Analysis

Propaganda against the ‘Religion of Peace’: The blatant Islamophobia in contemporary cinema  

Certain movie plots and scripts seem to be an obvious manifestation of the polarized world order. Islamophobia being once such bashing subject of the contemporary times is already swaying mass opinion about the ‘religion of peace’ through motivated cinema.

A still from the critically-acclaimed movie, Omerta shows Omar Saeed Sheikh, the reel character played by beating a fellow colleague while training for ‘jihad’ and then breathlessly finishing his lunch while sporting an excited smile on his face.

How dare his colleague make fun of his sentiments for Islam? How dare he make fun of his manhood?

It’s in this moment that one should realize what’s wrong with the movie.

Critically acclaimed movies have captured a slowly building, albeit an intellectual class that’s in grip with the harsh reality, the subtlety of emotions within a character. Omerta is no less.

The movie directed by Hansal Mehta provides us a new and ruthless narrative of “terrorist” organizations that promote and propagate a single cause until their death.

Rajkumar Rao as Omar Saeed Sheikh in the movie Omerta

Where does the propagation end, one wonders? For it seems that however aptly and thought-provoking the movie seems to be, it fits in the larger spectrum of an ongoing global crisis: Islamophobia.

Ever since its advent some 1400 years ago, Islam has baffled and challenged the accepted norm and rule of any society in a particular age. The 21st century is no less. It’s the fastest growing religion in the world, and has tens to thousands of people converting to it every day.

So it’s no surprise that such a religion that brings with it a series of exhausting debates on its laws and curriculum can incite curiosity and a desire to know in an intelligent and truth-seeking man. And it’s no surprise that the character played by Rao feels a deep connection to it.

But how truthful is the connection, how apt are the displays of ‘Allahu Akbar’ and how real is the reality seemingly portrayed?

Delving into the biopic, there’re two things that need to be seen while understanding the context of the story: The underlying message that is being induced, and the way the message is being absorbed by the people.

The message was to simply showcase the ruthlessness of one of the masterminds behind the supposed 9/11 attack, the Mumbai attack and the beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl. (What’s interesting to note is that there are many conspiracy theories that 9/11 was an inside job, yet it’s still considered as part of the narrative of Omar’s life.)

Omar Saeed Sheikh

Omertà exposes state-sponsored terrorism and how it manipulates young minds into believing in a sordid interpretation of Jihad,” Hansal, while talking about the film, had said. “Terror is all about power. Packed screenings at film festivals around the world were met with shocked silence and often anger. I am expecting similar reactions from the audience to this shocking tale.”

The absorption of the message led to reviews of it being called a ‘passion-less biopic’ by The Indian Express and a movie that ‘fails to stir you emotionally’ by the Times of India. However, if one looks at the medium and the recent stir of movies that have followed in the past one decade, the answer becomes very clear.

While looking for his kidnapped daughter in the cult movie Taken, Liam Neeson confronts an Arab aristocrat holding tight onto his child while brandishing a gun with the other hand. The sequels of the movie seek a plot of ‘revenge’ for the slain son of the middle-easterners.

Similarly, a Hindi movie Neerja revolves around a flight attendant’s efforts to stop the hijackers from attacking the passengers onboard. The hijackers are from the Abu Nidal organization, known as a Libyan sponsored Palestinian terrorist organization. The organization is famous for its ‘ruthless attacks’ in 20 countries, with its leader being called as a ‘patriot turned psychopath’.

A still from the movie Neerja.

Again, the 2017 celebrated movie ‘Raees’ showcases a gangster’s true life and his understanding of religion by speaking the famous lines,

Ammi jan kehti thi koi dhanda chota nahi hota aur dhandey sey bada koi dharm nahi hotaaur yehi hay mera mazhab.”

(My mother used to say that no business is considered small and there is nothing greater than religion but business….and this is my religion.)

In the highly controversial movie ‘Padmaavat’, Ratan Singh and his Rajput airs are largely portrayed as ‘noble’ and ‘righteous’ while Alauddin Khilji, with his beastly demeanor and his son with lack of a moralistic compass is shown as ‘barbaric’ and ‘cruel’.

It seems that the cinema weaves Islam and terrorism advertently throughout the narration of the plots.

In India, as in democracies around the globe,” writes Rana Ayyub in her review of Bhansali’s movie, “mainstream cinema has been a powerful tool that shapes public opinion and narrative. In a communally sensitive atmosphere in the country where lynchings and murders in the name of religion are becoming a norm, Bhansali has strengthened the stereotype of the evil, diabolic, murderous Muslim, a trope that forms the basis of right-wing hate of minorities. The calls for demolition of the Taj Mahal or disparaging comments about the iconic monument by leaders of the BJP have been an extension of this narrative that chooses to see the Taj Mahal as a Muslim monument built by the Mughals.”

Ranveer Singh as Allahuddin Khilji in the movie Padamvaat

But how have critically acclaimed movies like Omerta changed the narrative bending towards Islamophobia?

The portrayal of Omar Saeed Sheikh as a devout Muslim yearning to help his Bosnian and Kashmiri brothers, stills from madrasas which Omar lives in (insinuating that the indoctrination of the so-called ‘call for Islamic jihad’ starts from there) and dividing the narrative into ‘they’ and ‘us’- the good versus the bad with both being boldly mixed in grey confuses the onlooker and lets him absorb an interpretation of the religion as s/he sees fit.

The interpretation can be dangerously hypocritical with stills from the movie including a friend telling Omar that they’re ‘God’s sons’ and another in which Omar tells his jail mate that ‘Allah has no consort nor is a father’. When the narrative of the plot includes the ideological inclinations of the “terrorists” along with truthful examples of Islam, it clouds the mind from truly perceiving Islam as it should be.

Instance: Cries of ‘Allah-u-Akbar’ come straight after the beheading of Daniel Pearl.

Insinuation: God is pleased with us for cutting off this man’s head.

Conclusion: Islam is a violent and scary religion.

When Omar Saeed hears about the plight of his ‘Kashmiri brothers’ during training in Pakistan, his heart calls out to them and his mind tells him that he is needed here more than his previous location of entry, Bosnia. Bringing in the Kashmiri narrative is instrumental and circumstantial in understanding the growing modern movement of militancy in Kashmir by combining elements of Pakistan, terrorism, and so-called ‘Islam’. It also fits the larger political turmoil that is apparent between India and Pakistan.

Dialogue: “The Indians propagate Kashmir as their father’s place.”

Insinuation: ‘They’re opposed to ‘us’ ’.

Conclusion: We’re different and much more humane than them.

 

Dialogue: “We need to free our people from the atrocities of the Hindus.”

Insinuation: Religious division.

Conclusion: Hindus are our enemies.

When inquired about explaining how terrorism was inspired by Islam, Karen Armstrong, a British author and commentator, said: “Terrorism has nothing to do with Muhammad [PBUH], any more than the Crusades had anything to do with Jesus. There is nothing in the Islam that is more violent than Christianity. All religions have been violent, including Christianity. There was nothing in the Muslim world like antisemitism: that is an import of the modern period. They got it from us. The missionaries brought it over. And then came the state of Israel. Judaism has become violent in the modern world, thanks to the nation state.”

Karen, in her interview dated July 2015, said that Al Qaeda is ‘deeply political’.

“Free speech is for us a sacred symbol of our western civilization, as sacred to us as the Prophet is to them. And they want us to be outraged. They’ll love that. And they’ll be thrilled by the new edition with the Prophet on the cover. Because this will lead to new recruitings. I’m not saying that it was wrong to do that, but they will use it. This is all very politically organized.”

The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, in an attempt to expose Hollywood stereotyping had made a documentary, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood vilifies a People which ‘makes the case that Hollywood is obsessed with “the three Bs” — belly dancers, billionaire sheiks and bombers’.

“And why did Disney’s Oscar-winning ‘Aladdin’ begin with the song lyrics: ‘Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place / Where the caravan camels roam / Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home!’ (The lyrics were changed but only after protests from Arab Americans).”

Jack Shaheen, a retired professor from Southern Illinois University and the author of TV Arabs, Reel Bad Arabs and Guilty? Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11 aptly enumerates the idea behind the insinuation;

“The Arab serves as the ultimate outsider, the other, who doesn’t pray to the same God, and who can be made to be less human,” says Shaheen, who argues that movies and TV shows do matter — that they shape public opinion at home and abroad. “Do you have any idea what it must be like to be a young person watching this stuff over in the Middle East? Have you ever looked through a TV Guide? These movies are on television constantly. The images last forever. They never go away.

An article on The Muslim Vibe, written by Nouri Sardar mentions the following, creating an interesting atmosphere:

“In 2014, Joe Biden was speaking about how he had changed his mind on same-sex marriage. He mentioned that the opinion of most Americans regarding same-sex marriage had swung rapidly towards support of same-sex marriage. He said that what actually played a role in this transformation, was the sitcom Will and Grace, which features a number of gay characters. And while the media thrashed him for the statement, he was absolutely correct.”

The above statement determines how essential a role a film like Omerta can play in the backdrop of the growing crescendo of hate towards the religion. Jihadist, or not, painting a horrific, superficial picture of the people of a certain community and race can solidify the anger and breed it into wishing for destruction and more importantly, acting upon it. As Chris Kyle, an American soldier known for his 255 kills, on whom the famous movie American Sniper was made, says in his book, “I hate the damn savages. I couldn’t give a flying [expletive] about the Iraqis.”

Misrepresentation of the narrative by fluidly describing communities in a tightly scripted box and presenting it to the masses have what films like Omerta continuously carried out. In the last defining scene of the movie, Omar sends shivers down one’s spine when he determindedly answers to the journalist in last moments, “I’m the savior.”

Conclusion: Islam is inhumane.

What a dangerous thing to conclude by a crowd of people who would consider it necessary to believe it.

While the hopes of this article rest on the realization that soft power is being used to culturally indoctrinate hate and fear into the minds of the masses, it’s also necessary to be certain that such movies might be seen more into the future. What one should be hopeful for, is a collective evolution into spreading peace, justice and love for each other rather than bordering the divide with hate and prejudice.

 

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