between historical persons and their immediate contexts. The motif “Arab as Nazi” brings together Yassir Arafat and the Mullahs of Iran into one unholy cabal. As we now know, the deterioration of the Middle East has often come about because we are not able to see the differences among various Muslim groups and their ideologies.
Nasser, as is known, loathed and persecuted Hassan al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood. The emergence of Wahhabi Sunni fanaticism in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Bin Laden, is directly connected to this movement. The Wahhabi strain of militant Islam is never discussed by any of the participants in “Obsession” because it would serve to overcomplicate the iron-clad principle “Arabs are Nazis.” The split between Iranian-led Shi’a Islamic fanaticism as represented in the new ruling arrangements in Iraq that have been formed under US leadership and that of the Al-Qa’ida-led Sunni insurgents are very real things that are not only ignored in this film, but are incredibly morphed into some monolithic version of Islam that is an a priori evil.
And we cannot forget while watching this execrable piece of propaganda, a work that is as unhelpful pedagogically as it is dangerous, that the dual logic of contradiction is continually at play: we are TOLD that Islam is not like what is being shown on the screen and yet this is what is being SHOWN to us with a relentlessness that puts the rhetoric of Islam as a peaceful religion to the lie. After a steady diet of one solid hour of seeing images of Muslims juxtaposed – LITERALLY – with those of Hitler and other Nazis, I am not sure if it takes a genius to figure out that we are being browbeaten into capitulation to hate all Muslims.
And to make sure that we do not forget this fact, we are treated to an extensive set of interview clips with an old man named Alfons Heck – a now-reformed former member of the Hitler Youth!
The “obsession” of this film is to turn the current situation with what are admittedly some very dangerous people – all of whom it must be honestly stated are religious Muslim fanatics who twist the words of their traditions and promote ideas of hate and violence that have continually been spread throughout the world over the course of the past century – and make it into a primordial battle being waged between absolute good and absolute evil.
Now it is not at all necessary for us to demand that “Obsession” be fair, or that it present the socio-political and historical contexts that have created this mess. Having said this, it does seem more than curious that the producers of “Obsession” make this demand of the Muslims themselves. And indeed, the visual techniques used in the film are eerily similar to those used by the Muslim fanatics themselves: the endless repetitive barrage of flashy and shocking images presented in a de-contextualized atmosphere smacks of what we might best call hypocrisy. But I think we would more accurately understand the rhetorical mechanisms of “Obsession” as a form of PILPUL; the attempt to speak out of both sides of one’s mouth while not-so-subtly railroading home a single, obsessive mono-causal point.
In essence, this is the very rhetorical means that is used against Israel and the US by the Arab media which often inflames the masses to hate Israel and the US. When Israeli and American acts of violence are stripped of their socio-political context, the Arab viewer’s feelings are inflamed and the individual is left with a passionate hatred bordering on the pathological.
So the way in which the producers of “Obsession” juxtapose images of victims of Islamic terror with those of Nazi slaughter can easily be transposed into an anti-Western frame of reference by cross-cutting the same Nazi images with images of Israeli or American brutalities – of which there are of course many. In fact, the film does indeed show the ways in which the Arab media applies Nazi imagery to Jewish figures and contexts.
In this sense, the rhetorical means that “Obsession” utilizes to construct its arguments lead us nowhere. The viewer is taught absolutely nothing about the roots of this Islamic mentality or its historical connection to Western politics. The viewer is not told about Daniel Pipes’ Zionist proclivities and the way in which he has reframed Middle Eastern history along the lines of those beliefs to disfigure and transform that history. We are not told of Caroline Glick’s own sympathies for the messianist Settler movement and its belief in the sacred nature of the land of Israel.
And while I do not mean to imply or state that Pipes and Glick are not entitled to their own fanaticism which is often made more extreme when put to the uses of the apocalyptic Jews themselves, I find it more than a bit curious that the whole point of the film is to reject fanaticism and to reject propaganda. I am not sure how this is to be done when the film itself is constructed along the lines of a classic propaganda tract filled with stirring emotional manipulation of the basest variety. It would appear that propaganda itself is not the real issue, only Arab propaganda.
And to quickly short-circuit the nature of the PILPUL-dialectic, a trap that is often used by the practitioners of PIPLUL to mark their own irrational hermeneutics, we are not rejecting the rhetoric of people like Pipes, Dershowitz and Glick in order to lift up the debased discourse of the Muslim fanatics. And often this is seen as a sort of lock in winning the debate on the Jewish side – either you support us or you are supporting them. It is something that has become a crucial part of the Bush discourse – a discourse that has been strongly informed by an Ashkenazi Jewish influence from people like David Frum and Bill Kristol who have tapped into the Ashkenazi PILPUL tradition and made that tradition a formative part of the new thinking in Bushworld.
It is altogether possible in rational terms to decry the fanatic Muslims and to reject the arguments of “Obsession” and its own particular brand of Jewish fanaticism.
The saddest part about all this is that the clash of discourses, the emergence of a moral Manicheanism that now controls most discussions of the matter, has led only to more violence and more dysfunction. I would suggest that a return to historical and rational discourse might make us all safer and more stable as human beings living in a world that often seems to be flying off its rails.
While it is not at all easy to understand the complicated nature of the Imperial enterprise and its emergence in the Ottoman world, it is a necessary element of our means to understand the problems we face. And not only Imperialism must be studied: we must learn about the emergence of Oil politics, Zionism, and religious extremism in the region as well. Religious extremism is not a one-sided matter limited to Islam alone. When looking at the pathetic images of children being brainwashed by idiot faux Muslim clerics in madrassas throughout the Middle East I was reminded of the fanatical Zionism that is regularly taught in American Jewish Day Schools each and every day. And before I am accused of moral equivalency, it should be remembered that any and all uses of religion to promote nationalist exclusivity is not to be excused and violence is violence and as such is a blight on all of us.
To learn about the situation we are in, we need to read and read widely and deeply.
The anti-intellectualism that permeates the Jewish community at present is reinforced by “Obsession.” The film’s ultimate aim is not to teach us the truth of reality in all its staggering complexity, but to forcefully indoctrinate in us the simple idea that the Arabs are Nazis – no more, no less. I am not sure how that is helpful to us. The primary voices in the film are those who have denied the realities of the historical Jewish presence in the Arab world over the course of many centuries and have proposed that what we see today is the only reality that Jews have faced in relation to Arab societies, substituting Sephardic Jewish history for that of the Ashkenazim.
We are expected to abide the fact that recent Arab Jewish history is less relevant to the discussion than that of the ancient history of Palestine and its Jewish presence there. The very strange idea that Jews themselves were culturally Arab is alien to this mind-set for the very fact that the version of Zionism that underlies the film’s selective biases is one that marks Jews as a people perpetually apart. So any voices or visions that deny the premises of the film’s prejudices should be ignored or rejected.
Having spent an inordinate amount of time arguing with the most ardent and hateful Zionists in the Jewish community, I have understood better than most that the obsessions of “Obsession” have been designed to cut us off from the rationality of history and culture and bombard us with image after image of crazy fanatics. The purpose of this rhetorical strategy is to inundate and pummel the viewer into submission and entrap them into a prison that they cannot get out of. Rational argument is here useless; the irrational passions that mark these partisans are too great to argue with. They will get whipped up into a frenzy and start acting out their own violent tendencies with any interlocutors who come their way.
The problem with “Obsession” – and with the current discussion in the Jewish world – is that it repackages a number of facts in such a debased manner that the coherence of its arguments totally evaporate. It proclaims that it does not hate all Arab Muslims, but it relentlessly argues otherwise throughout the film. By means of a nefarious and stealth-like PILPUL it cuts and pastes ideas and images of its own choosing in order to hammer home the point it has taken as sacrosanct before any evidence has been presented. This is the ultimate disingenuousness and the danger inherent in its discourse. It is not interested in hearing other points of view as it is not interested in being examined by others for its own possible violations of human decency and morality.
Again, it is not obligatory for “Obsession” to try and understand the complex realities that we face and it is altogether permissible for it to lump all Muslims together as “barbarians” and “fanatics.” But we as viewers should realize that these profoundly disturbing demonizations and distortions of the realities of the Arab-Muslim world create the sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that led to the epic intelligence failures which permitted the 9/11 attacks.
When all Muslims are lumped into one (Nazi) boat – where are the murderous fanatics to be located?
And this has sadly continued into the post-9/11 Bushworld that we continue to inhabit. All Muslims are terrorists and want to kill Americans and Jews. This is taken as a tacit truth in the rhetorical overkill that forms the moral arguments of “Obsession.” The Arab figures presented in the film are often more pronounced in their hate for other Arabs than even the Jewish speakers like Pipes, Dershowitz and Glick who often appear “moderate” by comparison.
In the current climate of fanatical polarization that we live in, the appearance of a film like “Obsession” is to be expected. It is the culmination of many decades of Ashkenazi Zionist propaganda that sees any Arab who would defend themselves as a “terrorist.” Is it any wonder that the situation of Arab “terror” – from the Mufti to Nasser to Arafat to HAMAS and Hizbullah – has gotten worse?
Independence movements in Egypt filled with liberal ideas like those of the Wafd were harshly suppressed, as shown in great detail in Naguib Mahfouz’s epic Cairo Trilogy, a staple of Arab modernism, by a West who banked on King Farouk, a corrupt monarch who showed his self-absorbed contempt for his people. The defeat of the Wafd and other liberal secular parties created a vacuum leading to the emergence of a military junta that would become far worse than Sa’ad Zaghlul’s Wafd. And once Nasser was entrenched in power, his own secular reforms, mixed to be sure with authoritarian anti-democratic tendencies, the emergence of a religious extremism that would eventually take the life of Anwar Sadat served to help spur on a new fundamentalist explosion throughout the region.
In this climate it is largely forgotten that such a thing as Arab Modernism ever existed!
We can see this clearly in the Palestinian context. The emergence of the PLO, secular and moderate compared to HAMAS, was rejected by Israel and the West which refused to negotiate with it for many years. With the failure of Arafat and the PLO – itself called “terrorist” by the Israelis and Americans – has now brought Islamic extremism and a whole new ball game. It may yet be seen that HAMAS is more moderate than what may come after its inevitable defeat. A nexus between Shi’ite and Sunni radicals has yet to occur, but if it does it may well transform the region in ways that make what we see today look like a cakewalk.
So in the end, “Obsession” is a film being marketed by the mainstream Jewish world in order to lay out a case against Islamic radicals. It repeatedly reinforces the image of the “Arab as Nazi” and makes precious little room for any rational examination of its subject matter. We do not learn about the Muslim Brotherhood as we do not learn about the defeat by Western governments of Arab secular modernists who could potentially have brought stability and peace to the region. The Islamic faith is presented over and over in the film as an enemy of Western “Judeo-Christian” civilization because it serves the argument, not because of its historical truth.
In fact, the idea of “Judeo-Christian” civilization is itself an ideological construct invented and used within the contemporary Ashkenazi discourse to answer a number of questions that feed into the Zionist mindset as they have laid it out: allying themselves with the Western Imperialists and against the organic interests of the region, this view reinforces the idea of a Western-Jewish collusion that of course is disavowed by the very same people who take the Arabs to task for raising the issue.
Having charged the Arabs with being anti-Semitic “Nazis” these same speakers blithely ignore the massive evidence of Christian collusion with anti-Jewish acts in the Middle East throughout history. Not limiting ourselves to the Crusades, one of the most traumatic of the Christian pogroms on Jews and Arabs, we can see the extraordinary case of the Damascus Blood Libel of 1848 which became a global cause celebre. As my grandmother once told me, the problems that Jews had with their neighbors came more from Christians than from Muslims, with whom they had fairly amicable relations as she would repeatedly state.
This linkage between Jews and Christians intimates that Christians did not persecute Jews and that there was no theoretical need for Vatican II. After all, we have the Judeo-Christian civilization that unites us!
“Obsession” blanks out the truths of history in order to fixate on the tale of the Muslim fanatics of the present-day. It is not interested in hearing from the many voices of the historical record as it is not really interested in reaching out in dialogue with Muslims to solve the current problems. It is all too content with having the Jihadists representing Islam while hypocritically pretending that it is interested in dialogue. Its ideological positions are calibrated to a Zionist fanaticism that has already delineated the world and its realities as it sees it and not as the reality would bear.
At the end of the film, as the intoxication of the propaganda has whipped the viewer into a frenzied state, the viewer is presented for a second time with the famous quote from Edmund Burke that for evil to triumph all it takes is for good men to do nothing. It goads the viewer into getting actively involved in the fight against Muslim terror. It promotes its own “Jihad” against the Jihadists and has done so using the same rhetorical means of hateful propaganda that it ascribes to its enemies.
Similar to the way in which Mel Gibson’s hate-filled “Passion of the Christ” was screened in the fundamentalist Christian community, so too have the producers of “Obsession” marketed their film to the Jewish synagogues and Christian Zionists to create a grassroots movement of anti-Muslim hate that dispenses with academic discourse – for which the film has great contempt and says so at regular intervals – and the hope that dialogue might present for a more peaceful future. As Itamar Marcus states explicitly in the film, there is no point in discussion; the implication here being that all we have is violence.
And it is through this note of violence that “Obsession” inscribes itself within the very circle of hate and propaganda that it ostensibly aims to combat. It is therefore a mutual sense of incomprehension that is meant to control the discourse and reinforce the Manichean world-view of each side and leave us resigned to a future of hopelessness, fear and perpetual war.
Such is the pyrrhic victory achieved by those who insist on propaganda and rhetorical violence as a means of discourse.
David Shasha is the director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Center publishes the weekly e-mail newsletter Sephardic Heritage Update as well as promoting lectures and cultural events relevant to Sephardic culture. To subscirbe to his newsletter e mail him here.