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Sean Daly, Michelle Stark and Sharon Kennedy Wynne

Newspapers distribution of DVD on radical Islam raises sharp questions

15

September

Obsessionposter The glossy color insert greeting some readers of the St. Petersburg Times Sunday featured searing graphics: images of New York’s ground zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a masked fighter and a child holding a rifle.

Emblazoned across the placard’s front was the name of the controversial film included with the flier: Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West. Touted in glowing quotes on the flier from notables such as film critic Michael Medved and Howard Gordon, executive producer of Fox TV’s action series 24, the film compares the danger to America from radical Islam to the danger the world faced from Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

And the insert Times readers received Sunday was part of an effort aimed at distributing 28-million copies of the movie on DVD to Americans across the country through 70 different media outlets, including dozens of newspapers ranging from the St. Petersburg Times and every other major newspaper in Florida to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

“I got almost all the way through it, and I turned it off,” said John Brough, 70, a retired businessman in New Port Richey who feared the film might encourage Americans to react harshly to all Muslims, despite the fact that it begins and ends with a disclaimer noting most Muslims are peaceful and do not support terror.

“When I first read it, I was angry . . . it seemed (designed) to get people up in arms,” said Brough, who was among just 13 people who had complained about the insert to the Times by Monday afternoon (the newspaper said eight more people called to complain they hadn’t received a copy). “I found it offensive.”

Other critics wonder about the timing of the insert – placed in newspapers nationwide to coincide with the 7th anniversary of 9/11. The list of newspapers included in the distribution feature publications in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa and Colorado – all states hotly contested in this year’s presidential election.

With polls indicating that Republican candidates and specifically GOP presidential nominee John McCain fare well on questions of national security and terrorism, some wonder if the nonpartisan, nonprofit group funding the inserts aren’t attempting a subtly political maneuver.

“This seems to demonize a certain political candidate and benefit another,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington D.C. “We would call on all political candidates to repudiate this fear-mongering. It’s as if someone sent (pro-Nazi film) Triumph of the Will or (pro-Ku Klux Klan film) Birth of a Nation into people’s homes.”

ObsessionlogoGreg Ross, a spokesman for the New York-based Clarion Fund, a nonprofit created to spread distribution of the film, has been working his cell phone for days offering answers to journalists covering the growing controversy.

Ross said: No, the film isn’t designed to benefit one candidate over another (federal rules for nonprofits prohibit political stands). Yes, the film’s Web site briefly featured a column praising McCain, but it has been removed and doesn’t represent the group’s views.

He also said this: Yes, the mailings were timed to reach the public on the anniversary of 9/11 in swing states, but only to generate headlines and build donations to Clarion. Yes, the film was once marketed and supported by pro-Israel groups, but groups connected to other religions have also supported it.

And despite the fact that controversial terrorism experts such as Steve Emerson and Daniel Pipes appear prominently in the film – some critics accuse both men of unfairly targeting Muslims – Ross insisted the movie has no political agenda beyond exposing the anti-Western and anti-Semitic actions of radical Islam.

“We’re only attacking a small swath of people in a giant religion who are bent on doing harm to Americans,” said Ross, who would not reveal the identities of donors who have supported their effort, saying contributors fear reprisals from terrorists.

“Whoever wins this election will have to deal with this,” the spokesman added, noting that Clarion has a film assembled with a $1-million budget, The Third Jihad, ready for limited release in theaters in October. “In our movie, you see very clearly the radicals speaking for themselves. No one is putting words in their mouths.”

Donnie Ali, a spokesman for the Tampa office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, noted that area Muslims were surprised and offended that the insert arrived during the Muslim religious holiday of Ramadan. But Ali declined to criticize the distribution of the film, despite noting that up to 40 people called his office to complain about the insert.

“Running from a film like Obsession would be like pouring gasoline of the fire of Islamaphobia,” he said. “People who have nothing to hide, don’t hide from anything . . . And sometimes we have to define ourselves by showing the world what we are not.”

I haven’t yet gotten an official statement from the St. Petersburg Times on how the newspaper determined it would allow this insert, though the publication has faced controversy for other ads. More to come tomorrow . . .

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:51pm]

    

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