The 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington spawned several Hollywood and Bollywood films that took on a patriotic and nationalistic slant.
Films such as The Hurt Locker, the TV series, 24, and Bollywood films such as Kurbaan (Sacrifice) have so far provided a one-dimensional view of terrorists, who are portrayed as misguided villains out to kill innocent people.
(The US views Al-Qaeda as the biggest threat to national security and India sees Pakistan as a haven for Islamic terrorists who periodically attack India.)
These films have managed to polarise the world into two groups: the “good guys” (US and Indian soldiers who fight and kill terrorists) and the “bad guys” (Muslim terrorists who target Western and Indian populations).
Some films further divide the good and bad guys into what the Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani calls the “good (liberal) Muslims” and the “bad (fundamentalist) Muslims”, with the latter always being portrayed as potential jihadis who have no value for human life.
However, in all these categorisations, there has been little exploration of the motivations, lives and belief systems of the so-called “bad Muslims” who become terrorists.
Nor has there been adequate discussion (in this part of the world at least) about whether the Islam that the terrorists preach holds any credence with Islamic scholars and Muslims at large.
Such discussions are further hindered by a certain defensiveness on the part of governments such as that of India and the United States, who see their countries and citizens being unfairly targeted by Islamic terrorists, and on the part of Muslims, who may not agree with the terrorists’ tactics, but feel that Islam is being unfairly blamed for the terrorists’ actions.
This has led to a situation where any discussion about Islam and terrorism is drowned by the shrill paranoia and self-righteousness of both governments and Muslims.
How refreshing it was, therefore, to see a film that sensitively portrays both sides of the story. The film is called Khuda Kay Liye (In the Name of God) and it is neither a Hollywood nor a Bollywood production.
It is a Pakistani film that boldly looks at two strains of Islam: one that advocates an ascetic, joyless life devoid of music, art and other entertainment, and that denies women their rights; and two, an Islam that views music and the arts as one of many channels through which God can be reached (the latter is evident in Sufism, for example, where music is an integral part of worship).
The film, directed by Shoaib Mansoor, revolves around two Muslim brothers who are musicians and who represent these two strains. One of the brothers gives up music at the insistence of a radical cleric who also forces him to join the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The other finds himself having to defend his religion in a paranoid post-9/11 America when all Muslims were considered potential terrorism suspects.
It is a wonderfully scripted and acted film that sensitively examines a variety of issues that have been taboo, especially in the US and other Western countries, in recent years, including unlawful detention, torture, racial profiling, women’s rights and the impact of Wahhabi Islam (originating in Saudi Arabia) on Muslims around the world.
When the film was released in Pakistan in 2008, it broke all box office records. But some radical Muslim clerics declared a fatwa against it and the director had to leave the country fearing for his life.
I would urge everyone – Muslims and non-Muslims – to see this film (I believe it can be viewed with English sub-titles), if only to understand the dynamics of how young people get coerced into joining terrorist organisations, even when joining these organisations means going against their own interests.
On a related note, an alarming phenomenon is sweeping across China and India – that of Tibetans, including Buddhist monks, self-immolating to protest against China’s non-recognition of their homeland.
Recently, a 27-year-old Tibetan set himself on fire in New Delhi to protest against Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to India. He was the 26th Tibetan to do so this year. Clearly there is a need for frank dialogue between Tibetans and the Chinese Government.