New York — Sword of Islam PBS, tomorrow, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings. Producer: Granada Television. Producer/director: David Darlow. Presented by KCET, Los Angeles. Recent assassinations and kidnappings in the Middle East have fueled a Western attitude of fear and distrust toward the Muslim groups calling themselves Hizbullah and Jihad. The violence has left in the minds of most Westerners a vivid - and valid - impression of dangerous fanaticism.
In addition to presenting a short history of Islam, this compelling documentary includes superb footage of Shiite ceremonies and guerrilla activities, as well as interviews with Hizbullah and Jihad leaders and propagandists. ``If America sees us as terrorists, I see them as vampires,'' says one veiled activist bitterly.
Produced by Britain's Granada Television on locations in Egypt and Lebanon, this documentary has already won an International Emmy, despite the fact that it seems so eager to be fair to the extremist groups that it tilts a bit unfairly against the Israeli point of view.
Gen. Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, is allowed to warn against the attitude of the extremists, but he does not manage to explain the reasons for some of Israel's seemingly irrational actions.
On the other hand, the Muslims receive ample opportunity to explain their attitudes in ringing, derogatory tones and terms.
Experts are called in to offer their straightforward opinions, the most impressive being Robin Wright, whose broader series on Muslim fundamentalism appeared recently in this newspaper. Her conclusion on this program: ``The US must recognize that Islam is an ideological force and a power that cannot be defeated militarily. It is here to stay, well into the next century.''
There are, according to ``Sword of Islam,'' 900 million Muslims now, and soon the Muslim population will constitute one-quarter of the people on the planet. They preach equality and justice in the midst of their own poverty. So it is a faith born out of despair, turning into anger.
``The word of Islam is being replaced by the sword of Islam,'' this forceful documentary concludes.
The implication is that, instead of hand-wringing, perhaps the West should be helping believers achieve the equality and justice they seek. Unfortunately, in addition to bread and religious freedom, their goals also seem to include the murder of Israel and the suicide of the United States.
This documentary does little to dispel the fears about these fundamentalist groups, which willingly kill and kidnap in the name of their religion. There are, it points out, solid reasons to worry about their militancy toward unbelievers.
But the documentary does convey some degree of understanding about why they are what they are and why they do what they do. Certainly that is a necessary prelude to some sort of future reconciliation.