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Islam in Western Cinema, Part 3 - The Pious Muslim

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we saw that the depiction of Muslims in Western cinema began with fantasies about lecherous robed swordsmen and devolved further into ready-to-die swarms of misogynist gunmen. Alongside these movies, however, are films that emphasize a pleasant disposition of pious Muslims. The following are sympathetic films with clear sympathetic intentions, and they are net-positive, though some manage to have serious problems.

Tom Tykwer’s “A Hologram for the King” (2016) takes us to Saudi Arabia, presenting it as the most absurd place on earth. The likable Tom Hanks is a depressed, struggling businessman visiting the country to give a sales pitch to the monarch. He flies on a plane full of male pilgrims—there are no women flying with them—whose collective prayers are so loud that he cannot sleep. He develops likable friendships with a chauffeur and a female physician, Zahra (played by Sarita Choudhury). 

The chauffeur is having an emotional affair with a married woman who is “as dumb as a goat.” He is frightened that her husband will wire his car to explode, because according to such films, that’s how Arab or Muslim men address their grievances. The cuckold himself travels to Europe “to have sex with boys.”

The physician speaks in the occasional proverb, like “We’re stuck with our stupid good health.” Even such Arabian Nights-inspired films—like the many versions of “Thief of Bagdad,” “Ali Baba”, “Sinbad,” “Aladdin”—have protagonists speaking in proverbs with similar awkward language that would make Yoda proud. Though the film presents Sarita as a strong, confident female Muslim character, which is rare in film, she immediately develops a relationship with Hanks, because apparently, Tom Hanks is that irresistible. There is no other explainable motivation. Soon, her Hijab comes off, but that is not enough. As they go swimming, her top comes off also, because she does not want her neighbors to think a woman is swimming with a man, so it is better that they show two bare backs to the world, letting the world think they are both men.

Another common theme in such movies is that the biggest oppression from Islam is that Muslims are not allowed to drink alcohol. In "Argo" (2012), the escaping Americans realize they are free when they are out of Iranian air space and are allowed to drink. In 2005's “Syriana,” George Clooney’s Iranian colleagues party indoors with whiskey. Here, Hanks thirsts for a beer, and finds out that everyone in Saudi Arabia drinks behind closed doors. To be fair, the film attempts balance by showing the Danish workers as partiers spending their nights in drunken orgies, so wild that they make the Saudis seem like monks.

In any case, of all the different ways the filmmakers could have depicted Saudi Arabia, which is a police state, like all of the Middle Eastern nations to varying degrees, the filmmakers chose to feature preposterous narratives about gender.

The second problem with depictions of Muslim piety is one of editing, most commonly in sympathetic documentaries. National Geographic produced an excellent film in 2003 about the Muslim pilgrimage, “Inside Mecca,” following the journeys of three people: a South African man, an American woman and a Malaysian man. For some reason, all of the images they showed of past Muslim prophets were of White People. Further, their depiction of South Africa was also clichéd: a jungle with monkeys. The film was one of the most intimate, sensitive portrayals of Muslim piety ever produced, yet still fell into the usual Eurocentric biases.

Another excellent documentary, “Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think” (2009), summarizes the findings of a giant Gallup poll exploring Muslim opinions on every topic from terror to governance to gender equality. The findings were shown with bar graphs illustrating that the opinions of Muslims across the world are far more complex and liberal than many might imagine. But, interspersed with these graphs were images of Muslims as terrorists and angry mobs. Some might disagree with this point because the film was full of images of Muslims in various peaceful, happy behaviors, but we remember the images of violence far more than the images of mercy.

The third problem, however, is not the responsibility of the filmmakers, but has to be discussed when speaking about Islam in Western cinema: small protests that go too far. The most classic example is the 1977 release of Moustapha Akkad’s biography of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, entitled, “The Message.” 

Akkad made a film that chronicled the first generation of Islam, depicted in the tradition of the great Biblical epics of old Hollywood. Upon rumors of its release, however, a small group of Muslims laid siege on three buildings in Washington, D.C.—the main mosque, B’nai B’rith headquarters and a government building—with various complaints, including assertions that “The Message” was blasphemous. The standoff (which included a murder), however, took place two months before the film was released, so there was no way for the hostage takers to have known anything beyond rumors. Since then, the stereotype has become that when there is media featuring the Prophet Muhammad—who was the central character of “The Message” but was not depicted—somewhere Muslims will protest and people will die. And, even though that is the anomaly, in today’s instantaneous media, it seems like the default, which is sad.

Moustapha Akkad—who gained fame producing the “Halloween” movies—commented that he was hoping to make a film about Saladin (Salah al-Din) but was too concerned about the protests. The saddest part of Akkad’s story, however, is that years later, while attending a wedding in Jordan, he was killed with his daughter in a suicide bombing (not related to “The Message”).

Nevertheless, the Oscar-nominated film has been one of the most-watched of all movies about Islam. For years at Islamic centers, “babysitting” at large events was a matter of putting kids in a room to watch this movie. Chances are that if you know a Muslim my age, s/he has this film memorized.

Ultimately, while the vast majority of depictions of Muslims in our Cinema are negative and violent, there are some that are sympathetic and peaceful. Whether the problem is from the cultural myopia of the filmmakers, or the failure of the technical consultants, even these attempts at sensitivity still have their flaws. Then, on the other hand, we have those films that may be acceptable, yet some people feel the need to take leave of their senses about such films. When blood is shed, we all get tarnished.

To read "Islam in Western Cinema, Part 1 - The Exotic Muslim, from the Exotic Land," click here
To read "Islam in Western Cinema, Part 2 - The Violent, Militant Muslim," click here.
To read "Islam in Western Cinema, Part 4 - The Journey through American Islam," click here.  
Omer M. Mozaffar

Omer M. Mozaffar teaches at Loyola University Chicago, where he is the Muslim Chaplain, teaching courses in Theology and Literature. He has given thousands of talks on Islam since 9/11. He is also a Hollywood Technical Consultant for productions on matters related to Islam, Arabs, South Asians. 

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