Film - "The Hajj"

Students in some World History classes watch a film titled "The Hajj", which was first broadcast on the television show Nightline in 1997. The film is available on youtube. Another film with the same title was made in 2003.

In the introduction to the film, Nightline host Ted Koppel discusses the rise in the U.S. Muslim population since 1990. However, the figures he quotes are inaccurate by 300% or more. Koppel states that U.S. Muslims number "five or six million people", which he claims is larger than the number of Jews in the U.S. The figures used by Koppel are taken from publications of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), which states it used its own surveys to arrive at that number. 

Other organizations, however, cite very different figures. The well-respected Pew Research Foundation gives the number of Muslims in the U.S. in 2000 as less than 1 million; the American Religious Identity Survey put the figure at 1.1 million. Even if the true figure is much higher (some have said they should be doubled because the criteria for determining religion - attendance at mosque, church, or other services - leaves out many women, children, and the elderly), it would be no more than two million. Koppel's claim is nearly three times that number. 

With respect to Jews, surveys taken in 2000 show that approximately 5.2 million Americans practice Judaism - over twice the number of Muslim practitioners. What is important, of course, is not whether there are more Jews than Muslims or visa versa, but the reliability of information given by a source. Seen in this light, the reliability of "The Hajj" is suspect.

Not only does "The Hajj" greatly exaggerate population figures; both its narrator (Michael Wolfe, an American convert to Islam who also wrote the script) and Koppel engage in religious comparisons which are both untrue and promote a competitive spirit at odds with how most faiths portray themselves. For example, Wolfe states that he finds the lack of "priests and rabbis" in Islam to be an attraction and states that "As a Muslim, God is as near as the veins in my neck", implying that adherents to other religions lack such closeness. 

Although Islam may not have priests or rabbis, it does have religious leaders (usually known as imams or sheikhs) who perform similar functions in leading services providing spiritual guidance, resolving community dilemmas, etc. It is not clear how Wolfe distinguishes the duties of Muslim religious leaders from those of non-Muslim religious leaders, or why he believes that "priests and rabbis" inhibit a direct a association between worshipers and God while imams and sheikhs do not.

Students take these pronouncements seriously. In reviewing student answers to homework about the film, the words about the absence of "priests and rabbis" and the directness of Muslim worshipers with God (presumably compared to the relationships of Roman Catholic and Jewish worshipers) were written verbatim on the answer sheet. Indeed, any other answer would be marked as incorrect.

If teachers informed their classes about the above issues and did not test students on issues such as which religion's adherents are closer to God, the film might be acceptable. According to students, however, this is not done.

Students should not be required to learn and repeat inferences that one religion is "better" than another in order to get a passing grade on assignment. Doing so is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment separating government from religion.

The film should not be used in Newton or other classrooms. 
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