Sword of Islam reviews


January 13, 1988 | John Corry

Sword of Islam explores the world of Moslem fundamentalists. The view is not always attractive. Many of the fundamentalists seem to be in love with death. Political fanatacism and sexual repression join. The 90-minute documentary, on Channel 13 at 10 o’clock tonight, is compelling.

The documentary, a production of Britain’s Granada Television, visits Egypt and Lebanon; it tries to make distinctions. Egyptian fundamentalists may be Sunni Moslems; in Lebanon, they may be Shiite. The Palestine Liberation Organization and Lebanese Shiites have been at war with each other, although both sides fight Israel. We get a sense that the Middle East is a cockpit, seething with contradictory and sometimes ambiguous forces.

At the same time, there is a contradictory and ambiguous force within the documentary itself. It is as if ”Sword of Islam,” fearful of making the fundamentalists look unattractive, believes it must redress a balance. Therefore, it penalizes Israel.

Thus we see a small town in southern Lebanon. ”What happens here is quite shocking,” the narrator says. ”The Israeli Defense Ministry denies it, but we have seen it ourselves. Day by day, this town has been pounded by high explosives.”

Subsequently, we see some holes in what looks like a school bulletin board; then we see a puff of smoke on a street. Mostly, though, the town is intact. If the Israeli Army has been pounding it with high explosives, the shells seem to have missed.

A moment later, the documentary visits a neighboring town, where Shiite Moslems are observing the martyrdom of Mohammed’s son-in-law. Look quickly. One Shiite has a rocket launcher; another has an automatic rifle. Did that first town have armed men, too?

Sword of Islam doesn’t tell us; it wants us to believe the Israeli Army wantonly shelled civiliians, although it doesn’t produce the evidence. Meanwhile, we see the Shiite religious observance in the second town. Young men have their heads cut by straight razors; then they march through the streets in blood-soaked clothing. Some young men pound the wounds in their heads to make the blood flow more freely. Most, shouting slogans, appear to be in a frenzy.

This is one aspect of Islamic fundamentalism; the documentary presents others. In Egypt, a young student, described as a moderate, says he is upset by Western images of nude women. He also says adulterous women should be whipped. A young woman, who the documentary says once reviewed Broadway plays for an Egyptian paper, says the Western images disturb her, too. She is contemptuous of Western politicians and culture figures.

”I see them as vampires – they are not human anymore,” she says. We get a feeling she means every word. We get a feeling the religious leaders we hear speaking to members of the Lebanese Party of God also mean every word.

Westerners may be unable to distinguish between Amal Shiites and members of the Party of God, but members of the Party of God, apparently, are more militant. ”Sword of Islam” visits a Lebanese mosque, where an Iranian religious figure is speaking.

The Iranian is a plump, ascetic-looking man, who speaks with almost hypnotic intensity of death, blood and the necessity of fighting for God. The Party of God members in the mosque shout approval, and hold their joined hands in the air. It is a chilling picture.

Sword of Islam- produced and directed by David Darlow, with Rod Caird as executive producer – wants to be nonjudgmental about this. It doesn’t want us to condemn Moslem fundamentalists so much as it wants us to understand them. This is an appropriate aim. The fascinating documentary, however, may still leave you with sharp feelings.

Back to Sword of Islam


Award-winning documentary focuses on Islam and Middle East

January 11, 1988 | Arthur Unger

Sword of Islam PBS, tomorrow, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings. Producer: Granada Television. Producer/director: David Darlow. Presented by KCET, Los Angeles. Recent assassinations and kidnappings in the Middle East have fueled a Western attitude of fear and distrust toward the Muslim groups calling themselves Hizbullah and Jihad. The violence has left in the minds of most Westerners a vivid – and valid – impression of dangerous fanaticism.

In addition to presenting a short history of Islam, this compelling documentary includes superb footage of Shiite ceremonies and guerrilla activities, as well as interviews with Hizbullah and Jihad leaders and propagandists. “If America sees us as terrorists, I see them as vampires,” says one veiled activist bitterly.

Produced by Britain’s Granada Television on locations in Egypt and Lebanon, this documentary has already won an International Emmy, despite the fact that it seems so eager to be fair to the extremist groups that it tilts a bit unfairly against the Israeli point of view.

Gen. Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, is allowed to warn against the attitude of the extremists, but he does not manage to explain the reasons for some of Israel’s seemingly irrational actions.

On the other hand, the Muslims receive ample opportunity to explain their attitudes in ringing, derogatory tones and terms.

Experts are called in to offer their straightforward opinions, the most impressive being Robin Wright, whose broader series on Muslim fundamentalism appeared recently in this newspaper. Her conclusion on this program: “The US must recognize that Islam is an ideological force and a power that cannot be defeated militarily. It is here to stay, well into the next century.”

There are, according to Sword of Islam,’900 million Muslims now, and soon the Muslim population will constitute one-quarter of the people on the planet. They preach equality and justice in the midst of their own poverty. So it is a faith born out of despair, turning into anger.

“The word of Islam is being replaced by the sword of Islam,” this forceful documentary concludes.

The implication is that, instead of hand-wringing, perhaps the West should be helping believers achieve the equality and justice they seek. Unfortunately, in addition to bread and religious freedom, their goals also seem to include the murder of Israel and the suicide of the United States.

This documentary does little to dispel the fears about these fundamentalist groups, which willingly kill and kidnap in the name of their religion. There are, it points out, solid reasons to worry about their militancy toward unbelievers.

But the documentary does convey some degree of understanding about why they are what they are and why they do what they do. Certainly that is a necessary prelude to some sort of future reconciliation.

Back to Sword of Islam