Headlines, Human Rights, North America, Religion

POLITICS-US: Anti-Islam Film Targets “Swing State” Voters

Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Sep 19 2008 (IPS) - Millions of voters in U.S. states crucial to this fall’s presidential election received DVD copies of a controversial documentary film as advertising inserts in their morning newspapers over the past week, with more expected to be sent out over the upcoming weekend.

The 2006 film, “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West”, which has been accused by critics of encouraging Islamophobia, was reportedly delivered, or slated for delivery this weekend, into tens of millions of households in states such as Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Colorado, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Missouri and other “swing states” that don’t vote consistently for either party and usually decide elections.

Republicans and their candidate, Sen. John McCain, have made the battling the threat posed by radical Islamists a central platform of their campaign, while presenting their Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, as being weak on the issue. Obama has also fought off persistent “smear” campaigns, particularly among Jewish voters, that he is a closet Muslim.

Gregory Ross, the spokesman for the Clarion group, which produced and is distributing the DVD, told the Harrisburg Patriot-News that the movie was being delivered to 28 million homes throughout the month of September and that the intention was not to sway voters to either candidate.

The Clarion Fund is a shadowy non-profit group created to “educate Americans about issues of national security,” according to its website. The staff and organisational information of the group is not listed on the website.

Clarion Fund was founded by the writer and executive produce of “Obsession”, Israeli-Canadian Raphael Shore. The group also runs the website Radicalislam.org – an educational site which implores its readers to “take action against radical Islam” by exploring its resources under four headings: “fueling terror”, “Sharia law”, “vote 2008”, and “radical Islam overview.”

Because of Clarion Fund’s non-profit, tax-exempt status, it is not permitted to sway voters in a partisan manner. But Radicalislam.org reportedly was, until it was recently pointed out in the media, carrying an article that explicitly endorsed Sen. John McCain.

IPS telephoned the Clarion Fund and its reported contact and counsel, Eli D. Greenberg of the New York law firm Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman and Herz. The calls were not returned.

The documentary, despite an initial disclaimer that the material covered applies only to radical Islamists and not all Muslims, has drawn fire from critics for conflating mainstream Islam with violent and militant tendencies of a smaller subset of the religion. Critics argue that it makes little distinction between the religion of Islam and the political realities that inform terrorism.

Among the film’s stable of experts are “reformed” Palestinian Liberation Organisation terrorist and convert to evangelical Christianity Walid Shoebat, self-described terrorism expert Stephen Emerson, and another evangelical convert from Islam named Noni Darwish who runs a website called Arabs for Israel.

An investigation by IPS last year revealed that the production and promotion of “Obsession” was tied to several right-wing Zionist groups in the U.S. and Israel. Raphael Shore’s brother, Rabbi Ephraim Shore, heads up the Israeli group Aish Hatorah, which helped form HonestReporting, an organisation which, the IPS investigation revealed, had ties to the film despite the apparent denials of the relationship.

Several of the newspapers that ran the advertising insert were contacted for interviews by IPS, and those who responded all gave similar responses that, though the material may or may not agree with the editorial positions of the papers, the DVDs met the standards for advertising. The newspapers said they did not want to participate in censorship.

Asked how advertisements are screened for inclusion with the paper, the publisher of the North Carolina paper the News and Observer, Orage Quarels III, told IPS, “Is it slanderous? Is it bias? We look at each one individually.”

“We take all advertising on good faith,” Jim McClure, the vice president of advertising for the News and Observer, which sent out about 250,00 copies, told IPS when asked if the paper considered the intent of advertisers when considering their submissions. “This product came from the Clarion Fund, it was clearly identified, there was a website an address and a phone number on the package, and it came to us through an advertising agency.”

“We’re getting many concerned calls and emails from Muslims around the country who see this as an attempt to not only marginalize and demonize the American Muslim community, but also to sway the election by targeting swing states,” Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told IPS. “People are outraged. I haven’t seen this kind of outrage in a long time. It’s coming to their homes, it’s coming to their neighbors and they believe its going to impact their lives and their children’s lives negatively.”

Hooper also said there had apparently already been an incident of bias against a bus-driver for Islamic school children in Ohio. The biased comments were likely inspired by film.

The New York Times distributed about 145,000 copies of the DVD in national editions of the paper in eleven markets, including Denver, Colorado; Miami, Tampa, and Orlando in Florida; Detroit, Michigan; Kansas City and St. Louis in Missouri; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, according to Times spokesperson Diane McNulty.

McNulty classified the ad as opinion advertising. “It went through our advertising acceptability office, and they looked at it,” McNulty told IPS. She was unsure, however, if that office had viewed the DVD before accepting it. A message left for Steph Jesperson of the Times’ advertising acceptability office went unanswered.

McClure, of the News and Observer, told IPS that they have gotten overwhelmingly negative responses for readers and will be running objections as letters to the editor in upcoming editions of the paper.

But at least one newspaper, the News and Record of North Carolina, declined to carry the DVD.

“We did not distribute it. I was not involved in the decision; it was an advertising call, in keeping with advertising policies,” wrote John Robinson, the editor of the News and Record on his blog. “I asked our publisher about it. He said it was divisive and plays on people’s fears and served no educational purpose. The revenue it would have brought in was not a motivator.”

Indeed, the print newspaper industry has seen a precipitous decline in revenue, and many critics contend that it’s a tough decision for newspapers in economic straits to turn down advertising dollars. In press reports, many newspapers declined to give the advertising rate for their distribution of the DVD, and a few commented that the Clarion group paid the standard advertising rates.

But exactly who paid those standard rates is still in question.

The half million dollars needed to produce the movie was reportedly borrowed by Shore and Clarion, so it is unclear that they had the money to make the recent mass distribution effort, which likely was a multi-million-dollar enterprise.

“I can’t imagine that you can produce, package, distribute and advertise this product for less than 50 million dollars,” Hooper told IPS.

He also insisted that the substantial financial push may have been intended to sway the election. “Why did they choose to distribute this hate propaganda to millions of homes in swing states in this election?”

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