Last month, shortly after the anniversary of 9/11, 28 million copies of a documentary film were distributed as paid-for inserts in 70 American newspapers spread across 14 electoral “swing” states. Titled “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,” the DVD is filled with graphic footage of Islamic extremist activity and dire warnings of the threat posed to Western civilization by the perpetrators and their supporters. And while the film includes statements to the effect that “not all Muslims are like that,” its overall tenor and content have led many to call it “hate propaganda” and “Islamophobic.” For example, Rabbi Jack Moline, chairman of the Interfaith Alliance, described the film as a “thinly veiled call for disparagement and distrust of all Muslims.”

The motivation behind the newspaper insert campaign? A spokesman for the Clarion Fund, the relatively obscure charity that sponsored its dissemination, asserted that its purpose was to make terrorism a campaign issue “where it counts – in the battleground states,” according to a report on National Public Radio. Critics of the video suspect, as reported in a later NPR story, that it is “being deployed as a partisan campaign tool, to play on the false rumors that Democrat Barack Obama is sympathetic to radical Islam.”

But aside from its questionable use as a means to influence the outcome of Tuesday’s presidential election, what’s the film’s ultimate purpose? If its objective is to instill raw fear – with such images as the imploding World Trade Center, a suicide-bomber induction ceremony, children training with machine guns and uttering hate speech, and pundit commentary announcing that “jihad has come to America” – it surely succeeds. But if its goal is to offer helpful solutions to the undeniable threat such extremism poses, it fails abysmally.

In stark contrast to “Obsession,” a recent report by the Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement, called “Changing Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim World,” offers both a measured analysis and a bold, constructive approach. The diverse 34-member bipartisan group includes Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious and cultural leaders, a former secretary of state, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and the president of the Islamic Society of North America, among others.

The report pulls no punches. It acknowledges that conflict, misunderstanding and distrust plague U.S. relations with Muslims in many countries, and explores their multiple causes. It reveals that majorities of Muslims around the world are intensely concerned with what they perceive as a U.S. effort to dominate Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia, and that maintaining the status quo could result in more confrontations, attacks, and a cycle of retaliation. But it also recognizes that only an extremely small percentage of Muslims – on the order of .01 percent globally – are active extremists who employ violence, and that despite the existing tensions, the vast majority of Americans and Muslims around the world want peace, prosperity and mutual respect. And it asserts that it is not a “clash of civilizations,” but rather policies and actions that form the root causes of the divide.

The Leadership Group presents a series of sound proposals for shrinking the base of support for extremism, and for enhancing coexistence and cooperation. It calls on U.S. and Muslim leaders to work together to resolve conflicts through diplomacy, improve governance and promote broad-based economic development in Muslim countries, and build mutual respect and understanding. The priorities, among others, include stepped-up U.S. efforts at diplomatic engagement with Iran, and a firm commitment to provide leadership in pressing for a sustainable two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

As for fostering mutual respect – and here the strident cries of “Obsession” reverberate – the group urges us, for example, not to provide additional ammunition to extremist groups by linking the term “jihad” with their contemptible actions – since jihad, in the sense of non-violent spiritual striving, is a sacred obligation for all Muslims. Overall, it calls on U.S. leaders to acknowledge and respect Islam’s religious tenets, while condemning extremist violence as reprehensible not only to U.S. citizens, but to the vast majority of Muslims across the globe.

The Leadership Group recognizes the significant challenges the next U.S. president will face in relations with the Muslim world, and it illuminates a path forward. “Changing Course” offers a compelling plan, which, among its other merits, should serve to dampen the threat posed by Islamic extremism. “Obsession” only fans the flames.

Published Oct. 31, 2008 in Haaretz.com, http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1033079.html