A call for a cinema of political Islam

Ahmed Al-Moslemany
Saturday 24 Aug 2019

It was the longest war in history. World War I continued for four years and World War II lasted six years. Longer ago, the European-European wars and the Asian-Asian wars extended for long periods, while the Crusades stretched for two hundred years. However, the Islamic world wars against the old Kharijites and the new Kharijites have continued for centuries, for more than a thousand years.

Today, while several parts of the world are on the rise, there are more than 50 states in the Islamic world that find themselves pulled back whenever they move one step forwards. These states are engaged in war against a black forest of terrorist organisations and extremist groups. These organisations are endless; they just emerge and end, to start all over again.

The 50 states carry on fighting, relying on hard power without giving due consideration to the role of soft power. If hard power succeeds in eliminating today’s Kharijites, it can’t get rid of “potential Kharijites” or the “Kharijites of the future.” Soft power is the only tool that can close the circuit with hard power.

Some have made strides on the path of soft power, and forums and institutions have emerged that have succeeded in developing efforts against extremism and enhancing the movement against terrorism. Most of these bodies have used the elitist approach in their efforts. It is an important and necessary approach, but sometimes it seems that it is an internal dialogue where centrists call centrists to centrism and moderates call moderates to moderation. It is similar to conducting a dialogue with one’s self.

The refined intellectual elite shouldn’t stoop to reach out to the general public and attract the mob. There are other mechanisms within soft power whose mission is to narrow the distance between the elite and the masses and bridge the gap between scholars and ordinary people. Cinema and drama are the most important methods in broadening spaces and disseminating the message.

Cinema and drama haven’t performed as they should. Some brilliant people working in these fields have tried to do so but they were without support or sponsorship. Everybody – except a few – chose the path of fame and wealth.

In the name of comedy, ridicule was poured on outstanding figures, and high ideals and insults were directed at leaders and symbols. Unjust laughs crushed the standing of the distinguished and cheap jokes destroyed theories of knowledge. Legions of extremists were making progress among the people while soft power was overwhelmed in the conflict of money and gossip about stars. Some works of art managed to escape from this decline, but didn’t continue on to pave a way forward or offer a strategic option.

What was marvellous – and limited – had moved in two directions: a path of destruction and a path of construction, where some refined works of art stand facing and destroying the new Kharijites’ intellectual and organisational facets, and other works focus on shedding light on symbols and models of moderation.

The decline of Egyptian soft power – cinema and drama were the mightiest weapons in that war – in the post-9/11 era has paved the way for Asian cinema to be the strongest in the war against the Kharijites. The Indian film My Name is Khan – starring Shahrukh Khan and telling the story of an Asian Muslim who wanted to meet the American president to tell him Muslims aren’t terrorists – laid the foundation of what can be called post-9/11 cinema.

Post-9/11 cinema was divided between the East and the West. While Muslims’ image in Western post-9/11 cinema worsened, several attempts were made to improve it in Asian post-9/11 cinema.

If My Name is Khan was the most famous film in India, The Verses of Love is the most celebrated film in Indonesia.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world and the first cinema opened there in 1900. The Dutch controlled the cinema industry during their colonial rule of Indonesia. Usmar Ismail, dubbed the father of the Indonesian cinema, directed the first Indonesian film, and visited Egypt and learned a lot of film technicalities in Cairo.

It is ironic that the first Indonesian film was the result of Egyptian cinematic experiences, and that the most famous Indonesian film so far took place in Egypt. In 2008, The Verses of Love was released in Indonesian cinemas, breaking all previous records in ticket sales with an audience of more than 3 million.

The film was a response to an extremist Dutch film titled Fitna (the Arabic for civil strife.) It was part of the Western post-9/11 cinema, which attacked Islam. The Verses of Love is one of the most important films in the world to address Islamophobia and the rising fear of Islam. The film’s intellectual worth comes from being adapted from an eponymous novel by the well-known Indonesian writer Habiburrahman El-Shirazy, who studied at Al-Azhar. He wrote a best-selling novel in which he narrated his experiences at Al-Azhar and in Cairo.

The Indonesian protagonist in the film was also an Al-Azhar graduate, and Al-Azhar was present in the message of the film and all its battles.

The events of 9/11 caught the attention of Russian intellectuals and they founded the Kazan Islamic Cinema Festival in Tatarstan in Russia. In 2019, the Uzbek film Imam Abu-Issa Muhammad Al-Tirmidhi was screened at the festival. The film is one of the most famous Uzbek films, and it seeks to present Uzbek’s Islamic history with an attractive, moderate-yet-modernist vision.

Perhaps I should repeat what I’ve written before and what was widely positively received, although there were some loud opposing voices: cinematic thought is bigger than cineastes and dramatic thought is bigger than writers of drama. Artists shouldn’t be the sole persons to define the concept and message of soft power. This weapon of mass destruction can’t be left to work alone without a higher vision. Perhaps I should re-suggest the term “the cinema of political Islam” and renew the call for the elite and the masses in the 50 Islamic states to close their ranks in this battle.

Hard power will remain essential in combating terrorism, but it shouldn’t be left to work alone. The sword won’t succeed in uprooting the Kharijites; soft power should be in the heart of the battle. Perhaps a single scene is mightier than a thousand bullets and a single image mightier than a thousand swords.

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