It was Friday September 26, at about 9:40 pm, and the Islamic Society of Greater Dayton, Ohio had come together to partake of the iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast that occurs after sundown. The 10-year-old girl's parents were gathered with the other adults, leaving her to care for the young children.
The girl saw two men standing outside the open basement window. Without a word, one of the men raised a white-and-red can and sprayed an unknown substance through the window into the girl's face, she later told police.
According to the police report, the girl immediately felt burning on her face and felt "sick to her stomach." Soon, other children in the room began to feel effects from the chemical. Someone called 911 and the mosque was evacuated.
HAZMAT crews arrived at the scene approximately 20 minutes after the incident, but as the team coordinator Denny Bristow told the Dayton Daily News, "Whatever chemical was released, it dissipated too quickly for us to determine what it was...All our tests came back negative." Several people were treated at the scene. One adult and one child were taken to the hospital, treated and released.
Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl told the Dayton Daily News, "The men didn't say anything to her. There was nothing left at the scene or anything that makes us believe this is a biased crime." Four days later, Dayton Police Lt. John Huber reiterated Biehl's statement: "You have to have evidence of bias and right now we have none."
It is true that there is no concrete evidence that the incident is a hate crime. However, there is much speculation in the Dayton community about the possible role of a recent advertising campaign in prompting the attack. Beginning on September 11, 2008, a DVD entitled Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West was distributed to the readership of 70 newspapers--including the Dayton Daily News--in 17 states that are considered battlegrounds in the upcoming presidential election. Dayton is the county seat of Montgomery County, which is one of the most hotly contested counties in this swing state.
On September 22, four days before the incident at the Dayton mosque, readers of the Dayton Daily News found a little something extra tucked into the newspaper tossed on their driveways. Obsession is a 2006 documentary comprised of interviews with Western scholars of Islamist terrorism, former PLO sympathizers and Muslim scholars of varied backgrounds. In one scene, ominous music pulses in the background as images of elementary school-aged Palestinians reciting jihadist poetry flash onscreen. "[Their goals] are the same as Hitler's goals," intones John Loftus, a former federal prosecutor. Television footage of crowds screaming "Death to America" alternates with video of the planes flying into the Twin Towers on September 11. Footage of Nazi rallies is interspersed with images of modern extremist groups, while the experts interviewed describe the parallels between the two.
In a written statement, Islamic Society of Greater Dayton President Dr. Tarek Sabagh said, "We ask the community to be patient and to refrain from speculation in this case while the investigation is being completed," Sabagh said. "We need to focus on the facts of this case and not let rumor and speculation take over."
Obsession was created by The Clarion Fund, a 501 (c)(3) organization (meaning that the group is non-profit and non-partisan) established in 2006. 501 (c)(3) groups are prohibited from influencing elections through advocacy at any level under federal election law. Clarionfund.org states that the organization's focus is on "the most urgent threat of radical Islam." The Clarion Fund is headed by Raphael Shore, an Israeli-Canadian filmmaker who is also employed with Aish HaTorah ("Fire of the Torah"), an Orthodox Jewish education organization that also acts as an Israel advocacy group. Since 2006, the film has been screened at over 100 universities, according to the Obsession website. "The evangelical Christians and the Jews tend to be the softest market, the most receptive to the message of the film, so we have done lots with those groups," Shore told the New York Times in 2007. According to the DVD's slipcover, "the threat of Radical Islam is the most important issue facing us today. It's our responsibility to ensure we can make an informed vote in November."
"This is a film about the global threat of radical Islam," declares the opening screen. This is the film that Dayton Daily News readers encountered over their morning coffee.
According to the Obsession website, over 28 million free copies of the DVD have been distributed to homes across the US. The latest distribution campaign to the 17 swing states began on September 11. Obsession does not explicitly endorse any candidate for president. However, the decision to distribute the film now, two years after its original release, is not a coincidence. Gregory Ross, a spokesman for the Clarion Fund said, "[Islamist terrorism] needs to be pushed to the forefront of the national discussion." An NPR broadcast reported, "The newspaper distribution had one purpose: to make terrorism a presidential campaign issue where it counts--in the battleground states."
Obsession has been alternately praised and condemned in the mainstream media. Some, such as Sean Hannity of Fox News, called Obsession "shocking beyond belief" for its portrayal of Islam. Glenn Beck of CNN says it is "the most important movie of our lifetime." Still, the issue is not necessarily the fact that the movie was made; liberals, such as Michael Moore, make movies with equally biased agendas. The issue lies instead in the bias displayed in the film (especially the suggestion that Muslims are akin to Nazis preparing for a grand strike against Western Christians and Jews)--and the effect of that bias on viewers who watch Obsession without any prior in-depth knowledge of Islam and then base their assessment of Muslims in general on the experience. The mass distribution of the DVD in swing state newspapers immediately before the November election seems to be an attempt to capitalize on many voters' uncertainties about Islam by misleading them into believing that Islam is, at heart, a religion of violence and that media outlets and political figures who are 'soft' on Islam in general are placing the US in mortal danger from Islamist radicals. In other words, Obsession would have voters believe that acceptance of Islam is tantamount to acceptance of Islamic fundamentalist terrorist activity.
Perhaps more alarming is the fact that Obsession, despite its controversial nature, was included in the Dayton Daily News and other newspapers as though it were nothing more than a packet of coupons. Jim McClure, the vice president of display advertising for the Raleigh News & Observer, another newspaper that distributed the DVD, said, "Obviously, we have distributed other product samples, whether it's cereal or toothpaste."
Jana Collier, the deputy managing editor of the Dayton Daily News, told the Independent that the newspaper did include the Obsession DVD in its September 22 edition. However, the Dayton Daily News' advertising division and editorial board did not respond to calls and emails asking for comment on their decision to participate in the Obsession advertising campaign. According to the Dayton Daily News' online advertising kit, the publication reserves the right to review all advertisements and inserts in the paper for "acceptability in terms of taste, not opinion."
The Dayton Daily News, and every other paper that accepted paid advertising from The Clarion Fund, has broken its trust with its readership. Many readers threw the DVDs in the trash immediately; others watched a few minutes of the DVD before turning away; some watched it in full. No matter how each individual subscriber reacted, each was subjected to propaganda, delivered to their doorstep by their community newspaper.
Perhaps the ad campaign is not as sinister as it seems; perhaps it truly represents a group committed to teaching Americans about the nature of radical Islamic fundamentalism.
But the 70 newspapers that accepted advertising dollars from The Clarion Fund distributed a video that, no matter its true intentions, does possess the power to incite hate, to foster fear. And these newspapers have created the potential for violent and intolerant actions against the ordinary Muslims living in their communities. In the case of the incident at the Islamic Society of Greater Dayton, they may already have.
AUDREY VON MALUSKI B'9.5 is disappointed in her hometown newspaper, the Dayton Daily News.