McCollum, Muslims to discuss film

The attorney general played the disputed movie for his staff.

By Meg Laughlin, Times Staff Writer
Published February 12, 2008

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and Muslim leaders will meet today to address concerns that McCollum showed the controversial film Obsession to his staff during work hours in state buildings.

Through an assistant, McCollum sent an e-mail to his 500 employees in January, urging them to attend one of three screenings of the film in order to understand "the terrorist threat to Florida and the West by radical Islam." Employees taped up posters of the crescent moon and star of Islam imposed over the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

Muslim leaders from the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles and the Council of American Islamic Relations describe the film as an "anti-Muslim propaganda film."

"We are gravely alarmed that a respectable, high-level official such as yourself would be promoting such inflammatory anti-Muslim propaganda through your office, " wrote MPAC executive director Salam Al Marayati on Jan. 23. "The office that hate crime victims turn to for legal aid and justice is itself igniting the fire of bias and fear through such events."

McCollum's spokeswoman Sandi Copes responded in an e-mail a few days later: "At no time was any state employee required to view (the film). Attorney General McCollum welcomes input from all communities ... including the Muslim community, as we work to encourage understanding."

A month before offering the film to employees, McCollum blasted a University of Florida administrator for asking organizers of an Obsessionscreening on campus to apologize for a poster that said "Radical Islam Wants You Dead." The administrator said the poster "reinforced a negative stereotype." She also questioned the accuracy of parts of the film.

McCollum said the UF administrator "has chilled free speech on the UF campus."

"It's one thing for Bill McCollum to defend free speech at a university campus. But it's another for him to endorse this anti-Muslim film and make it available during work, on taxpayer money," said Ahmed Bedier, executive director of Tampa's Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"Staff asked for it," said Bill Stewart, assistant deputy chief of staff for McCollum. But the e-mail to the staff about the film said McCollum had presented the film to private groups. In August, McCollum praised the film at a screening for about 200 people in government and business which included Adam Hasner, now the majority leader in the state House, and Orlando lawyer Jonathan Kilman, counsel to Charlie Crist during his campaign.

The film begins with a disclaimer: "It is important to remember most Muslims are peaceful and do not support terror."

Next, men in traditional Middle Eastern dress burn an American flag while Middle Eastern music plays. The planes fly into the twin towers. Bleeding people run from the train station in Madrid and from the subway bombings in London. Peaceful scenes of Muslims at market and prayer are interspersed with violent scenes and fanatical speeches of extremists advocating violence.

"The teaching is this religion will destroy all other religions. It is Islam against the other religions,"says Itamar Marcus, identified as a representative of Palestinian Media Watch.

"Islamists hate everything other than what they are themselves," says Daniel Pipes, identified as director, Middle East Forum.

"Yes, there is some selective editing,"said Obsession distributor Tom Trento, a Lake Worth businessman. "But Obsession still alerts people to a very dangerous ideology."

Obsession was made by HonestReporting, a New York and Jerusalem media watchdog that says its purpose is to "defend Israel from prejudice."

Jack Shaheen, an Oxford University research scholar and author of four books on racism, stereotyping and propaganda, describes the film as "very convincing."

"Goebbels would be proud. This film has a place in cinema history with the racist film Birth of a Nation and the Nazi film Triumph of the Will because it so cleverly advances lies to vilify a people."

Copes, the spokeswoman for McCollum: "With this film, you don't get the best, most complete information on terrorism, but it's probably more than you started with."

About midway through Obsession, Pipes estimates that "some 10 to 15 percent of Muslims worldwide support militant Islam." Walid Shobar, identified as a former PLO terrorist, says, "1.2-billion Muslims out there with 15 percent - this is a huge number ... as big as the United States of America - spread all throughout."

The source of the numbers is not given.

Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor at the University of Maryland, directs polls and attitude surveys for the Program on International Public Attitudes. He says the results show that "about 6 percent of about 300-million people in the Arab world support al-Qaida's message of confronting the United States."

Survey data of the entire Muslim world is not available, but polling by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2007 shows that support for attacks against civilians varies widely from 70 percent in the Palestinian territories to 34 percent in Lebanon to 8 percent in Egypt. Overall, says the study, "wide majorities (of Muslims) say such attacks are, at most, rarely acceptable."

It's important, Telhami said, to consider what the word "support" means: "Support is often a reflection of anger rather than ideology. It's far different from joining groups or being prepared to conduct terrorism," he said.

McCollum's assistant deputy chief of staff Stewart: "You don't have to accept everything in the film as fact."

But how would an employee of the office know what to accept and what to question?

"That's not for us to divine," Stewart said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.