Seeking One Voice Where Many Talk

Mike Hale

“Who Speaks for Islam?,” the title of a two-part series beginning on Sunday on Link TV, is a benign case of bait and switch. The answer to the question, we’re told, is that no one speaks for Islam — it is too vast and diverse, spreading across too many countries and cultures, to have a single, authoritative voice.

As the Middle East analyst Reza Aslan puts it, Americans are looking for a “united voice of condemnation” of militant violence — a representative of the world’s Muslims who will unequivocally say the things they want to hear — but “there is no such person in Islam.” The voices that fill the void are those of the militants, simply because they’re loudest.

To hear the voices of Mr. Aslan and Dalia Mogahed, the two scholars interviewed by Ray Suarez in “What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” the program’s first hour, might take some doing. Link TV exists as a freestanding network only on the Dish and DirecTV satellite systems. Various community cable channels carry pieces of its programming; in New York CUNY TV will rebroadcast “Think” at various times on Monday. It will also be streamed at

This is not big-budget television. Both parts of “Who Speaks for Islam?” consist of Mr. Suarez and his interviewees at a table, Bill Moyers-style, talking for the better part of an hour. The program makes up for what it lacks in field reports and fancy graphics with a density of information, but viewers unaccustomed to broadcasting this high-minded may find themselves reaching for the remote.

They also may find themselves unpersuaded. The program grew out of “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” a 2008 book written by Ms. Mogahed and John L. Esposito, which was in turn based on a continuing Gallup poll of hundreds of thousands of Muslims worldwide. Time is spent reciting and analyzing poll data showing that majorities of Muslims in many countries abhor violence against civilians and support democracy and free speech.

These results are presented as rebuttals of Western misconceptions, but there’s a sensation here of two worlds talking past each other. You can imagine more than a few non-Islamic American viewers saying: Sure, most Muslims are as moderate as I am. But I don’t really care about that as long as there are some Muslims who’d like to kill me.

Mr. Suarez, a veteran public television and radio correspondent, lets Mr. Aslan and Ms. Mogahed (Americans of Iranian and Egyptian birth) pretty much have their way when it comes to the sources of Muslim militancy; their contention that it’s more a product of Middle Eastern politics and economics than of religion is convincing. He pushes harder in two areas — the place of women in Islam, and the furor over the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad — where their explanations become convoluted and begin to sound like rationalizations.

“Who Speaks for Islam?” concludes on Nov. 1 on Link TV (and Nov. 2 on CUNY TV) with a second hourlong discussion, “Muslims on Screen,” in which Mr. Suarez talks to Howard Gordon, an executive producer of “24,” as well as several Muslim Americans working in show business about depictions of Muslims and Arabs in Western pop culture. Mr. Gordon, asked about the prevalence of Muslim characters as terrorists on his television show, points out in his own defense that the bad guys in the most recent season were based on Blackwater Worldwide, the American private security company now known as Xe Services.


Sunday night on Link TV (check local listings).

Directed by Frank Zamacona; written by Lisa Aliferis and Souheila Al-Jadda; Wendy Hanamura, executive producer; Ms. Aliferis and Ms. Jadda, producers; Matt DeVries, editor; Ray Suarez, host. Produced by Link TV.

Posted October 24, 2009, New york Times

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