Spectacular endings and role reversals in the films on Muslims of the West

This article was published in Oasis 28. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:58:38

aus_dem_nichts_akin_poster.jpgThey’re smiling. There, on the beach, in the summer heat, they’re smiling, despite the fact that they are, quite literally, covered from head to foot. Dressed in black or grey (the more frivolous ones in blue), gorgeous models are smiling as they promote Islamic swimming costumes or burkini (a grotesque combination of burqa and bikini) with magnificent tropical beaches in the background. In fact, there’s nothing to smile about in the face of a phenomenon that began on the quiet, only to reach the front covers in no time. If Muslims in Europe instil fear and tourists steer well clear of the protected beaches cordoned off for the benefit of Muslim ladies, then along come the women’s magazines—those guardians of common thinking from time immemorial—and the situation is normalized. The burkini ends up on the catwalk: it is turned from an object of scandal into a product and even the urgent issue of individual freedom is brought back within the perimeter of that normality that we call the market. Try clicking on “burkini” on the Amazon website: hundreds of pages propose variations on the theme. They call it “modest fashion” or, according to D (the women’s magazine published by the Italian daily la Repubblica), “the fashion that respects the Islamic religion’s precepts.” Forgotten words such as modesty and tradition are being brought out of their mothballs to talk about it. But the real problem is that this is anything but a negligible phenomenon from the economic point of view if, in line with the Global Islamic Economy Report’s calculations, its turnover will pass from 219 billion euros in 2016 to 320 billion euros in 2022.

After fashion, it’s the cinema’s turn to play its part in the normalization process. It’s hard to deny that there’s a problem, even if the attacks that have bloodied Europe—often carried out by second-generation immigrants—are left out of the equation. But the critical aspects are softened, the questions avoided and the axioms overturned. Today, there are more than 25 million people of Islamic faith residing on the Old Continent and their average age is 30: half of them live in France and Germany. They will number more than 35 million by 2050. In addition to the people, Europe is thus having to accommodate a dense network of international ties that inevitably have an impact on politics and choices in her various countries. This can occur through forms of censure (such as the demonstration in distant Islamabad that forced Holland to cancel a cartoon competition deemed to be blasphemous) or through self-censorship, like the French instance regarding the film Rien n’est Pardonné (“Nothing is Forgiven”), dedicated to the sole survivor of the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff: despite the film’s favourable reception by critics, it was not shown in cinemas. Of the titles that are contributing to the normalization process (some more and some less involuntarily), let’s start with the most interesting one, In the Fade, by the multiple award-winning Turco-German director, Fatih Akin. Starring Diane Kruger (best actress at Cannes), it won the prize for best foreign film at the Golden Globes. Set amongst the multi-ethnic districts in Hamburg, the film tells the story of an attack in which the Kurdish husband of Katja (a German woman who has married him in prison) and their little son, Rocco, both die. The plot is very grim. The hunt for the culprit starts with an initial hypothesis of an Islamist involvement, before passing to the possibility of common criminality and then, finally, to what we will later discover to be the truth: an act of terrorism born of xenophobia and racism inspired by the neo-Nazi attacks that racked Germany between 2000 and 2007. In short, Islam has nothing to do with it. However, alongside the loss, grief and sense of annihilation that pervades Katja’s days in the portrait that Akin skilfully paints of her, there creeps in an obstinacy, a cupio dissolvi and a resentment that have much in common with terror’s extremism. The sensational finale has a role reversal in store for us. It will be Katja, European citizen, who, buffeted in the battle between reason of state and reasons of the heart, will don an explosive vest and blow herself up along with her very young enemies, in the illusion that the sacrificing of life is redemptive of evil.

The big Sick _Ing 2.jpgThere are also those who are able to laugh about Western Muslims, about habits born of superstition and about ignorant Europeans. Cherchez la femme! (Some Like it Veiled), a French film directed by the Iranian Sou Abadi and The Big Sick, written by and starring the Pakistani Kumail Nanjiani, tackle the paradoxes arising from a grafting of ancient cultures and traditions onto a new world that is willing to welcome those arriving, particularly the new generations, but reluctant to delve any deeper (even for the other person’s benefit) into the reasons for their own identity. And here we are, back on the subject of costumes. But now we are talking about the burqa and things become more serious. It’s difficult to evaluate something that, if not an instrument of torture, is at least one of subjection. Abadi, who spent her youth in Iran before emigrating to Paris, attempts it, defying insults and threats from the fundamentalist groups. Her protagonist is Armand, an Iranian studying Political Science in Paris. One has rather an odd feeling seeing him running through the streets of the Ville Lumière, all muffled up in the horrendous garment that leaves only his eyes uncovered so that he can meet his girlfriend Leila, locked up at home by her brother Mahmoud who has been radicalized during a trip to Yemen. It ends up with Mahmoud falling in love with her, Scheherazade, who is in fact a him, and asking a fake father for her hand in marriage. It’s not the story that strikes one. It’s Paris: a Paris that, capable of receiving everyone and not accepting anyone, remains in the background and doesn’t take part in the game. One is struck by the real city that one catches a glimpse of behind the film, what with the office employees and the grimaces of the person at the airport who steps aside for a girl in a burqa who is running away from someone or something. There’s a war going on between the immigrants who have integrated and Mahmoud’s friends: but whose side are Paris and the Parisians on? Are we sure that it’s all just a game? The Big Sick also claims to laugh about something that doesn’t sound too good to our ears: arranged marriages, whether they be on home ground or abroad. But rather than focussing on the motives, the jokes home in on harmless details. It’s fine that the protagonist is a comedian, drives for Uber and dreams about New York. But when his girlfriend’s father asks him, “What’s your stance on 9/11?”, the reply isn’t funny: “We lost 19 of our best guys. I’m only joking.” Kumail is a post-secular Pakistani: he doesn’t pray but he pretends to pray, he doesn’t want to marry a Pakistani girl but keeps the photos of the girls his mother introduces to him. He doesn’t follow Islam’s rules but he doesn’t want problems. Just like us.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Emma Neri, “How Cinema is Normalizing Islam”, Oasis, year XIV, n. 28, December 2018, pp. 140-142.

Online version:
Emma Neri, “How Cinema is Normalizing Islam”, Oasis [online], published on 27th March 2019, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/how-cinema-is-normalizing-islam.