Last night, I went to watch “My Name is Khan”. A lot has been said about the movie by many parties, and it is best to see things for yourself to make a sound judgment than to trash it or eulogize it by hearsay.
First lets get the assessment of the movie related stuff out. Story-wise and innovativeness wise it was a bummer. Shah Rukh was copying Dustin Hoffman to the hilt. The story had a strong flavor of Rain Man, of how Dustin Hoffman (Raymond) and Tom Cruise (Charlie) go around the country and the sort of experiences they have. The parts on how SRK goes to the small Georgian town of Wilhimena after the hurricane was over dramatized and also the part on Obama. It wasn’t such an intelligent plot and in the end pretty melodramatic. Compared to “3 Idiots”, it was really mediocre.. and honestly there were many weaknesses in “3 Idiots” itself.
Now, what was disturbing was not its mediocrity but three things: Stereotypes, Exaggeration and Context. Lets talk about these aspects of the movie.
What was really sad about this movie was that it was made ostensibly to disparage Stereotypes (“My name is Khan and I am not a Terrorist”), and yet it tried to do that by RE-INFORCING stereotypes for everyone else (Non-Muslims) in an attempt to bring home its message. It was almost as if one wanted to appear Holy by throwing mud at the others so one could look cleaner in comparison!
White people, overwhelmingly, were shown to be heartless or racist. Black people were supposed to be dumb and poor, and therefore, nice. Muslims, were shown to be besieged everywhere – whether its India or US, and therefore retaliating. Law enforcement officials in the US were shown, as a generality, to be without any humanity or not following any rule of law.. and above all, threatening.
I will speak to these in detail, but one small piece – which was specific and bad case of mis-information and lack of credible research into this movie was Rizwan’s (SRK) experience in the jail! The torture of sleeplessness and other things (change of temperatures, lack of access to information, unusable toilet seats) are NOT from the US jail system (however bad it may be), but from Guantanamo Bay prisons. Yes, the torture in Guantanamo has happened and it is disturbing, but to suggest that every Muslim, despite his or her medical condition, who goes to a US Jail, is subjected to such torture as a regular means of treatment is farcical, very mischievious and plays right in to the hands of the Jihadi propaganda.
Now about the stereotypes that this movie promoted.
Lets be clear. White man is generally taken to be a proxy of the “West”. So, when one talks of stereotypes of Whites or of the West, the world talks of basically synonyms. Unfortunately, that is the truth behind the scenes. Hence, I wanted to get that pretense of the holier-than-thou liberals out of the way! When you are showing a stereotype about Whites, you are basically trying to make a statement on the West.
So, from the boys who killed Sam, to the people who threaten the shop keepers to the law enforcement agencies….. it seems White people are incarnations of devil and somehow highly insensitive! And against their normal grain, they turn “human” only when they are close to you as friends but change when they face any tough situation (Reese abetted killing of Sam because of his anger). Somehow, it is always a matter of celebration and something out of usual, if they “act nicely” to you. If you listen to the Jihadi talk and read their propaganda, this is precisely what they are always trying to portray about the white man and the West!! MNIK’s portrayal of the White Man (and West by proxy) is a page out of Jihadi propaganda book and NOT based on a liberal and secular sensibilities!
I have spoken on my blog against how Avatar shows as if unless White man helps people of some other planet, even those tribes won’t do anything worthwhile (reinforcing the “White Man’s burden” construct!). So, stereotypes are perpetuated in both ways. And trying to portray the other extreme because Hollywood portrays one is very self-defeating indeed..
So, while James Cameron’s stereotype in Avatar betrays a Colonial mind-set and therefore offensive; Karan Johar and SRK’s stereotype betrays the “Muslim ghettoes and Jihadi brain-washing” mind-set and therefore offensive.
Truth is somewhere in between.
Black People, whenever shown, are shown as “victims”, “stupid” and “downtrodden” who are nice to talk to simply because of their “subtly projected” lower economic condition and IQ. Its the romantic (socialist ideology driven primarily) notion that many times Raj Kapoor showed of the poor slum dwellers vs Rich men in his movies. Bollywood movies have many times been down this road of showing poor men with humanity and rich men as heartless as a stereotype, which is a completely Socialist and Communist construct. Not all poor and downtrodden are nice and not all rich and privileged are inhuman. And since, in the US, only blacks happen to be embodiment of poverty and downtrodden and White men as the rich abettors of crime in the popular folk-lore perpetuated around the world, especially so in the Jehadi narratives, that’s what somehow creeps into this movie as well.
Muslims are somehow shown as besieged every where. They are victims incarnate. Whether it is the narrative after the riots or in the speech of the extremist in the mosque (which was not the point Rizwan counters, rather he clarifies a theological point of sacrifice of his son’s blood by Ishmael). Even in school its the same narrative as it is in businesses.
Now, I have lived through the years since 9-11 in the US. I have been working with Muslims and also seen the businesses in Houston, the most conservative of cities as they come in the US. No other businesses have prospered as much as those of people who worked hard and had the right idea. There are Pakistani women and men who have grown exponentially and from a strictly desi clientele gotten a strong American clients on their roster of customers. Yes, and I am talking of Salons more than any other businesses.. IN HOUSTON!! So, if I were to talk of California, the most liberal state in the US and San Francisco, one of the decidedly most liberal of cities in that state, then the narrative of Mandira’s salon going out of business because of her Khan last name is nothing but a cruel caricature! It is so misinformed and misinforming that it could have easily been written by the likes of Zaid Hamid and Hamid Gul than by a well informed Secularist or Humanist Muslim.
To epitomize Muslims as Victims is a strong Jehadi need and imperative. If you understand the historic narrative of Islam, you will realize that Victimization has been very deeply stitched into its fabric. And with the narrative of Victimization has come closely the narrative of “fighting back” and killing the other. In Quran, however, the narrative of Victimization is defined from the standpoint of Belief (in the 3 main tenets of Islam – Day of Judgment, Belief in Allah, and following Muhammad’s example) and retaliation is to Non-Belief (or Kufr).
Victimization as a central precept has been the most effective way of creating converts to any cause, with a apparently egalitarian agenda but, which in reality, turns out to be an extremist agenda. Communism is another great example of that.
There can never be an equality of human experiences, and it cannot be enforced by any means ever. What is there however, scientifically and spiritually, is the equality of existence itself. This equality cannot be enforced but can be experienced.
The issue is that those who have set out to take their followers to the “promised land of equality” have turned them into extremists who fight the world which lives and revels in its diversity.
Enforcing Equality NECESSARILY leads to Suppression of Diversity.
It is no wonder therefore, that in the societies and the groups where enforcement (not exploration) of Equality is the Central precept, expression of desent is highest evil! Whether it is Islamic societies or the Communist societies, heretical expression is reserved the highest punishment.
It is in this context of the “Three Narratives”, as I call them, that the depiction of Victimization should be viewed. The Three Narratives are:
Narrative # 1: Explicitly desire that you want to push your ideology on the other guy and that the other guy should swear by your ideology as the ONLY “Truth” and that such a desire is an order of your god. Any action that bars you from carrying out such an action is sufficient and legitimate proof of “Victimization”.
Narrative #2: That, if you are “Victimized”, you have enough and sufficient justification to Kill the “perpetrator” – the guy who wanted to NOT go by your desires of swearing by your ideology and bowing to your god.
Narrative #3: The ideology is not “Anti-Peace” or against humanity as the Narrative #2 may suggest. Killing, after all, is only a specialized punishment for those who “Harm” or “Victimize” you. Otherwise, its all “good”.
If you look Sura 2 from verse 191 through 192, the entire argument for the three narratives is clearly and unequivocally established.
It is clear if one were to look closely, that Victimization as a narrative is the CENTRAL argument that abets Terrorism, also called Jihad. I know that there are diferent “types” of Jihad listed in the book, but until now, I have not seen anyone practising them nor discussing them as an anti-dote to violence and way to peace in the world, specially in a dialog with the extremists. So, let’s go by what is being practised and not what exists merely in arguments.
.This was the most mischievious of the entire story line. Yes, attacks happened on Sikhs and on Muslims in the US post 9-11, but they were by NO MEANS or stretch of imagination, a trend! I was not following all the attacks, but if I would have to hazard a guess not more than maybe couple of dozen attacks may have occured on the Muslim families and individuals due to religious intolerance. I know a few Sikhs also got killed, but even those attacks were less than half a dozen in the last 10 years.
I don’t know of ANY incident where school kids would have targeted the Muslim kids in a way to kill them or subject violence on them. My daughter and those of my friends also go to schools in Texas, which as I said before, is as conservative as any state in the US can get. And these kids have Muslims, indeed my daughter had a Pakistani Muslim in her class. I have asked her about him and what other kids think of him. There is nothing different that they think of him than her or other friends of a different enthnicity.
I have seen quite a few countries and interacted with people of still many more countries, even those I have not visited. And I can say categorically that US and Canada are perhaps the MOST tolerant countries on the face the earth right now. The crimes of discrimination get so much coverage because these societies accept and encourage dissent and justice. The plight of minorities in say, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or even Malaysia (the most progressive of Islamic nations) can only be imagined.
And that is what makes this attempt in MNIK, if it was to talk about HUMANITY and not forward the Muslim agenda per se, seem even more disingenuous. Which leads me to the next category of my assessment – the Context of the movie.
Throughout the movie, I was trying to understand – who was the target audience of the message?
Because there seemed to be many.
In your face was thrown that it was the Non-Muslim world at large, which was, for no particular reason, mis-understanding the Muslims, and therefore indulging in a monumental injustice to the “Humanity at large”. The misunderstanding of the Muslims was not just a Perception issue but a Injustice to Humanity issue.
Let me take an example. Rizwan goes to a motel of a Gujarati Hindu – Jitesh-bhai. While they are talking, some white man (again a white mind you!) came and threw stone at his window and drove away. In anger, Jitesh-bhai, who has been having such attacks, because a “silly white American” cannot tell the difference between a Hindu and a Muslim, starts to shout how he hates the Muslims for having brought such attacks on him even though he has nothing to with Jihad or Islam. In fact, he might consider his own to be at the receiving end of the same Jihadis back home!!
Now, this is shown as his injustice against humanity or at least as insensitivity. Now, if one were to look at it purely the standpoint of an Indian Muslim, he might think it was bad. But think of it from the standpoint of a Hindu Businessman, who understands perfectly well that here he is targeted as a proxy for being Muslim, and in India the Pakistani and Pakistan-trained Indian Mujahideen target his kith/kin because he is NOT Muslim!
Don’t you think his plight is even worse?
In some cases, the context was also to educate the Muslims, specially the scene in the Mosque where the discussion on Ishmael story takes place and in a scene where Rizwan refers to the verse which says that “killing one innocent* is like killing humanity” (* What is an innocent from a theological standpoint as it is believed/progagated/interpreted in many Mullahs can be viewed in the videos below.)
It is very clear in the eyes of these people and others who follow them that equal rights are only reserved for Muslims. These guys speak up which many believe in because of their interpretations.
By the way the verse that Rizwan cites is not as unequivocal for peace promotion as it is made out to be.
The story was of two brothers, son of Adam, where one brother murders the other and the one who dies, accepts death. The son of Adam, who is the murderer of his own brother is then sent, by Allah, a raven (crow) who digs the ground to show how the murderer could hide his brother’s corpse and cover him up. This brother then becomes repentent of what he had done. (link to all verses in this Sura)
Then comes this verse, where it is said in context of the Children of Israel or the Adam. However, this verse does NOT come without conditions. Even though, killing any one from their own tribe/family will be like killing the entire tribe, it can still be done if it is believed:
(i) the other person murdered someone
(ii) spreading mischief in the land
Now, look at the video from Dr. Zakir Naik above to understand what he is saying about the non-believers in Saudi Arabia. Non believers, according to Ulemas cannot be allowed to propagate their faith in Muslim lands, because that will create mischief. Now, one may be tempted to ask the question, how does this logic change in the land where Muslims live.. but as a minority? Mischief has nothing to do with the numbers. It has to do with the faith/belief of one’s own self and that of the other!
YUSUFALI: On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our messengers with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land.
PICKTHAL: For that cause We decreed for the Children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. Our messengers came unto them of old with clear proofs (of Allah’s Sovereignty), but afterwards lo! many of them became prodigals in the earth.
SHAKIR: For this reason did We prescribe to the children of Israel that whoever slays a soul, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he slew all men; and whoever keeps it alive, it is as though he kept alive all men; and certainly Our messengers came to them with clear arguments, but even after that many of them certainly act extravagantly in the land.
So, if Muslims were indeed the target audience, wouldn’t it have been better to analyze strains like Sufism?
Religious beliefs have NOTHING to do with God or Liberation. So, if any one – SRK or any other person – says that he wanted to reinforce a certain religious context because he felt it took one to God, then that is patent nonsense!
Honest spiritual exploration is the only credible way to liberation of mankind from its limited belief systems and to a more larger whole. Honestly, Quranic Islam is not necessarily equal to Spirituality. Sufism has tried to break away from it and in a lot of cases the Sufis were forced to tow the traditionalist agenda simply because of the force and fear of death. Some did fight that but many did not and served the agenda of the religious.
For example, Tansen and AR Rehman were Hindus by belief and on their brush with a “Sufi” converted. Now, Sufis are taken as Spiritualists extraordinaire without argument. But anyone who even begins on a spiritual journey understands that conversion is a decidedly tribalistic agenda and has nothing to do with an Infinite consciousness known as God. A real spiritualist will never talk of religion or conversion. The very fact that these individuals were converted by so-called Sufis is more a comment on those “Sufis” than on anyone else.
So, just as wearing saffron and calling one a Guru does not mean that one is Enlightened, similarly wearing large hair locks and talking Sufi mumbo-jumbo does not mean that one is Enlightened. Therefore, one needs to explore honestly.
Mainstream Islam based on Hadith and Quran has issues, whether SRK and others may like one to believe or not is another question. But there is a major issue with regards to how it approaches the non-believers. Here are some verses in Quran that one would need to discuss before we actually get to the peaceful verse that Rizwan utters.
Some Quranic Verses Justifying Violence against non-believers
2:193, 8:39, 8:73, 85:10, 9:14-15, 8:17, 9:13, 2:251, 2:154, 9:19, 9:11, 9:120, 2:44, 8:72, 9:38, 33:36, 4:89, 9:12, 2:178, 5:45, 42:39, 5:33, 8:12, 47:4, 9:5, 2:190-194, 2:216-218, 3:167-175, 4:66, 4:74-78, 4:95-96, 4:104, 5:54, 6:162, 8:12-16, 8:38-40, 8:57-62, 8:65-66, 8:72-75, 9:12-14, 9:19-21, 9:29, 9:36, 9:39, 9:44-46, 9:52, 9:81, 9:36-38, 9:93-94, 9:100, 9:123, 16:110, 22:39-40, 22:58, 25:68, 26:227, 33:25, 33:60-62, 47:20-21, 47:35, 48:16-22, 48:29, 49:9-10, 49:15, 57:10-11, 59:13-14, 61:4, 61:11-12, 73:20
It is a matter of concern for both the Believers and Non-believers that such discussion is not undertaken.
So, wouldn’t it have been better if one were to make a movie to explore the spiritual questions by a Muslim and take on the religion itself? Taking on of religion by the spiritual has been done many times fruitfully – J. Krishnamurti has done it, Buddha did it, Nanak did it. It is a worthy exploration.
Reinforcing of religion can hardly be an attempt in the direction of peace of any durable nature.
In my considered view, if one is serious about humanity, one needs seeking not believing something that has happened sometime in history. Reinforcing the greatness of a religion by forwarding falsehoods, as MNIK tries to do, can fool only some of the people.
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