There's a very popular tendency nowadays to emphasize the idea of Islam as a peaceful religion. Islamic terrorists, the idea goes, are extremists who are not being true to the Koran and the teachings of Muhammad. To be sure, there are many peaceful Muslims in the world; but does that mean that Islam itself is, theologically, peaceful? The documentary Islam: What the West Needs to Know takes on that question with admirable seriousness. It would be easy to slap the label of "intolerant" on an endeavor like this one... but that would be pretty much exactly missing a key point that the documentary is trying to make. No matter how much we'd like, in our Western politically correct mindset, for Islam to be just one more great spiritual option that people can believe in while living peacefully with people of other faiths. But is it true? By now, six years after the 9/11 attacks, it should be clear to Americans that what's going on in Islam is more complicated than we thought.
Islam has certainly a wonderful history of cultural advances and intellectual development; of art, science, and mathematics. That doesn't mean that Islam itself is peaceful. Yes, we want Islam to stand for peace; but does it? Islam: What the West Needs to Know takes a hard look at what the Koran actually says, and what the theology of Islam really says, and what that means in terms of its peacefulness or violence. The program discusses key concepts of Islam as it relates to international relations: commandments for peace vs. commandments for violence, jihad, martyrdom, territorial expansion, the role of deception, civil rights.
It does an excellent job of grounding itself in the actual text of the Koran and other key Islamic texts and traditions, as well as experts on Islam. The various experts are given a reasonable amount of time on-screen, to fully explain the idea that each is making; quotes from the Koran are tied in effectively to show these ideas. One of the most articulate and compelling voices in Islam: What the West Needs to Know is Walid Shoebat, a former terrorist; he is able to give an insider's view of the mindset of Islamic terrorists and suicide bombers.
Other clips come from Islamic television, including an extended (and chilling) one in which participants discuss the merits of martyrdom while killing Jews and infidels... it's from a perfectly normal television program and is given enough screen time to be clear that this is not being taken out of context. Another fascinating segment shows an Islamic mass demonstration getting amped up for jihad. After seeing clips like this, it's striking to see the clips of Western politicians blithely assuring viewers that Islam is peaceful and tolerant.
In one interesting section, several scholars explain the theology of "abrogation": that when there are contradictions between two commandments, the later revelation supersedes the previous one. For instance, there is both the commandment "there is no coercion in religion" and "kill the unbelievers", but we learn that Islamic theologians consider the "last word" in the Koran to be a section that includes the commandment, the "verse of the sword," to kill unbelievers wherever they find them.
Another particularly interesting segment is on the Crusades, which in recent years in the West have been labeled as Christian wars of conquest. But what's left out of that account is that it wasn't conquest but reconquest: the Crusades originated because Islam had taken over (by force) vast territories that had once been Christian, and was set to continue expanding. Certainly the Crusades ended up doing a lot of horrible or foolish things, but the documentary highlights the historical facts behind the Christian-Islam conflict. The program goes on to explain how the history of the Crusades and Islamic expansion, far from being dead and irrelevant past events, are in fact very useful in understanding the resurgence of Islamic movements nowadays, and even Osama bin Laden's choice of Sept. 11 for the attack on the Twin Towers.
I was impressed by the handling of the reference to Edward Said, whose work Orientalism was crucial in establishing the idea in academia of a tolerant Islam. As a literary scholar, I'm familiar with Said's book, and I found that the documentary does justice to what I know of his work (and my own criticism of it). Basically, Said was highly influential in promoting the idea that anyone who criticizes Islam is racist and intolerant; that's the conceptual framework that we're stuck with now, which prevents us from actually critically evaluating what the religion claims, whether it's true, or what effect it might actually have on the world.
One thing that I'd like to have seen more attention to is the historical background to Islam. I was familiar with the overall historical context because I'd done some reading up on the origins of Islam, but even so it would have been useful to get a clearer overview before the documentary proceeded with looking at the tenets of the faith. Midway through the program, when the speakers start discussing the territorial expansion of the Islamic empire, past and present, we get useful illustrations with animated maps.
The documentary goes a long way toward showing why Islamic terrorism is so intractable. I would suggest it as an important documentary for anyone to watch who would like to have a better understanding of what's going on in the world. One of the speakers sums up Islam: What the West Needs to Know as this: the West needs to take Islam seriously. I'd say this documentary is a good place to start.
The program is widescreen, with a couple of the television clips that are included looking stretched because they were originally 4:3. The interview footage done for the program looks reasonably clear, with some jagged edges but not too much, and a generally clean and natural appearance. The clips from television broadcasts don't look as good, but that's not a big surprise.
The soundtrack is basic but effective: the speakers are clear and natural-sounding, with no audio flaws or any problems.
Text biographies of the five main interview subjects are included; a Resources section lists one book title and two web sites of interest; a section on Texts gives publication information on the translations of the Koran and other Islamic texts referred to in the program.
I found Islam: What the West Needs to Know to be very informative. It doesn't try to over-dramatize or sensationalize its material; it doesn't need to in the least. I had always held to the idea that Islam is peaceful and that terrorist Muslims were fanatics, not representative of their faith. Certainly that's a much happier idea than the idea that a major religion in the world is fundamentally violent. But I'm not one to shy away from re-evaluating my ideas... especially when I recognize that my previous opinion wasn't based on any facts. While I'm still interested in reading more about Islam from other sources, I found this documentary to go a long way in challenging my preconceived ideas, by presenting material directly from the Koran and experts on Islam. Highly recommended.