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Posts Tagged ‘sectarianism’

In the wake of the whole “Jihad Jane” controversy that seems to have taken the web by storm, I find it particularly interesting that a movie has emerged in the past month about a man who is mistaken for a terrorist. While I can name at least one person who didn’t appreciate the film’s merits, I think that there’s a little more to be said (a week later) about this Bollywood marvel.

Bear in mind that I am not agreeing with the glowing reviews (like this one) that Bolly-enthusiasts have given it. My Name is Khan is a flawed film from the outset with American audiences, I think, if just for the touchy subject matter — the plight of American Muslims and the discrimination they have suffered post-9/11 — or perhaps the medium. To quote Katie on this one: “Heaps of choral surges accompanying tacky panning views.”

I’m still divided.

Maybe it’s my distinct sense of camp inherited from my father (who has a developed love for the slapstick of Looney Tunes), but I fond at least the first half of the film compelling; if the goal of art (any art!) is to develop sympathy between the artist and the audience, mission accomplished. Rizvan Khan (“Khan…khan, with a ‘kh,’ from the epiglottis.”) was lovable and relatable as a man with Asperger’s syndrome can be; I personally think that the first half was moderately akin to an Indian Forrest Gump, and just as heartwarming. It takes a cold, cold heart indeed to watch a man with a mental disability overcoming the prejudices of everyday life (nothing Muslim at this point) and not feel like he should get the beautiful Indian single mom in the end.

I’m also going to skip the camp and slot it into the Forrest Gump unlikeliness category: for instance, there is the whole flood-in-Georgia sequence where every Indian Muslim that Rizvan knows shows up, chest-high in water, to save the tiny “Church of the Rock” in Wilhelmina, Georgia. Hm. Knocking that up as similar to Forrest meeting three separate presidents and winning the Medal of Honor.

That said…

My Name is Khan is also an incredibly dangerous film, and the camp masks that. Shown to American audiences, it might function as a mirror, pointing to our own sins in the wake of 9/11 and discriminating against a perceived Muslim “enemy,” when in reality we might have been learning to understand and distinguish what is Islam and what is Islamism. And the truth of the film is that I can’t deny the race riots I read about in the papers; in particular, I remember a group of non-Muslim Hispanics in South Florida being attacked on the street because they closely resembled Arabs. Sikhs, famous for their long beards and turbans (though not affiliated with Islam) also experienced widespread discrimination. These ugly things happened, and there is no denying them.

But Name takes a lot of liberties with the American public, which (I think) it gives a little too much credit.

1. Arabic. Before I started studying Arabic, I had absolutely one-hundred percent no idea what Arabic sounded like. No idea. Without tooting my own horn too much, I am an educated, relatively well-read, well-traveled, cultured individual; if you had spoken Arabic to me back then and told me to guess, I might have looked at the individual and guessed wildly at an number of languages. But when Rizvan attends a memorial service for the victims of 9/11 and begins to pray during a group moment of silence by reciting Surat al-Fatiha (basically, the Muslim Lord’s Prayer), candle in hand, only to have the crowd disperse, visibly disgusted by the presence a Muslim who is muttering Arabic….that’s a bit much. I’m pretty sure that would never happen, if just because ninety percent of the American public wouldn’t be able to recognize that it was a) Arabic, b) Muslim, and c) anything but a prayer in that context.

The name's Khan. Genghis Khan.

2. The Name. To me, (and again, I’m pulling the above-average American card), the name Khan doesn’t sound all that Muslim to me. And I’ve studied, known, befriended, loved, etc. etc. Muslims. Muhammad sounds Muslim. Mustafa sounds Muslim. So does Ahmed, Khalil, and Sherif. But Khan? That sounds like something out of a Star Trek movie. That sounds like a Mongol emperor that ruled half the world: a name like Khan and you expect it to be preceded by Genghis. To assume that Americans would assume that Khan is a Muslim name gives them a little too much credit for their knowledge of Indian Muslims. They would probably make a joke about “The Wrath of Khan” and Klingons before anything.

3. Evil White People. I understand the message. I do. I really, really do. But this movie exhibited the most God-awful, crazy, douchebag examples as happening every day. Every. Day. From Rizvan’s sister-in-law getting her hijab yanked off (that’s really awful), to the little kid getting beaten to death (awful to the power of ten), to the constant angry, sometimes tearful shouts of nativist jingoism: “Get out of my country” and “You people should never….” etc. etc. All instances of this kind of racism were perpetuated by caucasian whites. Not a single instance of a positive reaction.

I don’t mean that I expected white people to react well to 9/11; but some of us went out and bought a Qur’an. Some of us read up on Islam and tried to understand and distinguish between who a Muslim is, and who is a terrorist. Some of us learned Arabic and studied history and are applying to graduate programs in comparative Arabic-English literature. In short, I don’t like being lumped into the category of “Muslim-hater,” which is what this movie did. It said that all non-Muslims turned discriminatory against Muslims — even children.

But wait! What about Mama Jenny, the ever-so-lovable-African-American-woman-with-her-son-Funny-Haired-Joe, the one that takes in Rizvan and makes him wear a dress?

Hm. Aside from the perhaps not-deliberate lampooning of black Southern culture (I kept thinking that Mama Jenny seemed a little too cartoonish to keep me at ease), ultimately, she is a minority as well. The underlying message of the division of presidents — one that reacts with detainment, torture, and violence (Bush) and one that, after hearing Khan wants to see him, walks back to the podium to welcome him (Obama) is that minorities better understand Muslims than whites do. Even the film students are Indian, not white.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a lot to atone for, but there were some of us that did good.

4. Evil White People Among Us. The film might have highlighted American ignorance by pointing out that reactions were posited against those that looked Muslim or Arab, and might also have given light to the conflicted situation of those who suffered no discrimination because they lacked a “racialized” appearance. This might have put the narrative into a greater timeline of the (ongoing) struggle against racism in America. Or what about the conflict of newly converted American Muslims who look just like the boy next door, only they pray five times a day? Why is there no discussion of them? But instead, all the Muslims in the movie were foreign-born, foreign raised. Where were the American Muslims? There are a lot of them! Where were the American Muslims in the “downtown mosque” that Rizvan visits? To me, the movie seems to conflate Muslim identity as something racial; that to be Muslim, you must be a foreigner first.

*                        ***                        *

This film addresses an important topic, but the issues at stake are far more complicated than it is willing to portray. For instance, what is the point of having Rizvan meet the President? Naturally, it keeps the plot moving – and I understand the inherent value behind “keeping your word” – but ultimately, what is the outcome? Merely the awkward moment when Rizvan pulls out a picture of Sam and says, “He was not a terrorist, either.” But having met the President, having told him he is not a terrorist, having shown him the picture of his adopted son/best friend…what is President Obama supposed to have done at that point?

Nothing. The two walk off into the horizon as heroes, having proven their point.

That’s it?!

The more I think about it, the more I believe that the ending is probably the worst element of the movie, because it gives a triumphant ending to an ideology, rather than action. Suddenly, the recurring echo of Rizvan’s “We will overcome” as a theme seems a little too eerie, and makes me wonder who the “we” is. Too many elements collide too easily:

That, ladies and gentlemen, is dangerous – at least in the land of Egypt. It conforms a stereotype and rather than making amends, posits the superiority of the immigrant Muslim experience, rather than a real reconciliation. It makes me uneasy.

But maybe as I think about it more, I’ll come round. As for now, I’ve got to shoot off to class and teach a crowd of 15 about the animals.

Salaamat, peeps.

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I need to get off the Internet.

First: since we’re on the subject of gender studies, here’s an announcement from Meedan: the recently released movies, Rasayl al-Bahr (Letters of the Sea) and Ahasees (Emotions) are TWO movies making waves among critics for their portrayal of the “lesbian community” (there is a lesbian community?) in Egypt (in Egypt?).

Unrelated:

This is a whole other rant, which I will continue tomorrow. Read, and be outraged.

Islamists want to prohibit non-Muslims from referring to God as Allah

I need to get off the internet. It just makes me angry.

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A few days ago I brought up the Zabaleen, and pointed out that the majority of them are Copts. Afterwards, I realized I needed to do a little more research befitting the insomniac I am and better inform the folks back home holding up the fort. That, and I felt like I was being unduly harsh on my Orthodox brothers (even if a monk once called me a heretic).

Briefly: in contemporary usage, “Copt” usually refers to an ethnic group of Egyptians that claims non-Arab ancestry (i.e., they are descended from the ancient Egyptians, not from the Arabs), and have been traditionally members of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria– by some accounts the oldest sect of Christianity in existence (founded 42 AD in Egypt by St. Mark of Gospel fame). The word Copt is also linked to the classical fus-ha Arabic word for “Egyptian.”

Following Nasser’s rise to power in the 1950’s, the Copts experienced a twilight; prior to the pan-Arabist and socialist philosophies that the great Gamal espoused, the Copts were prominent members of occupational government. leaders of industry, while still remaining a large minority (15-20%, depending on who you ask). Here, I wonder if a favoritism of native Christian sects during the British occupation was employed; a la the French bolstering of Maronite Christian factions in Lebanon.

During the reign of King Farouk (the last reigning king of Egypt) they controlled over 50% of the country’s wealth. Nasser’s socialization of industries and massive reforms brought the Copts under fire and they were seen much as the “mimic men” of the colonialist — representative of the old era under the British. They were ousted from their positions, and industry wrenched from them. Remarkably, however, there is the persistent rumor (and popular myth) that under Nasser no mosque could be built in Egypt without an Orthodox counterpart (something about equal rights and secularization). I’m not sure how true this is, but popular legend is a powerful thing.

These days, however, Copts seem to think differently. I redirect you to The Free Copts, a not-quite-so-underground “liberation newspaper,” that fights oppression using journalism. The main issues seem to be the forced Islamicizing (?) of Coptic Christian girl — resulting from kidnappings and forced conversions. No less believable are the claims of fatwas issued against priests in the countryside, calling for execution of proselytizing enthusiasts of the Orthodox persuasion. Where it gets kind of fuzzy is when they start making claims for an international Saudi conspiracy of Islamicization, with 7000 LE paid out (to who, I ask?) for each convert girl, or the accusations of idleness (completely believable) toward the Egyptian security forces, only to have their role downplayed in articles such as this one, in which they arrest a woman that entered a church with the intent to kill two Christian children. That doesn’t change things like the 2005 Muharrem Bey Coptic Church Riot or the conviction of Abdulkareem Nabil Suleiman; these things actually happened and received widespread media coverage.

Speaking as a student of religious history, many of these accusations (on both sides) echo events from Andalusia, c. 14-15th centuries. Majority communities fear infiltration by the minority; minority communities fear dying out. Forced conversions, attempted murder…it’s a shame that things sometimes don’t change.

But wow.

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