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JewishJournal.com

October 15, 2008

Return to sender

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/return_to_sender_20081015


'Obsession' trailer


I've never understood why they call a last-minute election ploy an "October Surprise," other than the fact that it usually happens in, you know, October.

As a hard-fought election winds to a close in a divided country, campaigns will of course give their candidate that extra 1 percent or 2 percent push by any means necessary.

So I'm not surprised that someone in Washington is making it rain missiles on Waziristan in what has to be a last-ditch effort to attach the head of Osama bin Laden to Sen. John McCain's belt loop.

I'm not surprised that vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin accused Sen. Barack Obama of making playdates with terrorists. Anyone who remembers the vitriolic rallies leading to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has to be disgusted by such incendiary words -- but not surprised.

And I'm not shocked that now the Democrats are resurrecting the ghost of crooked banker and one-time McCain pal Charles Keating. Those aren't surprises -- those are what-did-you-expect?

But I am surprised that people who truly want to alert Americans to the dangers we all face from worldwide Islamic radicalism have chosen this month to politicize the issue.

The vehicle they are using is an effective work of agitprop documentary filmmaking called, "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West."

The one-hour film is an all-hits compilation about how violent Muslim fundamentalists are bent on using any means necessary to destroy the rest of us.

Yes, the movie lacks nuance. Its many valid claims against radical Islam sometimes bleed into blanket claims against all Muslims.

"It's important to remember most Muslims are peaceful and do not support terror," reads a title card at the opening of the movie -- just before an image of a man in a kaffiyeh pointing an automatic weapon at the viewer overwhelms the screen. In other words, this is not a sober "Frontline" special.

Some critics fear that as much as "Obsession" may inspire people, including moderate Muslims, to fight against the extremists, it might just as easily inspire non-Muslim extremists to lash out against all Muslims. An obsessive anti-"Obsession" campaign launched by the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) accuses the film of "demonizing an entire community."

I ran this concern by Tom Trento, a Florida-based businessman who told me he was so inspired after watching the movie upon its release in 2006 that he founded WatchObsession.com to help spread its gospel.

"Not one negative backlash with 20 million people seeing it," Trento told me.

That might or might not be entirely true. Four days after the Dayton Daily News distributed copies of the "Obsession" DVD, two men sprayed a chemical toward a 10-year-old girl at a local Islamic center Police have said there is no evidence the act was a hate crime, but many Muslims there and elsewhere say "Obsession" incites such attacks.

What's undeniable is that the movie is intended to rile people up and that its supporters believe it can be an effective tool in swaying the election.

In late September, copies of the DVD started showing up on people's doorsteps, wrapped along with their morning paper in states that are the most hotly contested in this presidential election: Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania.

An organization called The Clarion Fund paid for distribution, but denied the effort has anything to do with the presidential campaign. A Clarion spokesman told the Harrisburg Patriot-News that 28 million copies of the DVD were being distributed nationwide. The intent of the distribution, he said, was "not to sway voters' opinions about the presidential candidates."

That, of course, is absolute, pure, 100 percent BS. Trento, refreshingly, didn't take that tack.

"I'm doing a major educational outreach effort with this movie that will continue long after the election," he said. "But certainly I have a goal to wake people up and have them vote intelligently for our national security. Who does that mean at the top of the ticket? Me personally, Tom Trento, I would vote for John McCain."

I asked him if that's what he hopes others will want to do after watching "Obsession."

"Yes," Trento said. "My goal would be that a person fully informed will conclude that John McCain is the best choice."

This, then, is the dangerous ground backers of "Obsession" are treading: Turning a serious if flawed movie and a life-and-death issue into a partisan campaign ploy.

A recent Fox News poll found that 88 percent of Americans agree that radical Islam is a serious threat -- you'd be hard pressed to find another issue that so many Americans agree on. The "Obsession" campaign causes unnecessary dissent and division when what we need is united and thoughtful action.

The fact that "Obsession" and the Clarion Fund draw financial support from a network of overtly Christian, Jewish and pro-Israel activists doesn't exactly help either.

The Clarion Fund and Aish HaTorah are headed by twin Israeli-Canadian brothers, Raphael and Ephraim Shore, respectively. Several newspaper accounts report that the two groups appear to be connected, as Clarion is incorporated in Delaware to the New York offices of Aish HaTorah, the Orthodox Jewish outreach organization.

An Aish spokesperson has denied a connection, but said that individuals affiliated with Aish may be involved in Clarion on their own.

Scroll the Web sites promoting "Obsession," follow their links, and soon you are in a world of vigilante "Minutemen," abortion clinic protesters, Creationists, End Timers, Greater Israelites and Islam-bashers. One click away from Trento's Web site is another whose headline reads, "Allah is nothing but a pagan moon-god."

All these folks have a right to their opinions, but we can't afford for the struggle against Islamic fascism to get mired in this country's political, cultural and religious divides.

If you want to know what it's like to get bounced around in that muck, ask my friend Howard Gordon. When "Obsession" first came out, Gordon, a writer and executive producer of the television series, "24," agreed to write a laudatory blurb for the producers.

But last month, Gordon decided he didn't want to boost a movie he had at least mixed feelings about, based, in part, on its use as a partisan political weapon.

"While I remain committed to the film's essential message -- that the hate-mongering promoted by radical Islamism presents a real threat to Western values of tolerance and pluralism -- I also appreciate that the goal of co-existence and tolerance is not being served by films like 'Obsession,'" Gordon wrote in his public retraction.

To read the reactions to Gordon's simple change of mind, you'd think he was the one with the machine gun and the kaffiyeh.

At some point, you'd think "Obsession's" backers would realize they're not doing a cause most of us believe in any good by turning off the likes of me, you or Howard Gordon.

"It is too bad," Trento told me of Gordon's retraction. "I mean, I love his show."

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