Month May

  • Review: Sex and the City 2 girls find enlightenment in a souq

    Sex and the City 2 is full of stereotypes, but they cut both ways. And the four women of Manhatten learn a lot about dignity and taste, or at least they should.

    This article was published today in The National in Abu Dhabi.

    The latest Sex and the City film has been stirring controversy, just as Sex and the City always does. This time, the city is Abu Dhabi – the “new Middle East” according to the movie. Except that it wasn’t filmed in Abu Dhabi; it was shot on location in Morocco.

    The four female characters who first came onto TV screens in 1998 in the series of the same name are sent on an all-expenses-paid trip to Abu Dhabi courtesy of an “Emirati sheikh” (with a terrible Indian accent) who wants Samantha to do some PR work for his new hotel.

    She insists on taking her gal pals along with her to enjoy the opulence. This new luxurious futuristic bling-bling idea of the “new Middle East” (they keep repeating it ad nauseam) sits diametrically opposed to the film’s other stereotype of Orientalist fairy tale characters that live in mysterious souqs, whose men can suddenly turn angry and violent and whose women are hidden away under black veils and cloaks.

    Samantha is known to viewers as the independent, sexually promiscuous character of the foursome. When she hears the cabin attendant announce flight-safety measures in Arabic, she asks “I wonder what she’s saying. It sounds so exotic!”

    She’s telling you to put on your seat belt, Samantha. Get over it. And Carrie, the lead character who writes a newspaper column about sex and has a shoe obsession, describes their trip to the Middle East as “Aladdin with cocktails.”

    The SATC girls walk across dunes in high heels. Their outfits look less "Carrie On" (the film's strapline) and more Carry On film

    Erm, Aladdin is a fairy story Carrie, it’s not how people really live. Unless, of course, your travel is sponsored by Disney, which in this film it certainly appears to be. She also wonders: “what is a souq?” And this from someone who is supposedly a freelance writer for Vogue. Throw in a few references to Scheherazade and magic carpets, and by this point Hollywood has about exhausted its list of references to the Middle East.

    Miranda solemnly informs her knowledgeable compatriots that to say “yes” in the Arab world, you simply need to use the words “haanh-jee”. No sweetheart, that will get you far on the Indian subcontinent, but not in the Middle East.

    It seems that the costume designers were also confused about the difference between the continents east of the US. Carrie emerges from what is supposedly Abu Dhabi airport, having borrowed a turban from an Indian snake-charmer.

    Miranda describes the face veil as the “nee-kwab”, which I found rather endearing – well, at least she was trying, right? Slightly irritating is the fact that actors don’t know how to wear their headscarves and veils properly, with the sheilas tightly wrapped but revealing the hairline and the face veils dipping to show half the nose, which just looks a bit peculiar.

    The problem is not only lazy recycling of 1940s Hollywood biopics about the Middle East; in addition, it’s easy to believe that the comments the four actors make are in fact what the women might actually think in real life.

    And so the film is also an indictment of one kind of American attitude that has so little knowledge of the outside world that they make inane comments and have little self-awareness of how they are perceived in a totally different context. This does no favours to the four western women, who come across as ignorant, self-obsessed and lacking any dignity.

    Muslims, Middle Eastern men and women should not be under the impression that they have been singled out for being turned into one-dimensional caricatures. Everyone comes off badly, especially the four female leads, who appear as ignorant, self-centred, luxury-obsessed, whiny women who don’t know how to enjoy relationships and family.

    Ten years ago, SATC made it acceptable for women to be independent, single and interested in sex. The film leaves us with the sombre view that even the most independent of women will fall back into traditional gender roles: wanting diamond wedding rings, to be a stay-at-home mum and to take their husbands’ last names as proof of ownership.

    The acceptability of the ideas of independence and self-determination that SATC pioneered are no doubt aspirations of women in the Middle East and elsewhere, but this latest film tells them that in following the western feminist path it all ends up adhering to convention anyway.

    While independence and autonomy are important, maybe Middle Eastern women think there is a different way to achieve them than through the self-obsessed, fashion-focused, emotionally unstable way that this film displays. After all, who wants to end up bigoted and patronising, even if wrapped in designer outfits?

    And we see this towards the end of the film, when two women dressed top to toe in black rescue the Fab Four, who find themselves in trouble in a souq after having angered a group of men. Yawn, yes, it’s another stereotype of the “angry Muslim man” beside himself with rage at women in the souq.

    They are smuggled into a shop that turns out to be a front for a women’s book club, and Samantha bonds with one of the niqab-wearing women over troublesome menopausal hot flashes. The Emirati women take off their abayas and veils to reveal that they are wearing the spring collection from Louis Vuitton. Suddenly, Carrie is overwhelmed with admiration, paying homage to the power of fashion to cross continents and cultures.

    I imagine that the writers meant to show that the Middle Eastern women were inspired by their counterparts to throw off their veils and liberate themselves. And this subtle negativity and pseudo-imperialism is what critics have picked up on.

    But I thought the writers, purely by accident, managed to achieve the complete opposite with great hilarity, demonstrating that Middle Eastern women are feisty, have plenty of personality and that perhaps it’s western women who have something to learn from them.

    Anyone who has interacted with Middle Eastern women knows that they are extremely warm and friendly people who will bring others into their fold, as they did with the film’s four heroines. And they will also know that beneath the abayas they often wear the most fabulous fashion-forward clothes.

    If anything, it is the four New Yorkers who become enlightened and liberated from their previous ignorance. And it is they who go on to don the abaya and niqab in order to leave the souq. Seeing them managing their abayas with dexterity – Charlotte even manages to go shopping for presents in her new outfit – was entertaining and refreshing.

    In the end, the stereotypes portrayed in the film are so epically and universally one-dimensional that everyone comes off badly, turning it from dreadful rom-com social commentary into irritatingly watchable self-parody.

    Girls, take your best gal-pal if you’re going to watch it, buy a box of popcorn and use your most sarcastic witticisms to heckle the terrible script. If you do that, you’ll find that this film is so bad that you’ll almost enjoy it.

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  • Designing a game-changing Islamic Brand

    Muslims know a thing or two about branding, after all they already own some of the world’s most well known brands. To Muslims, the brand ‘Islam’represents a way of life; the ‘ummah’ is a transnational super-community;‘Halal’ is a global food brand; Ramadan, Hajj, Jihad,and Zakat to name but a few are also all familiar names with their own brand values and brand experiences. All one billion Muslims – and significant chunks of the remaining global population – can identify these brands for you. That is to say, they can tell you the meaning, values and benefits of these ‘products’.

    A global brand is one which consumers perceive to reflect the same set of values wherever they are in the world. Global brands transcend their geographic, cultural or ideological origins, and create strong, enduring relationships with those who consume the brands across countries and cultures. Think of walking into a McDonald’s or a KFC – you know exactly what will be on the menu, and what the food will be like.

    During the expansion of the Muslim world from the 7th century onwards, the ‘Islamic’ brands spread quickly. In many ways, they created a self-sustaining economy. For example, the brand of ‘halal’ meant that Muslims were employed in creating halal products – such as meat – which would be bought by Muslims, creating employment for Muslims, and keeping finance in the Muslim pocket. Even though the immediate objective of Muslims confining themselves to the ‘halal’ brand is to follow Islamic teachings and eat healthy clean prescribed food, the retention of Muslim commerce within the Muslim market is a bonus by-product.

    Let’s keep our focus for the time being on the ‘halal’ brand, to understand why I believe those engaged in creating ‘Islamic’ products today have an upside down approach to ‘Islamic branding’. The ‘halal’ brand, as taught by the Prophet is made up of two parts when it comes to food production. One part is made up of the values that make something ‘halal’, and the other part is the technicalities of the process, like how to slaughter animals.

    The technical procedures are generally well documented and great emphasis is rightly placed on the observation and implementation of these procedures. The ‘halal’ brand is also made up of values such as purity, goodness, well-being, animal welfare, and honest earnings. The same partnership between technicalities and values make up the other brands I’ve quoted like ‘Islam’, ‘Hajj’, ‘Zakat’ and so on. It is the underpinning values that give each of these process their meaning and significance. So, even if you carry out hajj, zakat, salat or any of the other Islamic activities – even if it is to the letter – but fail to grasp the values that it conveys, then the ritual is empty and feels meaningless even to the protagonist. For example, the ritual of hajj is about building brotherhood, and yet in the tussle to complete the prescribed Tawaf, people will happily elbow their brothers and sisters, trample on their feet, or squash others, leaving themselves and others feeling angry, hostile and horrified. The brand value of hajj – building of brotherhood – is lost to the technicalities of completing the tawaf. When the values that underpin the ‘brand’ are contravened, the brand becomes empty and void, and instead of having long lasting results, its impact fades away.

    It may seem a strange way to approach religion and religious rituals in commercial terms like ‘brand’, ‘consumer’ and ‘product’, but if Muslims are to build meaningful, sustainable and innovative brands and products, we have to understand what exactly is an ‘Islamic’ brand, and how should it be constructed in order for it to be game-changing.

    Most of today’s ‘Islamic’ products are a sad reflection of the state of the contemporary Muslim world – focusing on the technicalities of Islam rather than aspiring to live the values themselves. Islamic practice and social discourse today are all about following the rules, rather than creating the ethos and then using the rules to deliver to that ethos. Don’t get me wrong – rules are crucially important, and must be observed. But rules are not the end in themselves, they are a tool to deliver a vision and a set of values.

    The problem with most ‘Islamic’ products today is the same. They tick all the boxes that make them ‘technically’ Islamic. They do this by taking existing products that are not necessarily constructed on Islamic values, tweak them a bit so they ‘technically’ meet the requirements, and then badge them ‘Islamic’.

    Take the spate of ‘Islamic’ colas that hit the world – we had Mecca cola, Ummah cola and Zamzam cola to name but a few. What was ‘Islamic’ about them except the name? They cashed in on a moment in political history when Muslims wanted to boycott the big brands. Instead of taking this moment when there was a captive and willing worldwide Muslim audience to deliver a truly innovative drinks range based on values inimical to Islam, the producers pocketed a short term benefit for themselves by copying another product. They gave a global market sugary teeth-rotting drinks. If they had considered the kind of values that would be great in a drink drawing from Islamic values, they may have thought of something that cleanses the body, is made from pure sustainable ingredients, and whose packaging degrades without damaging the environment. With such a brand-values-based approach to product design they might have won over not just the Muslim market, but a wider global market too – through values and innovation.

    If today’s ‘Islamic’ products are to really mean anything, they must create their brands as derivatives of the main Islamic superbrands that I mentioned at the beginning. That is how they can appeal to the Muslim audience. Muslim consumers will fully understand the ethos of the products and how the products will change their lives. The products will move from being a necessity to being a valued product – which of course increases its desirability and price.

    However, what is even more attractive is that the fundamental ‘Islamic’ brand values will undoubtedly appeal across the commercial and global spectrum to all consumers irrespective of faith. I’ve already spoken of ‘good’ food. The same applies to other values like environmental protection, ethics and fair trade and financial prudence and workers’ welfare. By exhibiting these brand values in ‘Islamic’ products, they will appeal to those from other backgrounds too, as they are universal aspirations.

    I would urge all those engaging in creating ‘Islamic’ brands to move past just tweaking products so that they are technically Islamic, and start thinking about the Islamic values that are crucial to new products and then design products from the ground up. Copy cat products do not change the world. Innovative, game changing products come from meeting real untapped consumer needs. The way they do this is by building brands whose values are meaningful and important to consumers, and which consumers fully believe in.

    A new wave of products that appeal to Muslim money should do more than just meet the technical spec. They must be built on brand values that aim to invest all the goodness of the superbrand of ‘Islam’. What is important is not the label ‘Islamic’ but that the values that are used to design the products are Islamic, and deliver an Islamic brand experience to consumers.

    Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at She has fifteen years of experience in marketing and new product creation.

    This article was published in the Muslim Council of Britain‘s publication entitled ‘Nurturing the Future in Islamic Finance and Thought Leadership’ as part of an international delegation to the 6th World Islamic Economic Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia May 2010. The full brochure can be accessed here:

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  • Book review: The Reluctant Mullah

    This review was published today at AltMuslim.

    The first thing that strikes the reader of The Reluctant Mullah by Sagheer Afzal is its shelf appeal. The cover exhibits a mysterious figure wrapped up in what appears to be a black cloak and niqab with a red heart nearby, and the introduction “The clock is ticking for Musa. He has just 30 days to escape from an arranged marriage.”

    It’s quite a different proposition to the similar sounding – but much more sinister – book The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which predates our Mullah by at least 3 years and explores what leads people to extremism, leaving unanswered in the reader’s mind the question of who exactly are the extremists. The author probably never intended his book to be a Reluctant Fundamentalist anyway, a book which was a serious contender to challenge our preconceptions of terrorists, and written in suitably elegant and powerful style.

    So if you read this book, take note of the playful cover – this is a light-hearted comedy of people looking to find not just love but also their place in the world. This is a world far from terrorism and extremists. The book doesn’t set out with a message about Muslims or terrorism. It’s just a new set up for the age-old search-for-love situation comedy.

    Our hero Musa is the youngest of four siblings, and has been consigned to Imam school since he’s shown little ambition or skill at anything else. Musa has a big heart, and the innocence of a child, but his family see him as weak and a bit soft in the head. He seems more suited to exploring the wonders of the world, than laying down rules to others on how to direct it.

    The eldest son is the dark sheep of the family, the archetypal errant son who comes back to re-join the fold, but ends up wreaking havoc. This homage is to East is East, and is echoed in a current Eastenders storyline, and is repeated with homages to other film genres too. Next is Suleiman, the dutiful son who brings in family income and is tasked with taking Musa under his wing after Musa is expelled from the Islamic seminary. Then we have Shabnam, the only daughter of the family, who shines as a character at odd moments, revealing Afzal’s deeper affinity for writing female characters than he might realise.

    Alongside Musa’s parents is the fearsome Dadaji, the patriarch of the clan, a mixture of domineering mafia godfather and sufi saint. He is the catalyst for the story – giving Musa his ultimatum to search for his own bride, or be married to his cousin in Pakistan whom Dadaji has selected for him.

    And so with the ultimatum stinging his ears, Musa sets off through a whirlwind tour of arranged marriage rituals to find his bride to be. I’m a romantic at heart, and so it was this thread in the story that kept me hooked – and the results will chime with fans of both Cinderella and When Harry Met Sally genres. We experience internet dating, traditional matchmakers, friends of friends and even TV marriage bureaus with some comic moments. If the romantic storyline is resolved Harry Sally fashion, then the book concludes in homage to a feisty Godfather-style mafia drama. Afzal is clearly a man who knows and respects his genres.

    Sagheer Afzal explains how the book references his own personal experiences of getting married. Although Afzal is British born, he chose to have an arranged marriage in Pakistan. At his wedding, his bride-to-be abandoned him, but not before she had fleeced him of the wedding jewellery and £1000. But he’s not bitter, preferring to chalk it down to experience, and take solace in the fact that it has ultimately led him to have his first book published.

    As an author who spends time writing about the human stories of contemporary Muslims, I found myself at times over engrossed in a meta-analysis of the story and its construction. I struggled with a conflict of interest between being a reader and a fan of light fiction and being a commentator on Muslims in the arts and media. I found this challenge particularly acute when the book described the processes of looking for a marriage partner as this has many connections to my own book Love in a Headscarf. It highlighted the fact that both men and women today are struggling to find the right process to find a partner and that the processes and expectations can be both a help and a hindrance. However, whilst the 30 day countdown is a powerful literary device to bring the story to a conclusion, as a reader you are left wondering if Musa would have met with more success in his search had he spent a little bit more time on any of the methods he pursued.

    I had to constantly check myself from analysing this as a media representation of Muslims, and try to get into the storyline itself. For example, Suleiman finds himself playing the role of both dutiful and preferred son who supports his parents by day, and deals drugs to prostitutes by night. First of all, I wondered at this new narrative – echoed across several of the characters – of the Muslim who appears ‘good’ on the outside, but is hiding dark secrets on this inside; is this the new Muslim archetype? In addition, these are characters who are conflicted and whose religion is the barrier to resolving their inner tensions. Is this the very modern anti-religion perspective creeping into the way Muslim characters are drawn? Again, is this a new type of Muslim literary character?

    With my commentator hat on, I found my hackles raised when the split-personality son comes to a resolution to his issues as a Muslim through the ‘saviour’ of a priest’s words. It is impossible to predict what can change the course of a person’s life, and I fully believe that it can be something a person similar to you or totally different to you that triggers a change. However, in a book that makes a failed would-be Imam into a central character, and whose story is focused around the construction of an Islamic centre for young people, one is left with unsavoury echoes of colonial missionaries sent to save the heathens.

    In the end, I was left wondering how I would fit into this world (probably very uncomfortably), or whether I had met characters like this in my own personal life (they were unfamiliar to me personally, but this is a novel after all, so my assessment of reality had to be suspended). But mostly I was left wishing that the book wasn’t named after a very different book, which meant it was comparing itself to a totally different kind of story, which other than Muslim characters had nothing in common.

    The challenge which publishers need to rise to is to see what the actual story is, and to package and publish it as such. It turns out that the publishers saw ‘Muslim’ and edited, and marketed the book accordingly. The Reluctant Fundamentalist was a dark story of an individual journey playing with notions of who is a terrorist, and how the media puts them forward as representatives of a whole faith group. The Reluctant Mullah is a story of a dysfunctional family torn between culture, religion and selfish motivations, who represent nobody other than their own fictional selves. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Spirit21 caught up with Sagheer Afzal, and asked him some inside questions about The Reluctant Mullah. Here’s what he told me:

    Spirit21: tell us about the world that your characters inhabit. Is it based on your own experience, and what kind of values and motivations shape it?

    Sagheer: My characters inhabit a world which is a constant flux. They chafe at its parameters whilst seeking affirmation. To a certain degree it is based upon the experiences I had while at university. I became part of a number of religious groups with whom I eventually became disenchanted. Yet all the time, I was haunted by the allure of world beyond these groups. I dreamed with more avidity than I lived, yet never knew how to initiate the change to make fantasy into reality.

    Spirit21: Throughout the book there is a thread of strong antipathy to islamic scholars or mullahs. Yet the priest comes across as warm and inspiring compared to the lack of comprehension shown by the scholars. Was this for any particular reason? 

    Sagheer: I have always found Mullahs that hail from Pakistan for the most part to be dogmatic divisive people, more interested in strengthening their own fiefdoms rather than providing any real guidance to the community. I was pleasantly surprised when I came across Shia Mullahs who were the exact opposite. I have often thought that the Catholic way of confession would serve many Muslims, with the Mullah as a sympathetic listener rather than a sectarian cleric. Suleiman is in need of a sympathetic ear. He knows that he cannot gain this from his family or his Mosque. So I created the priest who serves as a conduit for his guidance. The idea that I wanted to portray was that the representatives of religion portray religion with greater clarity through their actions rather than their rhetoric.

    Spirit21: what would you say were your influences in shaping the characters and the storyline? You’ve mentioned in other interviews your own marriage experiences, but what other factors were involved? 

    Sagheer: My main influence in shaping my characters and storyline was the dysfunction of the family dynamic – the tragic phenomenon of Asian families where brother, sister, Mother and Father are disparate entities interacting with each other, but never really understanding each other. As a teenager I was acutely aware of this reality.

    Spirit21: what did you find most difficult about writing the book? 

    I was working as a teacher at a very challenging school. It was very difficult enduring the abuse and bad behaviour then unwinding and writing.

    Spirit21: What do you think Musa’s quest for love say about young Muslim men today, and what if anything ought it make them think about?

    Musa’s quest for love is hindered by his own naiveté. This is true of a lot of Muslim men and women today. Men look for facial beauty whilst women look for financial security. Men’s mothers look for carers whilst women’s mothers look for affluence. All are blinded by glitter. Muslim men need to think about the vanity of their own desires when looking for love. Muslim women need to think about the behests of their own heart rather than commands of the herd.

    Spirit21: Who is Dadaji? Tell us how he came to be imagined and the role he plays in the story.

    The role of the sage or sufi is still very eminent in the Muslim world. Those steeped in piety are venerated as spiritual guides. In western society the elderly do not seem to command such respect. I wanted to incorporate the concept of such a sage within the character of Dadaji, an unschooled man who possesses the gift of wisdom and imparts it to those who see past his irascible exterior. He plays the role of a guide within Musa’s family whose sagacity serves to unite the family. He helps them realise that you must be at peace with yourself before you can find peace with the world.  

    Spirit21: would you say you had any message that you wanted to convey? 

    Life is an incessant quest for enrichment that can only be realised by following your heart as opposed to the dictates of custom and culture.

    Spirit21: Thank you Sagheer, and best wishes for the success of your book.

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  • Europe vs the Burka

    Today I’ve been blogging at Faith Central, at the Times Online. Guess what, the face-veil is in the news (again!). Here are my thoughts on the trend sweeping Europe:

    Bess (of Faith Central) writes: Faith Central welcomes back Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, blogging today on the topical issue of new laws in Belgium and France regarding the Burka.

    Shelina writes:

    No matter how itsy-bitsy the face-veil might be in physical size, it has the ability to drive political and emotional sentiment at a national level.

    Recently Belgium became the first European country to vote for a full ban on the face-veil in public, and the law could come into force by July. The 400-odd women out of Belgium’s 280,000 Muslim population who wear the face-veil could face fines of £110.

    A woman in Italy was recently subjected to a 430-euro fine for wearing a face-veil on the way to a mosque. And the French, in a show of one upmanship, are to introduce sanctions that would fine husbands who force their wives to wear the veil up to 15,000 euros and send them to jail for up to a year.

    France is particularly worried as  it has such a huge immigrant population that it simply doesn’t know how to handle. Ghetto-ised  in suburbs, without jobs, education or prospects, the five million or so immigrants who hail mainly from North Africa and identify themselves as Muslims are increasingly agitated.

    The wider French population has been encouraged to see them as problematic, and instead of identifying the lack of policy to resolve these issues as the cause of  riots, are instead jumping on their “Muslim” character as the problem. 

    The face-veil is, of course, perceived as the symbol par excellence of Islam. This was particularly apparent over the weekend when two passers-by pulled the veil off a Muslim woman  in a shopping centre in France, telling her “Go back to your own country.” The violent nature of the attack hardly flies the flag for ‘enlightenment’ values, and the remark reflects a worrying racist undertone.

    So far Britain has taken a different stance – with politicians arguing for women’s choice to dress as they please. Even Jack Straw – who stated in 2006 that he felt uncomfortable when he spoke with his veiled constituents – has stated that he believes it is still up to women to decide for themselves.

    Just what has made continental Europe veer in such a different direction to the UK?

    France would argue that it is the entrenchment of secular principles in their constitution and its historic trailblazing of human rights. But today’s human rights lawyers have been telling Sarkozy that such legislation would be contested on those grounds.

    So maybe the reason for Europe’s stance is more about “defending our values” from overrunning hordes bent on Islamisation? Certainly that was the sentiment behind Switzerland’s vote to ban minarets. It wasn’t about the size and shape of the minarets given the number of physically similar church spires that dot the Swiss landscape. With  provocative posters that depicted minarets as missiles, it was clearly about fear-mongering. Unsurprisingly the posters featured images of  a woman in a face-veil – linking the idea back to the concept that face-veils are a threat to Europe.
    Is it about security? Well most Muslim women who veil have no objection to being cleared through security, in fact they most likely would support such security checks.

    Is this about racism? The difficult question that no-one dares to ask is whether in this vitriolic response to a group who looks a little different continental Europe is reverting to type? Dare anyone mention the scapegoating that took place in Europe in the 1930s?

    Maybe it is simply a symptom of insecurity within Europe about its identity. Given recent troubles in Greece, Spain and Portugal, Europe’s power on the world stage is looking shaky. Sometimes it’s easier to know what you are in opposition to  – the ‘other’ –  rather than having the self-knowledge and conviction to stand for what you actually believe in.

    Europe has always taken upon itself the burden to “liberate” Muslim women, blind to the suffering of its own women. For Muslim women who choose to veil, being forced to strip off and pay a fine hardly seems any kind of liberation. For those who are in fact forced to cover, such legislation will only confine them to their homes, rather than allow them to talk to their peers and neighbours, get educated and assert themselves. It’s not just Muslim women who face oppression and domestic problems. In France for example, 40,000 women a year suffer domestic violence at the hands of their partners.

    When arguing in favour or a ban on the face-veil, Europeans often resort to what I call the “reciprocity” argument saying in effect “if women are forced to veil in countries in the Muslim world like in Saudi Arabia, then why can’t they be forced not to veil in Europe?” I wonder  do we really want to look to oppressive non-democratic regimes for guidance on freedom?

    Of course, while the politics of the veil hints at  wider tensions between Europe and the Muslim world perhaps this is more to do with faith than politics. Religion has been getting a hard time recently, being pilloried and driven out of public consciousness as no longer important in our national life. Islam is painted – wrongly in my opinion, as it shares an Abrahamic heritage with Christianity – as different and alien. So when it comes to rejecting faith, rejecting Islam is the most symbolic way of expressing this rejection. And when the face-veil is seen as the most potent reference to Islam, it’s no surprise that Europe’s many insecurities and tensions become focused on a seemingly innocuous bit of fabric.

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  • My film review of Four Lions on BBC Radio 4

    Last week, BBC Radio 4 sent me off to preview the film Four Lions, which is out on public release in the UK this weekend. It’s a satire on suicide bombers, using comedy to fight terror. It follows a group of incomptent British Muslim suicide bombers on their journey to save the world.

    Is it likely to offend? Will Muslims be up in arms? And is it really ok to laugh to terrorists?

    You can listen to my review of the film on Radio 4’s Sunday programme as it’s probably expired on the BBC site.

    Listen now:

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    You can also read my thoughts on the question “Can terror be funny?” published in The National newspaper, and reproduced here on the blog. The blog link also has trailers for the film. So funny you’ll be watching them over and over.

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  • Can terror be funny?

    This article which includes a review of the Chris Morris Film Four Lions, was published today in The National newspaper. The film is released this weekend in the UK. You can also listen to my review of Four Lions on BBC Radio 4 by clicking here

    “He’s got a bomb in his pants!” It could have been a sentence in a smutty schoolboy magazine revelling in lavatory humour. But no. This was a real story from Christmas Day 2009. A male airline passenger was found carrying a bomb in his underwear which he planned to detonate over Detroit in a suicide bombing.

    Despite the horror of the event, if we all look deep down there is no denying that there was also, in a macabre way, something humorous about a man blowing his behind off to change the world.

    If you haven’t surrendered to begrudging mirth yet, wait until you read about another bomb-in-the-pants story from the US earlier this week. This time California authorities couldn’t distinguish whether a man, who appeared to be knowledgeable about explosives, was really carrying a bomb in his pants or not. The perpetrator claimed that a wire that was hanging out of his underpants with an on-off switch was not a bomb but simply a sex toy, which turned out in fact to be the case.

    When real life becomes stranger than fiction, it is time for a film parody. And that’s exactly what we get with this week’s release in Britain of the Chris Morris film Four Lions.

    Morris, who directs the film, was also the satirist behind The Day Today and Brass Eye. He pre-empts critics of Four Lions by asking and answering the tough question: “Where is the joke in terror?”

    He recounts how the idea for the film came about after he read the story of a plot to ram a US warship. The members of the cell loaded their boat with too many explosives. “It sank. I laughed. I wasn’t expecting that,” says Morris.

    Four Lions follows a group of incompetent British Muslim would-be terrorists on their journey to carry out a suicide bombing.

    Waj is the idiot of the gang, good-hearted but a little thick. Barry, a white Muslim convert, is what can only be described as an utter nutcase, a megalomaniac who stitches together random conspiracy theories to bolster his cause. At one point, his inflated sense of self is so enormous that he declares that if he is not involved: “Islam will end.”

    Faisal is the bomb-making expert who doesn’t want to blow himself up because his dad is sick, so instead he trains crows to fly bombs through windows. Hassan seems to think this is a cool fad, oblivious to the devastating consequences of his actions.

    Omar, the thinking man of the group, is disillusioned about the treatment of Muslims around the world. He is the ordinary Muslim-next-door who wants to do good and defeat evil, but he is confused about the best way to do it. His resolve is tested when Faisal is accidently blown up next to a flock of sheep. It elicits the wonderful line: “Does that make him a martyr or a jalfrezi? Anyone who tries to create a media stir by arguing that Muslims will be offended by this film is wrong. Muslims will find it hysterically funny because the Muslim characters are well-researched and the contradictions are richly exposed. The dialogue is pitch-perfect in detail and tone. This is the kind of shared humour that can actually bring different communities together.

    For example, in Omar’s suicide video, where he decries the McDonaldisation of the world, Waj simply wonders why people pay over the odds for McDonald’s when they could eat Chicken Cottage or food from any halal chicken fast-food chain. It’s a dig both at the over-proliferation of such restaurants, and the lack of awareness among Muslims that such chains are not much different to the American burger empires.

    The film opens with the cell recording their suicide video. Waj is centre stage and is being mocked for holding a small gun. “Not a small gun,” protests Waj. “Big hands.” The cameras pan outwards and you see the group as they collaborate on the direction and script of the video. You suddenly realise that even suicide video production is subject to the same inflated media egos as less gruesome film endeavours.

    And it is here that the film excels – by parodying the terrorists rather than the terror itself. And after 10 long years of serious terrorist-filled press and film coverage, the time has most certainly arrived for parody. We already have all sorts of parodies of serious subjects: the mafia, the police, even the killing of little old ladies in the film The Ladykillers. It is the perpetrators, not the crime or the victims, who are being mocked. Despite the seriousness of the situation, we see the same petty conflicts and tensions arise between them.

    The same approach could have applied to Osama bin Laden, whose notoriety came from the global platform he was given by George W Bush. If we had mocked him instead, he might have slunk away.

    Don’t just take my word for it: listen to Professor Michael Clarke who is the director of the Royal United Services Institute, arguably the world’s oldest think tank specialising in security and military matters.

    “Some of the most valuable counterterrorism experts are comedians,” he says. “They are doing more than anything the government is doing. A lot of what these terrorists say and claim to believe is actually pathetic and juvenile. It has to be exposed and comedians are the best people at doing this.”

    The Scottish comedian Billy Connolly did just that by mocking the bungling attempts of terrorists who drove a burning Jeep into Glasgow Airport in June 2007, noting that al-Qa’eda was “400 years too late” in trying to start a religious war in the city.

    Humour allows us to conquer our own fears of terrorism and terrorists, and allows us to feel brave. We see the human weaknesses of our opponents, instead of buying into the myths of an invincible robotic terror machine. The fear created by the myths – whether perpetuated by the bin Laden’s or the Bush’s of this world – is itself part of the terrorisation process. If we can defuse the myth, we can get down to tackling the criminals at the heart of the violence and destruction.

    And so, if anyone is upset or offended by the use of comedy to fight terror, it will be those on the hawkish right who have spent the past 10 years building the myth of the invincible terror machine and hyping our fears of a pervasive monster waiting to pounce. Comedy makes them worry that the campaign of fear they are waging to eat quietly away at civil liberties will be undermined.

    The argument of the right is also that terrorism is born of the “alien” religion of Islam and we must fear an impending tsunami of “Islamisation”. As Four Lions amply shows, terrorism is not about religion at all – it’s about politicisation.

    In a global Gallup poll of 50,000 Muslims across 35 countries, the results showed that of the seven per cent of Muslims who said the 9/11 attacks were justified, absolutely none quoted the Quran to support their view. Again, it is politics, not religion.

    And as politicians will tell you, in today’s media-oriented world, it is satire that will bring you down. Just ask Sarah Palin or Gordon Brown.

    You can listen to my review of Four Lions on BBC Radio 4 by clicking here:

    And, you can watch the trailers for the film here. Very funny indeed.

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