Archive for the ‘Islam’ Category

About Elly

May 16, 2015


About Elly is a 2009 Iranian film by Asghar Farhadi, who also directed A Seperation, which won an Academy Award for best foreign language picture.

Three couples go on a three-day trip to a resort on the shore of the Caspian sea along with their children. One of them, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), brings along her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti). She wants to introduce her to her friend, Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who has recently divorced from his German wife. Things go well the first day, although Elly sometimes seems a bit uncomfortable. On the second day, she disappears, and people fear that she may have drowned. The characters gradually begin to blame one another for what happened. Much of the blame centers on Sepideh, as it becomes clear that she hasn’t been completely honest about some things.

About Elly is a subtle and complex drama that touches upon many different ideas: the fact that good intentions can have bad results, the fragility of human relationships, how small deceptions can a devastating effect on people. This is the most powerful and troubling film that I have seen in quite a while.

One thing that struck me about this movie is that the men and women interact in a more-or-less equal manner. (The men have subtle advantages over the women, although one could make that argument about our society as well.) Iran is an Islamic theocracy, like Saudi Arabia. Yet, based on what I know about the latter country, I can’t imagine people there behaving in quite this way. (I certainly can’t imagine people in areas controlled by ISIS acting in this way.) This can be seen as evidence that Islam is a more complex religion than many self-styled “experts” on Islam are willing to admit.

It’s clear that the influence of Muslim and Iranian cultural notions about honor, propriety, and the role of women lead to Sepideh’s deceitful behavior, with grievous consequences for Sepideh herself. She is a great tragic figure.


February 8, 2015


Timbuktu, a film by Abderrahmane Sissako, is about the 2012 occupation of the ancient Malian city by the Islmaist group, Ansar Dine. In episodic form, the film depicts the suffering and passive resistance of the city’s residents.

Ansar Dine forbids people from listening to music (including religious music), smoking, and playing soccer. They require women to veil themselves and wear gloves. They carry out floggings and stonings of people who violate their rules.

The film is centered around Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a herdsman who lives with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), and his daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), outside the city. When Kidane kills a man during a fight, the Islamists arrest him. One of the leaders tells Kidane that he can pay “blood money” to the victim’s family in the form of forty cows. When Kidane tells them he only has seven cows, they condemn him to death.

One of the strengths of Timbuktu is that it depicts the brutality of the Islamists without demonizing them. Instead, the film show how their own desires and interests conflict with the severe form of Sunni Islam that they’ve embraced. For example, one of the leaders has to hide the fact that he smokes from his men. In one scene, we see some of the soldiers discussing World Cup soccer. Another soldier clearly has reservations about what Ansar Dine is doing, but he is afraid to break with them. One of the leaders argues with an imam who criticizes what they are doing.

Timbuktu is a great film. It is a profoundly moving condemnation of religious fundamentalism and an assertion of human dignity.

After Charlie Hebdo

January 11, 2015


The men who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo are dead. The discussion we need to have at this point is how do we keep the political right from capitalizing on this tragic event. (This would be a more useful discussion than arguing about whether or not the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were racist.) Already the right is on the march. The media mogul, Rupert Murdoch has tweeted:

    Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.

So, 1.5 billion Muslims should be held responsible for the actions of three (maybe four) people. This is grandstanding, of course, but it shouldn’t be regarded as harmless or inconsequential. The idea of collective punishment has a strong emotional appeal for some people. And there are people who would really like to see the US invade another country, preferably a Muslim one.

And then there is the “liberal” “comedian”, Bill Maher, who recently announced that “tens of millions” of Muslims supported the Charlie Hebdo attack. As with many of his ideas, Maher pulled this out of his ass. Whether or not he realizes it, Maher is helping to recreate the atmosphere of fear and hysteria that preceded the invasion of Iraq. (The fact that Maher says that liberals have turned the US into a “pussy nation” perhaps indicates what his real intentions are.)

We must confront and condemn advocates of prejudice and drum-beaters for war.

Objectively Worse?

October 26, 2014


There is an argument that I have seen some of my Facebook friends make recently. The argument is that Islam is “objectively worse” than other religions. (A claim popularized by Richard Dawkins.) When one looks at the behavior of ISIL, or the Saudi government for that matter, this can seem to make sense. However, this argument is a slippery slope in a couple of ways. First, it can be viewed as a backhanded endorsement of other religions. Second, it can be used as an excuse to justify attacking Muslims. This is an important point. There are ongoing persecutions of Muslim minorities in countries such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Whatever one may think of Islam, there should be no excuse for punishing people for their religious beliefs.

Moreover, this argument is not constructive. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Does anyone really believe that these people are going to change their religious affiliation just because some of us think their religion is crappier than others? I don’t think so. We need to find ways to unite people, rather than emphasize artificial distinctions.

One Point about Iraq

September 17, 2014


I would like to make a point here about Iraq, that, so far as I know, no one else has made. Years ago, Iraq had a capable, battle-seasoned army that could have easily dispatched a group like ISIS. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US disbanded this army. The US then trained and equipped a new Iraqi army. It was this army that abandoned Mosul in the face of an ISIS offensive, leaving behind US-supplied weapons. So, yes, in that respect the US does bear responsibility for the current crisis in Iraq.

Iraq and the Law of Unintended Consequences

August 17, 2014

Nouri al-Maliki and Barack Obama

The other day I went to my local library to read Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices. I found it dull, and it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I was, however, struck by the following sentence on page 389: “Benghazi is a port city on the Mediterranean Sea with a population of more than 1 million people, mostly Sunni Muslims, and large African and Egyptian minorities.” So, our former Secretary of State doesn’t know that Libyans and Egyptians are Africans. Interesting.

I got so bored, that out of desperation I picked up a copy of Robert Gates’s memoir, Duty. I must say that I found Gates to be a more interesting writer than Clinton, if only because his writing doesn’t sound like sound-bites from a presidential debate. I also learned something from him: Bush had frequent video conferences with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, and with Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq. Gates says that Bush acted as a “useful mentor” to these men (page 337). The idea that Bush could serve as a mentor to anyone, let alone the leaders of two nations, is mind-boggling to me. Later, Gates says that Maliki’s party came in second in Iraq’s 2010 (page 472) elections, but Maliki was nonetheless eventually able to resume his position as prime minister. What Maliki apparently learned from Bush was how to take office after losing an election.

Gates shares with us the following heart-warming anecdote:

    … Maliki, frustrated and angered by Iranian-backed Shia extremist actions in Basra, ordered units of the Iraqi army into the city to reestalish control. The U.S. commanders were horrified that Maliki had taken such a risk without proper preparation. They scrambled to provide the logistics, planning, and military advice to support Maliki’s effort; without such help, he almost certainly would have failed. But he didn’t and therefore won significant recognition all across Iraq for acting like a “national” leader by suppressing his Shia brethren. The president told the chiefs, “We ought to say hurray to Maliki for going down to Basra and taking on the extremists.” He charactized is a “milestone event.” “Maliki used to ba a paralyzed neophyte – now he is taking charge.” Bush was right. (Page 233.)

This same “national”, Maliki, is now widely blamed for the disintegration of the Iraqi state; his relentless sectarianism is alleged to a have antagonized the country’s Sunni Muslim minority. At this point, one must question whether Bush and Gates really understood what was going on in Iraq.

Ah, but according to conspiracy theory, leaders always have complete control over what is happening. Consider this article by Mike Whitney, Why Obama Wants Maliki Removed in the most recent isssue of CounterPunch. Whitney writes:

    The Obama administration is pushing for regime change in Iraq on the basis that current prime minister Nouri al Maliki is too sectarian. The fact is, however, that Maliki’s abusive treatment of Sunnis never factored into Washington’s decision to have him removed. Whether he has been “too sectarian” or not is completely irrelevant. The real reason he’s under attack is because he wouldn’t sign the Status of Forces Agreement in 2011. He refused to grant immunity to the tens of thousands of troops the administration wanted to leave in Iraq following the formal withdrawal. That’s what angered Washington. That’s why the administration wants Maliki replaced.

That’s right! Obama was so angry at Maliki, that he waited three years to demand his removal from office.

The life of a conspiracy theorist is difficult and unpleasant. He must be continually searching for whatever paltry (or perhaps non-existent) evidence that may buttress his pre-conceived ideas. He simply cannot concede the possibility that the people in charge may not always understand what exactly is going on.

There is No War on Islam

May 28, 2014

C.J. Werleman

Alternet has an article by CJ Werleman, entitled “The American Disdain for Self-Reflection: What We Still Haven’t Learned After 9/11 and the Boston Marathon Attacks”, which I highly recommend reading. I have to take issue, though, with one argument in it. Discussing the recently released note by Dhokhar Tsarneyev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, Werleman writes:

    Like every terrorist who attacked America on 9/11 and since, Tsarnaev made his grievance clear – that his attacks against Americans were motivated politically (wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), rather than religiously, but we continue to wage a war on Islam that is dressed up as a war on terror.

There is no war on Islam. True, the US’s drone attacks kill Muslims, but that is not a war on Islam. Among other things, the US supports the government of Saudi Arabia, which is an Islamic theocracy. Some will say that I am quibbling here, but this is actually an important point. We are dealing with complicated issues here – issues that are emotionally charged for some people – so we need to choose our words carefully.

Tossing around a term like “war on Islam” merely obscures the complexities of the current situation. In particular, it ignores the class dimension of the conflict. Here in the US, middle class and working class Muslims are monitored and sometimes harassed by the police. Yet our government and business elites flatter and cajole the leaders of Muslim countries, seeking to do business with them. This has resulted in some interesting contradictions. For example, the Sultan of Brunei – who recently announced that the citizens of his country will now be subjected to “full shariah“, including stonings, floggings, and amputations – owns the Beverly Hills Hotel, a Southern California landmark.

So we need to be more precise in our terminology, to express the full awfulness of what our government is doing.


April 1, 2014


A recent article by Patrick Cockburn in The Independent argues that the “War on Terror” has been a failure. He points out that jihadists have seized control of large areas of Iraq and Syria and that the Taliban have been making a resurgence in Afghanistan. He argues that the main reason for this is that the United States and Britain are allied with the two governments that do the most to spread jihadism: those of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. You can’t win a struggle when you’re allied with your enemies. (Those on the left who advocate the “red-brown” strategy should think about this.)

Wadjda, Haifaa al-Mansour’s 2012 film set in Saudi Arabia, gives us a rare glimpse inside a country that is often misunderstood in the West. (9/11 Truthers will be surprised to learn that people in Saudi Arabia do not live in caves.)

This film tells the story of Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a young girl who dreams of owning a bicycle. Girls riding bicycles is frowned upon in religiously conservative Saudi Arabia. Wadjda’ mother (Reem Abdullah) works as a teacher. Because women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, she has to be driven to work by a hired driver who treats her rudely. Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) is loving and kind, but his parents pressure him into taking a second wife, because Wadjda’s mother can no longer bear children.

At Wadjda’s school, we see the headmistress (Ahd Kamel) scold some girls for laughing in the schoolyard – apparently because men can hear them. This film portrays the bleakness of religious fundamentalism. Wadjda subtly resists, yet she herself succumbs to it at times; for example, she betrays a couple of her fellow students to the headmistress at one point. This film ends on a heart-warmingly optimistic note, however.

Wadjda features strong performances and is beautifully filmed. This is an all the more remarkable achievement considering that this film was made under less than ideal conditions. (It is the first feature film made in Saudi Arabia, as well as the first film directed by a woman there.) Wadjda is about as close to a perfect film as I have ever seen.

Some Thoughts on the Boston Marathon Bombings

April 24, 2013

Although the police are to be commended for having solved this case so quickly, there are still some things about this episode that a leave one feeling uncomfortable. Such as the unnecessary decision to completely shut down the city of Boston. (Common sense dictated that Dzokhar Tsaraev would likely be found in or near Watertown, and, indeed, he was found hiding in a boat in someone’s backyard in that very city.) Or police officers in military gear searching people’s homes without warrants. Or the government’s refusal to read Tsarnaev his Miranda rights.

The Constitution is really the only thing that holds this fractious country together, yet we increasingly treat it as something disposable, like Kleenex. Mayor Bloomberg of New York recently announced:

    The people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry. But we live in a complex word where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.

This is coy. Bloomberg has made it clear that he has nothing but contempt for the Constitution, as when he ordered the police to attack Occupy Wall Street protestors, or in his “stop and frisk” policy that targets minority youths. He no doubt drooled as he added:

    We have to understand that in the world going forward, we’re going to have more cameras and that kind of stuff. That’s good in some sense, but it’s different from what we are used to.

We already have lots of cameras in our society. Photos and videos taken by private citizens helped the police to pick out the suspects. Hizzoner is specifically referring to surveillance cameras by the police, likely to be positioned to keep the world safe for Wall Street hedge fund managers.

And then there is the question of the motives of the Tsarnaev brothers. There is a substantial amount of evidence that Tamelan was attracted to radical Islam, but Dzhoubar attended a party at UMass-Dartmouth shortly after the bombings, which is not the sort of behavior that one would expect from a Muslim fundamentalist. I suspect that there is a complicated story here, one which we learn about as more evidence comes to light.

Dzhoubar has been charged with using a “weapon of mass destruction”. It used to be that this term only referred to nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. It now applies to pressure cooker bombs. No doubt it will soon apply to firecrackers. (But not, of course, to assault rifles!)

Marmoulak (Lizard)

December 14, 2012


Marmalouk is a 2004 Iranian film directed by Kamal Tabrizi. The Iranian government banned it after a two-week run. Nevertheless, it is the successful Iranian film ever.

Reza (Parviz Parastui) is a thief who has the nickname, Marmoulak (Lizard), because of his uncanny ability to climb walls. He is caught, and he spends some time in prison, but he manages to escape by disguising himself as a mullah. He goes in search of a man who will help him escape across the border. On the way, he stops in a village where the people mistake him for the new mullah for their mosque. Reza pretends to be their mullah during the day, but at night he goes looking for the man who is supposed to help him cross the border. The villagers notice his night-time excursions, and they mistakenly believe that he is doing charitable works. Reza acquires a reputation as a saint, and people begin flocking to his sermons.

The film is implicitly critical of the Iranian clergy. It seems to suggest that they are out of touch of the people. The clergy apparently decided to prove this popular film’s point by banning it. Yet Marmoulak is not an attack on religion. Quite the contrary, it is actually very respectful towards Islam. It ends on a highly spiritual note. It is also quite funny. The characters are interesting, and it gives us a glimpse into Iranian society. It can be found on Youtube.