Bringing the Greater Jihad to the Silver Screen

Check out this wonderful exchange about the nature of jihad in Islam in a recent film. (And, if you know the film’s name, please let me know.)

Update: I’ve been informed it was “Sleeper Cell,” a 2005 film I somehow missed. (Actually, it’s in my NetFlix queue, but it’s a long, long queue.)

Aside from the fact that I agree wholeheartedly with its message and think such insights need to be more widely discussed–among not only non-Muslims but also Muslims, even if this isn’t a radical new perspective, theologically speaking–I’m inspired by the use of the medium of a thriller (or so I assume) to inspire reflection as opposed yet more fear, jingoism or empty machismo. And for it to be done in a way that’s watchable, well, that’s really exciting and powerful. (The day that Hollywood starts to consistently probe the complexities of the War on Terror in the same way it does, say, the Vietnam War–not that it it is adequately critical in that case, either, as H. Bruce Franklin shows in his brilliant book about Hollywood’s increasing and willful amnesia about this incredible tragedy–is the day the Muslim-baiting industry goes out of business.)

What saddens me is that conversations like this are pretty rare and how inured many of the most woefully ignorant of participants in today’s debates are to basic facts thanks to the advent of heavily-footnoted but woefully misinformed partisan talking points (e.g., the shlock produced by Islamophobe propagandists-in-scholars clothing whose selective quotes from and dumbed-down analysis of Islamic tradition never fail to echo Disraeli’s immortal quip about statistics) and the paradoxical absence of effective fora for substantive intellectual exchange online today.

Coupled that with a relentlessly superficial MSM that constantly beams faux firsthand observations of anything that is ugly from the Muslim world and you often get a mindset of unassailable faith in the shallowest stereotypes and double standards. Thus, many of the combatants on the Blogosphere are like the warring hosts in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” only without the latter’s realization that they were hacking away in the dark.

But, on the bright side, things like this plant the seed for the eventual reexamination of these easy oversimplifications and myths even among the most brainwashed, assuming they really are interested deep down in arriving at the truth and understanding their “foes.” The most valuable debate is, after all one that you have with yourself and your conscience in private, far from the crowds baying for blood. And just as you can’t un-watch the endless scenes of crazy-looking Muslims that the nightly news shows so love, you can’t un-watch a movie that exposes you to perspectives that call into question those simple categories and lead you wonder if, maybe just maybe, Muslims, to borrow a line from Sting, “love their children, too.”

Let the Dialectic begin.

  • Waqas

    Salam
    If I may be so bold as to suggest a couple of movies that fall into the same category of “entertaining yet thought provoking”
    Three kings (1999)
    Syriana (2005)
    Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
    The Kingdom (2007)
    Traitor (2008)

    Although not quite fitting into this category of movies, I really liked in “Prince of Thieves” in the way the character of the Muslim “Azeem” is played by Morgan Freeman. His dry wit and battle prowess alongside Robin Hood was quite refreshing.

    A light correction, “Sleeper Cell” is a two season TV-series.

    • Svend White

      Thanks for the correction and suggestions, Waqas. Those were thoughtful and highly entertaining films, though I’m not sure any of them were quite as deep or systematic in their examination of the issues as this series is (judging by the clip, at least).

      I have to admit to finding the Azeem character a bit irritating, though (and we won’t get into Costner’s abysmal accent). They laid Azeem’s unexpected enlightenment on a bit thick, even if I certainly see the need for a corrective to the prejudice and stereotypes that permeate most other films involving Muslims.

      While I enjoyed the movie greatly, “Kingdom of Heaven” not only slipped into a similarly overly apologetic stance–idealizing Muslims and at one point portraying Christianity in downright offensive manner in the form of the brutish priest in the beginning–but presented these medieval Islamic values at times in strangely modern ecumenical hues. But I applaud respect Ridley Scott’s intentions–he’s said openly that he consciously set out to provide a corrective to anti-Muslim prejudice–and realize he was trying to quickly hint at the relative sophistication of Islamic civilization at the time even if at some points his direction was a bit heavy-handed and less historically accurate than I’d like. And, even with its flaws, it’s a gorgeous film.

      Incidentally, I think the best film corrective to post-9/11 prejudices was made nearly 3 decades ago, in 1981. Mustafa Akkad’s “The Lion of the Desert” (starring Anthony Quinn and a host of stellar British actors) is an incredibly thought-provoking, magisterially-acted and action-packed film that really turns Islamophobic and postcolonial prejudices on their heads, and using real-life events. I can’t recommend it enough and wish I could bribe every American high school kid to watch it.

  • Thomas the Doubter

    I get that Muslim parents want the best for their children, and that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists with bombs strapped to their chests. But, to paraphrase Tariq al-Ansari in his excellent ‘Destiny Deferred’: Islam is a social movement that seeks to transform the world. If nonviolent means will succeed to that end then fine, but violence works for them too. How else did the religion go from a prophet and a band of a few followers roaming the streets of a small town in the Arabian Penninsula to running a world empire larger than anything the Romans ever dreamed of in less than a century. And don’t forget all of the beheadings ordered by the prophet himself in Medina… And yes I realize that Christians have performed many despicable acts in the name of Christ, but could anyone imagine Christ himself ordering someone beheaded? But in your eyes this is just Islamophobic propaganda right? Fools

    • Svend White

      Thanks for the comment, Thomas. I don’t think it’s Islamophobic propaganda–it’s just muddled thinking. Am not familiar with the author or book to which you refer, but it frankly sounds pretty poorly informed and simplistic. Outside of a few exceptional cases, Islam was not spread by the sword (to the contrary, Muslims often discouraged conversions after conquering a territory; it took centuries for many populations to convert). Nor does the Quran condone either religious compulsion or indiscriminate violence. Even today, most nations reserve the right to execute those it finds guilty of treason, especially if they are actively working with the enemy during war; that is exactly what happened with that sad turn of events with the Jewish tribes of Medina.

      As for the comparison to Jesus Christ, well, you’re comparing the political careers of a preacher who, however one may admire his message, never had power or was required to make the kinds of decisions that Muhammad did as a head off state and wartime leader. Jesus never led men in a political (much less military) sense. More importantly, he did not repudiate the political order of the day or the institutionalized violence that was integral to statecraft then, the death penalty for criminals–or any other aspects of Jewish law, which he said he’d come to fulfill not break–or even the sometimes extreme (yet divinely ordained) violence of his prophetic predecessors in Jewish history. And he certainly wasn’t above being violent towards animals or trees in certain circumstances.

      I see no reason to assume that Jesus would’ve shrank from the application of capital punishment to a criminal or enemy in war. This “hippy” reading of Jesus strikes me as extremely ahistorical and unwarranted by the texts, however inspiring his message is in so many ways.

  • http://www.philosufi.com Deborah

    Salaams,

    Thanks for this piece! Just wanted to note that Sleeper Cell is actually a TV series that ran on Showtime for 2 seasons (2005 & 2006); eighteen episodes in all. For the most part it was well-done and fairly nuanced; it portrayed more than one understanding of Islam. The lead character is pretty interesting for television: an African-American Sunni Muslim who works for the FBI and is required to go undercover to infiltrate domestic terrorist cells. The series is not perfect; it definitely has some problems. But I’d suggest it’s well worth your while to watch, and doesn’t feel as dated as one might expect. Also, they got a lot of details of Muslim life and practice right, which TV and movies so rarely do. (Hands up, everyone who’s seen salat portrayed with gestures and movements that are either totally out of order, cut randomly, or completely nonsensical…as in, no one–I don’t care what sect/madhab–prays like that…)

    • Svend White

      Thanks, Deborah. I’m finally watching it now. I’m a cord-cutter, so I don’t see stuff that’s only available on cable until it get released elsewhere (in this case, Netflix).

      I don’t know what to make of “Four Lions.” I think I need to watch it again to decide what I think.

  • http://www.philosufi.com Deborah

    Sorry, I didn’t Waqas’ comment about Sleeper Cell being a TV series — but perhaps the rest of my comment will be worth overlooking my error.

    Also, a film you might be interested in seeing is Four Lions. I hope you don’t mind if I link to a review my husband wrote for our website:
    http://www.philosufi.com/blog/2011/01/the-t-party-four-lions-and-a-comedic-look-at-terrorism.html

  • http://www.philosufi.com Deborah

    Argh! “…didn’t SEE Waqas’ comment…”

    I need to go back to bed. I have not had enough sleep…


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