'America at a Crossroads' in Post-Sept. 11 Era A new television documentary series, America at a Crossroads, looks at the challenges facing the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

'America at a Crossroads' in Post-Sept. 11 Era

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

To help explain the challenges of confronting the world since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Corporation Republic Broadcasting put out a call for ideas to independent producers. More than 400 responded. Eleven were chosen to be part of a series of documentaries called "America at a Crossroads" that will air on PBS stations beginning on Sunday.

Robert MacNeil is the host of the series. Calvin Sims is a reporter and co-producer of the film "Struggle for the Soul of Islam Inside Indonesia" that is scheduled to air next Thursday.

Robert MacNeil and Calvin Sims both joined us from our studios in New York. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ROBERT MACNEIL (Host, "America at a Crossroads"): Thank you.

Mr. CALVIN SIMS (Reporter): Yeah, it's good to be here.

SIMON: And, Mr. MacNeil, if we could begin with you, what do you think was the guiding idea behind the whole series?

Mr. MACNEIL: When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting put out a call for proposals, they said they wanted to examine what 9/11 had done several years later to the American imagination, our military forces, our foreign policy and life at home.

And, I think, the series does that to a large degree. It focuses primarily on our challenges overseas, and how we have responded to 9/11. I think people will come away with it, with a greatly enhanced view of the world of Islam.

SIMON: Mr. Sims, let's bring you in here and begin to talk about the film on Indonesia, as it's often pointed out, the world's largest Muslim nation. But they have a distinct brand of Islam, don't they?

Mr. SIMS: They certainly do. It is vastly different than the brand I think most Americans are familiar with - that being from the Arab tradition, and that being laced with a kind of global jihad - a tradition that has become sort of common in what we think about Islam.

SIMON: I think a lot of viewers will sit up and take notice when they see shots of Miss Indonesian Transvestite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMS: I am sure they will. I certainly did take notice.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Struggle for the Soul of Islam Inside Indonesia")

Unidentified Man: I didn't expect to become the big winner because all the contestants is very beautiful and talented. So I thank to the Lord, I came first that night, and to thank goodness, I did.

Mr. SIMS: It is a most unlikely scene in a country that has more Muslims than any country in the world. And here in the middle of Jakarta, you have a Miss Transvestite contest taking place. And many of the participants claim to be devout Muslims. Many of them actually lead what they call women's prayer groups in the mosque. And this is happening free and open, but also being challenged by the rise of some more extremist conservative forces of Islam within Indonesia.

Mr. MACNEIL: What I found fascinating about Calvin's - one of the things fascinating in this country of so many rich and diverse traditions coming from Asia and so on, was that they're recently a democracy. And they're taking that very seriously.

In fact, in your film, the chief of police, I think it is, mildly lectures the United States when he says, well, we can't just arrest terrorist suspects and hold them without a trial, I mean, we have the rule of law here, which is -he's sort of wagging his finger at us and our democracy.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Struggle for the Soul of Islam Inside Indonesia")

Unidentified Man: We work based on law. If we arrest people, we must bring them to the court. As I understand, some of those people who are arrested, they never go to the court. That is one difference. We cannot do that.

Mr. SIMS: Indonesians take democracy very seriously, even though they've only had it since 1998, because it is something they've been seeking since the founding of the nation in the 1950s. And they are finally at a point, since 1998 when they became free of this dictatorship, that they can pursue it and especially when it comes to actually prosecuting Muslims for terrorism, they feel that they have to cross all the T's and dot all the I's because the Muslim population is watching them and democracy has to work. There has to be a level of transparency there.

Mr. MACNEIL: The Indonesian experience matches up wonderfully with other films in this series. For instance, there's a young Canadian woman activist whose name is Irshad Manji who is a kind of take no prisoners, very outspoken manifestation of the phenomenon of some young Muslim women speaking out against what they see as the restrictive life in some Muslim countries.

Ms. IRSHAD MANJI (Canadian Activist; "Author, The Trouble With Islam Today"): Muslims in the West know how to exercise freedom. At one of my speeches, a woman hands out pamphlets.

(Soundbite of recorded interview)

Unidentified Woman: Stop talking about Muslims and Islam all the time.

Ms. MANJI: But can I ask you a quick question?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Ms. MANJI: When you say...

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Ms. MANJI: ...that you don't hate me...

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Ms. MANJI: ...and yet you call me the devil in disguise...

Unidentified Woman: Yes, of course.

Ms. MANJI: ...and you say, keep away from this lunatic deceiver, do you not think that's a hateful speech...

Unidentified Woman: No. It's not hateful

Ms. MANJI: No?

Unidentified Woman: No.

Ms. MANJI: But only my name is up on top...

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Ms. MANJI: ...when you say the manipulator of minds, a major deceiver...

Unidentified Woman: Yes, you are.

Ms. MANJI: ...leading to fire.

Unidentified Woman: Yes you are. You - sorry?

Ms. MANJI: Leading to fire.

Unidentified Woman: Yes, you are leading to fire.

Ms. MANJI: A major deceiver leading to fire.

Unidentified Woman: You are leading our young people to fire because you want them to follow your lifestyle.

Mr. MACNEIL: You have very outspoken Muslim women in Indonesia speaking very forthrightly.

Mr. SIMS: You certainly do. In fact, there has been a rise of some conservative political forces in Indonesia, which pushed through the parliament what they call an anti-pornography bill which would have made it against the law for women to wear miniskirts, for couples to kiss in public. And most of the targets of that anti-pornography law were women. And women rose up in Indonesia and protested to such a degree that the law was withdrawn and is now being rewritten. So women are actually playing a major, major role in Indonesia in ensuring that, that democracy actually takes root.

SIMON: Can Americans sometimes overlook - I believe, in fact, the Bali bombings in October 2002 where, I believe, 202 people were killed, were the, in fact, the second most injurious terrorist act next to the World Trade Center, and the train bombings in Spain and the bus and subway bombings in London. Do Americans sometimes forget about that or don't see it as part of the same historical movement?

Mr. SIMS: One of the goals of our film was to try to explain to an American audience the roots and the origins of this type of extremism especially in a country that had no history of it because it wasn't a part of the fabric of Islam and as it was introduced in Indonesia through trade and also it had been prohibited under the dictatorship. And so the question becomes that once democracy comes to Indonesia, why is it we see the rise of extremism. Democracy was supposed to be the great antidote to extremism.

But yet, you find it in Indonesia and what is the source of that? And part of the answer to that from an Indonesian perspective is that this is not part of a global jihad effort. These are local scores that are being settled. This is a feeling of disenfranchisement on the local scale in Indonesia, lack of order, lack of participation in the process that drives a lot of these young people to the extremist.

SIMON: Calvin Sims, co-producer of the hour-long show in the series that's titled "Struggle for the Soul of Islam Inside Indonesia." Robert MacNeil is the host of the upcoming PBS series, "America at a Crossroads" that begins Sunday nights. Gentlemen, I want to thank you both very much for being with us.

Mr. MACNEIL: Thank you.

Mr. SIMS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And this is NPR News.

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