Op-ed writer and pundit Raeed Tayeh has lectured countless times since the events of Sept. 11, 2001 on the topic of how Americans perceive Islam -- but the lecture and the audience questions after have lately been dominated by a single DVD.
The documentary Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West sparked countless debates and letters to the editor when it was distributed through the mail and Sunday newspapers in swing states several weeks ago, including by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. And, said Tayeh in a lecture Oct. 29 at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, in Oakland, it's changed the discourse on Islam in this country for the worse.
The DVD, distributed by the nonprofit Clarion Fund in the P-G's Sept. 14 edition, features footage from Sept. 11, radical imams and crowds chanting "Death to America" and bombed-out carnage the world over. It's set to scary music and makes assertions like "Every single country in the world is dealing with this on one level or another."
"We have been put under a microscope," Tayeh told the crowd. "Every Muslim is expected to answer for the faith. When it comes to religiously inspired extremism, Muslims should not be singled out," he said, pointing to Christian fundamentalists, Israelis in the West Bank and even certain nominally non-believing factions of the Tamil Tigers as others who claim religious inspiration for their deeds.
But it was the DVD that sparked the most questions and comments from the audience and the panel discussion following Tayeh's remarks.
Panelist Greg Victor, the Post-Gazette's op-ed editor, said he figured the DVD was distributed in an attempt to sway the presidential election, much as the false claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim has been used as a smear in the campaign.
"I'd like to distinguish among the parts of the newspaper: We have news, opinions and advertising," he said. "P-G news coverage has been fair to the Muslim community: We wrote a number of stories trying to explain Islam, the Koran, the word 'jihad.' We have exposed mistreatment of Muslims." The opinions section, he said, makes a point of including many viewpoints.
"Our advertising is not fair and balanced at all," he said. The DVD was distributed as a paid insert. "It's whoever can pay, whoever can buy space. They take responsibility. Was Obsession hate speech? Our advertising executives decided reasonable people could disagree that this was hate speech. In general, newspapers will err on the side of more speech rather than less speech."
An audience member asked panelist Kweilin Nassar, a commissioner with the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission, whether the P-G was being investigated for hate speech in connection with the DVD. Nassar said that while the commission was disturbed by the content of the video, no investigation was ongoing.
"I don't fault newspapers who sent it out," Tayeh said. "The onus goes back to people to have their voices heard."
In a subsequent interview with CP, Robert Richards, a professor of journalism and law and founding co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State University, said that even though the DVD may be distasteful or disrespectful, the P-G was within its legal rights to distribute it. It wasn't sexually obscene, inciteful or defamatory.
"The paper is free to sell the advertising and include it in their paper," Richards says. "It could be an ethical decision on the part of the paper -- they can say, 'We're not going to run it.' On the other hand, you might have some people who are very much believers in the marketplace of ideas: We should put them all out there, good, bad and indifferent, and the public can decide to embrace it or reject it."
At the panel talk, the P-G's Victor said that distributing the DVD had indeed provoked a lot of voices: "We've had a number of meetings with the Muslim community, letters to the editor, a big forum piece. We welcome feedback from all parts of our community."
"I have never seen more willingness for spirited debate among the general population," than during this recent presidential campaign, says Richards. "I think it's a positive thing for the country to have these kinds of discussions. It's kind of a neat thing that people are actually switched on about something."