Watch out, there’s a Muslim about!
Mohammad N Miraly

What if our images of modern Muslims as mindlessly violent were replaced by ones in which they established the world’s first university in Cairo?

  • They don't seem very threatening  
    Photo- Reuters

I’m scared of Muslims. You should be, too. At least, that’s what Hollywood seems to be saying in its most recent Islamophobic offerings, Oscar-winner Argo and Emmy-winner Homeland.

Sure, it’s not in-your-face racism. It’s more complicated than that. Actually, it’s worse than that. At least in the 1990s only crazy (and typically unhygienic) Arabs could be terrorists. Now, it seems, every brownskin is a potential terrorist, and, more pertinently, they’re terrorists because they’re Muslim.

That’s an all-too-popular belief fostered by our collective miseducation and a media that conflates the region of the Middle East with the religion of Islam. But, imagine how differently we’d view Muslims if we knew more about humankind’s shared history, about a time when Muslim civilisations were the world’s most advanced – because of their religion. Now, that’s a movie I’d like to see.

It’s disturbing that, in this day of mass education, Argo and Homeland were praised as subtle and complex.

Leaving aside its unsophisticated narrative structure, Argo has virtually no scenes in which Iranians do anything other than shout hysterically at Americans or threaten them chillingly. Except, of course, the diplomat’s maid, who, despite her silent-as-a-mouse work ethic, is suspected of espionage anyway.

Homeland is especially eulogised (despite its rabid overacting and implausibly gossamer plotline), but the show’s theme is that any Arabic-utterer could be a Muslim terrorist – whether he’s a suburban Arab married to a white girl, or she’s a respected Arab reporter, or he’s an American war hero. Here’s a telling moment: Claire Danes’s character suddenly suspects her long-time, trusted Muslim teammate and leads a manhunt against him while he’s en route to the hospital to treat the arm he broke while saving her life.

The message is clear – working with Muslims is PC, but at the end of the day, you can’t trust ‘em.

These sorts of ocular offerings are popular because they strike a chilling chord – we’re all afraid of Muslims now. That’s partly because we’ve been taught to be, but mostly because we’ve allowed ourselves to be.

If we, as a society, accept one-dimensional stories about ourselves, we become numb to the forces that manipulate our own thoughts about ourselves. There’s no other side of the story because we don’t care to be presented one.

If we don’t build arks of knowledge, we allow ourselves to be hauled under by the tides of ignorance, and we give permission to systems of politics, consumerism, and media to continue creating a world we’re afraid to live in. Imagine, though, if we weren’t afraid of each other.

Would we be ready, in this post-Slumdog, post-Little Mosque on the Prairie world for a depiction of brownskins as non-Muslim, or non-violent? Aren’t we ready now, in this post-Game of Thrones, multiple-character, dialogue-driven, complexity-shrouded landscape for a more nuanced approach to foreign policy and religion?

What kinds of films and shows would we make if we were more aware of the intermingling of our various human histories, of the pluralism that fuelled all our civilisations, of the debts we owe each other?

What if our images of modern Muslims as mindlessly violent were replaced by ones in which they established the world’s first university in Cairo, or where, in 10th-century Baghdad, their project of translating Greek philosophical texts directly shaped Western thought as we know it?

What if all of us knew that Spain under Muslim rule glittered during Europe’s dark ages? For centuries, in that “place of three religions and one bedroom,” Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived and worked together to create the most advanced society in Europe.

 Muslim Spain was a hub of intellect – dozens of libraries contained hundreds of thousands of books. It was cosmopolitan – Muslim princes married Christian princesses, creating a mix of dark-skinned, blue-eyed beauties. Arabic was the lingua franca and Christian priests complained that their youths were too adept at Arabic poetry and too crummy at Latin grammar.

That’s all well and good – one might declare – but is it the responsibility of filmmakers to educate the public or promote positive social messages?

Not really. All art, says Wilde, is useless. Orwell, however, counters that famous aphorism with one of his own: no art is free from political bias. It can’t help itself.

So, filmmakers might have no official responsibility to society, just like Britney has no responsibility to be a role model. But, she is. And films influence the social imaginary. They can’t help themselves. What can be helped, though, is what we allow them to get away with. 

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Mohammad N Miraly

Mohammad N Miraly is an educator and film producer. He holds a PhD from McGill University in religion, ethics, and public policy, and is the author of themiralyblog.wordpress.com.