In the backdrop of the recently released movie ‘The Siege’
directed, written and produced by Edward Zwick, whose films include ‘Glory’ and
‘Legends of the Fall’. (Editor)
‘Insidious, incendiary and dangerous.’ That is how the
American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee has chosen to characterise my film
The Siege in a letter sent to every major media outlet in the country. The
group’s objections based on the film’s depiction of radical Islamic terrorists
who have chosen to attack the United States.
What the critics are saying, as best as I can understand
it, is that any portrayal of the life of Muslims that includes representations
of violence – no matter how well documented – is not only offensive, but also
inflammatory. Forget the World Trade Centre and the embassy bombings in Kenya
and Tanzania; their position, simply put, is that all one billion Islamic people
in the world can be portrayed only in their most positive aspect.
Even though members of this group who saw The Siege have
privately told me they were moved by the film, the organisation’s official
position has been to attack it as promoting stereotypes, a stand also taken by
other Arab-American groups. But what, exactly, are these stereotypes? The
Arab-American community is as diverse and divided against itself-politically,
religiously, socially – as any vibrant community in the United States. And this
film portrays Arab-Americans as cops, landlords, people with families, community
leaders – and, yes, terrorists. In fact, the film (in which growing fear leads
to the wholesale internment of the Arab-Americans) is about stereotypes, about
what happens when stereotypes are played out to disastrous effect.
Beneath the objections of groups like the American-Arab
Anti Discrimination Committee, I sense a fear that the image of Arabs and
Muslims in America is so poor that any negative depiction, even if part of a
balanced whole, is inherently perilous. This argument has been promulgated
before: by Jewish Americans, Italian-Americans and many others. It is a
time-honoured expression of the insecurity of any new immigrant group so worried
about the pains of acculturation. But the logic, so emotionally persuasive and
understandable, is, I’m afraid, finally as reductionist and disrespectful as the
imputed offences that it protests.
The single and simple conclusion. The Siege draws is that
it is impossible to generalise about Arab-Americans, that the distinction
between them and terrorists must be understood before we, as a nation, can
grapple with our fear of the ‘other’. Only then, if push ever comes to shove in
the new war against terrorism, will we be able to respond prudently, and with
conscience. The film makes clear that even in the fight against vicious and
committed enemies, the ends, if they include the deprivation of civil liberties
to any group, can never justify the means.
If The Siege engenders a dialogue on ethnic stereotyping,
on terrorism, on the increasingly cloudy legal landscape between personal rights
and the public interest, then it will have accomplished far more than I might
ever have imagined for a Hollywood thriller. Movies about aliens and asteroids
can’t offend anybody, but neither do they try to hold up a mirror to
unattractive aspects of our country. And the truth sometimes hurts. In what a
friend of mine calls the new American hurt game, if you’re not offended by
somebody, you’re nobody.
These days, it seems, people wake up in the morning not
only waiting to be offended, but also hoping to be offended. Central to any
multicultural orthodoxy is the notion that, unless you are offended, you have no
ontology. I imagine the Army also might be offended by its portrayal in the
film. Maybe the C.I.A., and Congress, and Bill Clinton too. But I don’t expect
they will protest. They refused to it by now. The beauty of a pluralistic
society. I’ve always been taught, is that it can contain the giving and taking
This over-heated chorus of lamentations began, tellingly,
before the film was ever seen. But it is the job of an anti-discrimination
organisation to complain. Mine is to make films. I am not accustomed to
defending them. What I’m trying to do as a film-maker is to look at the world.
And write about what I see. To shrink from any subject because it is hurtful or
politically sensitive or politically incorrect, or Islamically incorrect, is to
deny one of the most important functions or art, which is to be provocative.
So, I’m sorry if I offended anyone. But I’m really not.
(Courtesy: The Nation, Lahore)