Followers of Islam make up 20 percent of the world's population. A billion people, give or take. Most of them aren't Arabs.

If all the Muslims in the world could squeeze into a room, in fact, the Arabs would constitute a minority about the size of the black population in the United States: around 13 percent.


This is one of the lingering messages in "Muslims," a "Frontline" documentary airing Thursday on PBS (9 p.m., KCTS/9). It is delivered near the end of two fairly dry hours whose noble aim is to put a more accurate face on Islam. It is delivered by a New Yorker, Yasemin Saib, who was born in Saudi Arabia and moved to the United States with her parents in 1990.

Saib is a co-founder of Muslims Against Terrorism, which sprang up five days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. MAT's mission (available at www.matusa.org): "To stand against those who preach violence and hatred in the name of Islam and to promote peace and understanding through interfaith and intercultural coalition building." Its philosophy: "We are committed to dealing with our fellow human beings in the manner of the Prophet Muhammad, to approach one another with love and understanding, patience and respect, humility and self-criticism, rationality and reasonability, with open hearts and open minds in the pursuit of peace."

Ask most Americans to put a face on Islam and I'll bet that face is an Arab who is neither rational nor reasonable.

Can't blame us, I suppose, given what we know of the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks.

But if non-Arabs fancy themselves as rational and reasonable, it would follow that our hearts and minds are open to programs such as "Muslims."

It's not the best "Frontline" ever. It moves like a homework assignment and falls into the trap of playing the sort of background music that feeds all of our negative stereotypes. But it is an honest attempt to show Americans that Muslims, like Christians and Jews, come in all shapes, sizes and political persuasions.

There are conservatives like I. Datti Ahmad, president of the Supreme Council in Kano, Nigeria, who oversees administration of Islamic law.

"Secularism is a Christian concept," he says. "We are not Christians. We are Muslims and in Islam there is no separation between what is Caesar's and what is God's. God is the only Caesar."

And there are liberals like Farish Noor, a political scientist in Malaysia who has trouble with the concept that one's faith and one's government should be inextricably linked.

"A concept like the Islamic state could only have appeared in the context of modernity," he says. "When you look at the history of Islamic civilization you see the concept of the Islamic state taking off only from the early 19th century. Prior to the 19th century, the term itself did not exist. The Islamic state appears at a time when the Muslim world is under acute institutional crisis, political and economic collapse."

Of course, as long as there are Islamic states, where the rule of law and the rule of God are one and the same and the influence of non-believers is deeply resented, peace and understanding will remain an elusive pair.

But there's room for hope. Akbar Muhammad, associate professor of history and African studies at the State University of New York in Binghamton, says it is this fear and mistrust of Western hegemony that unsettles many in the Muslim world, where the memory of European colonialism is still a stinging nettle. "I don't particularly think the average Muslim is against the average Westerner," he says. "I think a lot of Muslims are against Western politics, Western government, because of the influence that Western governments have in their countries."

Hadi Semati, a political scientist and adviser to Iran's reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, warns that a change in the way Muslims see the rest of the world will come slowly.

"The reform movement is about stripping out excesses and misinterpretations of Islam and really going back to the core, building a moral society in which people can flourish and can fulfill their potentials at their private place and in society," Semati says. "We realize it is not as simple as we thought. Building a moral community based on what we believe would be the best principle is not going to happen in 10, 15, 20 years. It's a long educational process, and that long educational process actually needs freedom of thought."

In this country, groups like Muslims Against Terrorism are beginning that process. So, too, are programs like "Muslims," which open eyes so that hearts and minds may follow.

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