Tag Archives: islam

Les Cowboys Review

My review for The Eagle

Les Cowboys riffs on John Ford’s The Searchers in a modern-day take on the story of a father looking for his lost daughter. Screenwriter Thomas Bidegain’s previous films Le Prophete and Rust and Bone showcased the same subdued yet visceral ethos that he brings to his directorial debut here.

The film opens at a country-western fair in France, in 1995. Alain (Francois Damiens), his wife, and two kids, Kelly and Georges/Kid, are the epitome of the wholesome family. The person who rides off into the sunset is no valiant cowboy, however, but Alain’s sixteen-year-old daughter Kelly. In the original film, the “bad guys” are the Comanches (racism found its way into cowboys movies, too). Bidegain’s Les Cowboys centers on “the Other” of present day–”radical” Muslims.

As Alain begins to search for Kelly, he discovers her notebooks (filled with Islamic propaganda) and finds out she has run away with her boyfriend Ahmed (whom they did not even know existed). What is especially mesmerizing about the film is that the suspense does not come from wondering if the father will find his daughter–very early on in the film, Kelly sends the family a letter asking them not to look for her and that she has chosen this life for herself.

So, we know immediately this will not be a more cerebral Taken or a whodunit. Alain’s all-consuming obsession with finding Kelly is what is most poignant and engrossing; his pain and bewilderment are palpable. Played with firebrand intensity by Francois Damiens, we see the same ardent love a father feels for his daughter transformed into an equally devouring, Don Quixotian quest that incinerates everything in its path–Alain, too, in the most literal sense. Alain goes everywhere from Syria to Yemen and Amsterdam, a broken man trying to find a broken bond. When a smuggler tells him that his daughter is not his daughter anymore, we can see how true yet utterly hollow that rings to a father.

9/11 happens and Georges/Kid (Finnegan Oldfield), Kelly’s brother, starts working for a relief organization in Afghanistan, secretly hoping to run into her somehow. John C. Reilly makes a (somewhat comedic) appearance as an American mercenary. The cadence of Les Cowboys is certainly compelling; the plot unfurls at an engrossing clip. The way traditional western film tropes are translated into the present is also quite creative. Kid, unlike his father, doesn’t want to pull Kelly away from her new life. He simply wants to see her and make sure she is alright. The final scene packs a stunningly emotional wallop, sans any words exchanged.

Les Cowboys will haunt you long after it’s over, and not because of what it states outright but because of what it implies. The dialogue is minimal to non-existent, yet the actors are able to educe a lyricality from their characters that is eloquent beyond any words. Alain’s character is stoic, like a true cowboy, but he is not one-dimensional.

The film also obliquely addresses racism and Islamophobia by pulling it out of the shadows, without commenting on it. In one scene, a man tells Alain that “now that you see how we live, you understand what has happened”–Alain gets enraged that the man is trying to engage him in some sort of a political discussion when all he cares about is Kelly and nothing else. The scene speaks volumes about how hatred also grows out of thin air–we don’t get the sense that Alain holds any prejudices until the fruitless quest that saps everything from him leads him to the point of calling the people he encounters “ragheads.”

Les Cowboys chooses to stay mum on politics, yet Kelly’s character who voluntarily chooses to leave her Western lifestyle behind, also offers a trenchant perspective that belies the broad-strokes stereotype of “brain-washed” and “abducted” women as the only ones who join radical Islamists. Nevertheless, just because it lacks in histrionics, it is no less moving. Les Cowboys does not ride off easily into the sunset without jostling you awake first and making you question the difference between good and bad guys and searches and crusades.

 

Professor Akbar Ahmed Presents Findings from “Journey into Europe” Project

My article
Also published in Stoner’s Journal

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University’s School of International Service, recently reported on findings from his fieldwork in Europe over the past two years and gave a preview of his upcoming book and documentary.

Journey into Europe is Ahmed’s fourth project in a series of award-winning books published with Brookings Press. The series explores relations between the West and the Islamic world after 9/11. Ahmed is one of the world’s leading authorities on contemporary Islam.

His first book in the series, Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, examined what Muslims thought of the United States and the West through fieldwork across the Muslim world. The second book, Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, showed how Americans perceived Islam and Muslims. The third book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, explored the tribal societies on the periphery of nations.

The next volume, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire, will examine the historical relationship between Europe and the Muslim world, the contemporary challenges posed by increased immigration from the Muslim world, and the new pressures of security, globalization, and multiculturalism.

Dean James Goldgeier moderated a panel on February 11 that included Associate Professor Randolph Persaud, director of the Comparative and Regional Studies program, Distinguished Historian in Residence Michael Brenner, director of the Center for Israel Studies at AU, and Professor Tamara Sonn, the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in the History of Islam at Georgetown University.

Journey into Europe explores the intersecting issues of the increased immigration of Muslims to Europe and the growing number of right-wing parties in Europe. The study also clarifies common misconceptions about European Muslims, for instance, the idea that they subscribe to one cultural community.

Ahmed described an “ominous, threatening landscape in Europe.” His perception of Europe’s role as the “mother continent,” its large Muslim population, and continued tensions between Islam and the West make this project timely and important in contributing to “healing a fractured world,” he explained. As an anthropologist, he noted that his project is both practically-grounded and academically-minded.

Ahmed noted that the Muslim community in Europe is not united. “It is divided along ethnic, sectarian, political, and national lines,” he said. “The monolith of ‘Muslim communities’ does not exist as such as there is far too much diversity.” He noted that there are indigenous Muslims who are native to Europe and non-indigenous Muslims, including immigrants in France, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

Persaud noted that European Muslims are increasingly living in a “third space” that neither fits the traditional notion of the Middle Eastern Muslim or the notion of “Orientalism” seen in colonial times. Thus, many Muslim immigrants find themselves in a state of limbo, said Ahmed, even those who have lived in Europe for a long time, such as the Pakistanis in the United Kingdom.

The project’s scope–and engagement with a wide spectrum of Muslim experiences in Europe–makes it a very timely and cogent endeavor.

Timbuktu Film Review

My review of the film Timbuktu

Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is social commentary subtly woven into a beautifully-painted, lush-yet-measured allegory. At times harkening to an early Clint Eastwood western, this is a polemics-free look on film at life under conservative Islam.

Timbuktu, recently nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category and the first film from Mauritania to earn that honor, takes place in Mali. Occupied by Islamic fundamentalists (they call themselves jihadists), the already-pious Muslim community living there is plunged into a new, rigid world order thoroughly unfamiliar to them.

The opening scene of machine guns destroying ancient African relics is  understated. The scene of a woman singing while she is being lashed for music-making (one of the many forbidden activities under the new regime) is equally so. Children playing soccer with a ghost ball (because soccer, too, is forbidden) is yet another haunting rendering of quiet resistance even in the face of the stripping of all that is sensory.

The protagonist in the film is cattle herder Kidane who lives peacefully in the dunes with his wife Satima, his daughter Toya, and Issan, their twelve-year-old shepherd. When one of Kidane’s cows is killed by Amadou, the fisherman, for its encroaching into his nets, Kidane is entangled in a life-or-death net of his own. Kidane’s character also shines a light on the lives of desert nomads like him—people increasingly buffeted by the crashing waves of whatever political tides reign in the region. All of his neighbors have left; living in the desert offers Kidane’s family a certain degree of freedom but also puts him in tremendous peril, under a rule determined to erase his culture, even though many of the Islamist recruits are his own people.

In town, the people suffer, powerless, under the regime imposed by the jihadists. Laughter, music, soccer, cigarettes, and not wearing gloves while in public for women, are just a few of the verboten things. Every day, the religious police patrol the city and pass violent sentences on anyone daring to break the laws. What is remarkable about Timbuktu is the way that the people respond to this draconian state: for example, a woman asked to wear gloves while selling fish simply explains to the militants that it is not practical for her to wear gloves while doing her work. There are no histrionics here, just quiet dignity as everyone seems to be equal parts confused and resigned to what has happened to this place they used to call home.

The absurdity of the ideology is made apparent without much fanfare. When a mother asks what justification there is for one of the jihadists marrying her daughter without the consent of her parents, the courts tell her that the man in question is, “pious and according to Sharia, if a man is pious, he should be given a bride.” One can’t help but see that even the enforcers of this state of terror seem to have no rhyme or reason for their behavior.

Timbuktu Timbuktu presents the jihadist occupation in a surprisingly subdued way, with little reliance on emotionality from any of its characters, yet it is not devoid of emotional pull. The scenes are carefully composed, with a desert blues cadence to them. The line between singing and howling/wailing in pain is blurry. Perhaps its greatest strength is how it renders the disruption of living under such turmoil seem so ordinary—something superimposed on the people there like a foreign cloak on the already pious fabric of their society.

Expert Panel Shines Light on ISIS

My article:

Two months after President Obama launched air strikes in an effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant group known as Islamic State or ISIS, the operation now has a name—”Enduring Resolve”—a reference to the long, difficult task of combating such an amorphous organization.

In an October event at the School of International Service convened by Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence, David Gregory, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed of SIS, Politico’s Susan Glasser, and The Washington Post’s David Ignatius discussed the prospects for the American-led campaign against ISIS and broader U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Moderator David Gregory began the talk by posing the question about how well the war on IS is going.

“It’s going badly. Wars often start badly,” explained Ignatius, reaffirming the need for the U.S. to form a strong coalition with other Arab nations. “Basically, we would have to tell them, ‘You have to put some skin in the game if you want the American help.’”

David Ignatius CSIS Panel

He also suggested that training CIA-style guerilla fighters in Syria to combat IS might be a more appropriate style campaign than the air bombing one used thus far. Ignatius expressed concern about “whether we are walking into a trap that locks us into the kind of warfare our adversaries want and how can we mitigate that danger.” He was of the firm conviction that Iraq is “as sectarian as ever. It is badly fractured and I do not see a coherent strategy in our policy to pull it together.”

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed framed ISIS in a tribal Islamic context, a topic he wrote a book about: “ISIS has very little to do with Islam. Its members are tribesmen from tribes that have imploded over the last few decades. We all tend to think of this as radical Islam without considering this is tribal Islam which espouses a code that encourages revenge for wrong-doings.”

Akbar Ahmed Chatham House 2013

One major distinction he made, however, is that this code has become mutated. Out of the trifecta of bravery, courage, and revenge, revenge is seen as the only thing left. He underlined that the creation of borders that split the tribes in forced ways, fanning the flames of conflict. That conflict is not Islam vs. the West but periphery versus center—societies left on the fringes fighting a central government they perceive as antagonistic to their interests.

Ambassador Ahmed explained that tribal Islam is a militaristic culture and one that is constantly in conflict with Islam itself—for example, tribal Islam eschews the inroads made for women by Islam, such as inheritance rights. “We need to understand the context of these movements and not call them Islamic movements.” In couching the conflict in center vs. periphery, Ahmed also suggested that public opinion in Pakistan, for example, is in favor of strikes against ISIS, whereas public confidence in Iraq has collapsed. He believes that Muslims worldwide support the fight against ISIS and that getting the support of the people is important in forming an alliance.

Susan Glasser Politico New America Foundation

Susan Glasser spoke a bit more on the policy side of the issue, calling Obama an “extremely reluctant warrior.” “We are seeing a fairly public debate between the President and the generals on strategy. We have a lot of generals saying the war plan will not work, that it is based on false theory, premised on the notion that an air campaign on guys in pick-up trucks.”

All three panelists expressed the opinion that ISIS is an aggressive, flexible, and adapting enemy and that there is tremendous trepidation about entering into yet another quagmire of conflict in the Middle East.

David Ignatius discussed some of ISIS’ tactics, referring to the beheading of people as “their version of shock and awe. The element of raw physical intimidation, of an almost pornographic  level of violence, is what is so attention-grabbing.” But he referred to the case of Al Qaeda that had grown so hated because it made so many enemies in fighting a sectarian battle against more than the U.S. “It is not possible to brutalize your way to success.” He explained that ISIS is able to gain wealth by engaging in kidnapping, selling oil, and taking over central bank branches. They also have clever strategies for gaining recruits. In addition to a powerful social media empire, they have the practice of attacking prisons, specifically in Mosul and Ambar, whereupon liberating several thousand prisoners, they gain new fighters from that cadre. “They are really smart in how they plan operations.”

Watch the entire video here.