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Behind the Headlines at Nyu, Film on Extremism Shows


Screenings of a documentary on radical Islam have brought New York University Muslim and Jewish students together — to bash the portrayal of Muslim extremism. The filmmakers say the students are in deep denial.

“Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,” by Wayne Kopping and Raphael Shore, features interviews with prominent anti-terror advocates like Daniel Pipes and Walid Shoebat. They’re interspersed with clips from various Arabic broadcasts in which Muslim clerics call for the destruction of America, and children’s programming where youths declare their ambition to be warriors for Islam.

The movie has been screened at dozens of colleges in recent months with assistance from Hasbara Fellowships, a division of the fervently Orthodox outreach group Aish International, which provides media training on Israel issues to college students.

Controversy over the film at Pace University and Brown University made headlines in recent weeks. At Pace, Hillel President Michael Abdurakhmanov claimed that administrators used threats to keep his group from screening the film. A Pace spokesman called that “implausible,” while acknowledging that Pace did want to avoid screening the film after copies of the Koran were found in toilets at the school.

At Brown, the Muslim Student Association protested when Hillel invited one of the film’s interview subjects, Nonie Darwish, to speak on campus. Her appearance was canceled, then rescheduled without Hillel sponsorship.

At NYU, the screening of “Obsession” was co-sponsored by Muslim and Arab student groups and the interfaith Middle East Sustained Dialogue Group. That co-sponsorship is “really a testament to our strength as a community,” said sophomore Jordan Dunn, president of the dialogue group.

If so, that “strength” comes from the fact that NYU Jewish students take a different approach to engagement with Muslim groups than at other universities, where Jewish groups often condemn Muslim extremism and become upset when the Muslim groups don’t do so as well. At NYU, the confrontational approach is seen as unproductive.

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, manager of religious life at NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, told CampusJ that Muslim-Jewish relations at the school are particularly good because of the presence of Khalid Latif, the school’s Muslim chaplain. Latif, 24, who also is a chaplain at Princeton University, has developed a reputation as an engaging, moderate spiritual leader.

The NYU Jewish community’s philosophy is to “always participate” in dialogue, Sarna said, noting that events that might cause controversy at some campuses — such as a lecture by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last semester — have been transformed into opportunities for dialogue.

But Muslim students at NYU weren’t too happy with the film.

In a discussion afterward, Muslim students objected to the film’s claim that radical Islam is a source of hatred and terrorism, calling the documentary an affront to all Muslims — even though it repeatedly states that the extremists it portrays are a small minority.

“The scary aspect of the NYU audience was the seeming inability to criticize any of the horrific Islamist actions and behavior in general, as shown in ‘Obsession,’ ” said Robert Friedman, a volunteer sent by the filmmakers to speak at the screening.

In an e-mail interview, Friedman told CampusJ that dialogue participants at NYU were in “denial” about Muslim extremism, and that this produced a double standard in which ” ‘dialogue’ in this group meant Jews and Israelis with mea culpas and the Muslims and/or Arabs critiquing Israel and the West.”

Friedman asserted that “Jews in particular are the most introspective, self-critical group on earth,” but Jewish self-criticism was not matched by similar introspection from Muslim students — something he said surprised him.

However, at least for Jewish leaders of the dialogue, concerns about Jewish extremists are likewise off-the- table. Responding to Friedman, Dunn told CampusJ, “I say, why dwell on the negative? Why not invest our time and energy in coexistence?”

Nathan Yadgar, a Hasbara Fellowships representative at the screening, wasn’t concerned by Muslim students’ non-critical attitude toward the extremism in the film.

“There are many reasons for the denial, and one of the main reasons I believe is fear,” he told CampusJ. “As long as you can get a dialogue started, that’s a solution.”

While no Muslim students criticized the actions portrayed in the film during the open dialogue, “After the dialogue, two or three students came up to me and said it’s a problem,” he said. “But Muslims in America are afraid to speak up.”

This story was reported by Jill Goldstein and Steven I. Weiss.

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