‘Of Gods and Men’ is a moving and beautiful film based on the true story of a small group of Cistercian monks who ran an abbey in Algeria until 1996. The monks got along very well with the local Muslims, joining in their celebrations, and one of the monks was a doctor who tended to the sick from the nearby village. The monks grew crops, collected honey, and sang beautifully in their small chapel. The prior, Christian de Chergé, a devout Christian, also had a keen interest in the Islamic religion, which he studied. It seems also in real life, he believed that the two religions could reach an understanding through dialogue. Many years before, while serving as a young officer during the Algerian war of Independence, his life had been saved by a Muslim.
Then one day, during the Algerian civil war, a group of jihadis arrive demanding the doctor monk come and help tend to their wounded. Christian refused, saying that the doctor could not leave the abbey. The jihadis leave without him, but a sense of foreboding hangs over the monks from this point onward. A unit of the Algerian army arrives, their officer tries to persuade the monks to leave or accept protection, but Christian refuses and the monks remain.
Life appears to go back to normal for a while, but some of the monks are doubting whether they should remain, as their lives will clearly be in very real danger from now on. Eventually they arrive at a consensus in favour of remaining however, encouraged particularly by Christian’s strong conviction. In a very moving scene the monks listen to the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, while drinking a glass of wine, and the mixed emotions of joy and sadness that they are experiencing are revealed. Eventually another group of jihadis arrive at the mosque and take all but two of the monks prisoner. The final scene shows the monks marching in a line with the jihadis up a hill, snow is falling.
In real life apparently the monks’ heads were later discovered, but their bodies were never found. There seems to be some doubt about whether they were killed by the jihadis or by the military, but jihadis have a habit of beheading people, because the man they regard as a prophet, did the same during his “most perfect example of a life” (Koran 33:21 and 33:26) (1).
Of course it is tempting to react to this film as I suspect we are supposed to, by hoping that such a dialogue that Christian hoped for, is indeed possible. It is also tempting to see ordinary Muslims as peaceful and tolerant people, like the villagers, who are terrorized by jihadis. The jihadis have “extremist” views and, supposedly in error, take Islamic texts in a literal way. Unfortunately although many Muslims may indeed behave in such a peaceful and tolerant way, there are also many other stories, that were they to be told, would reveal a very much more complicated and far less comforting picture.
I hope that one day Xavier Beauvois will make another moving and beautiful film, this time perhaps about say the story of Aasiya Bibi, another very brave Christian who has been on death row in Pakistan for 7 years. The moving film will reveal how a petty dispute about a drinking vessel escalated, how the local imam encouraged a mob of local villagers (not “jihadis”, ordinary Muslims) to attack Aasiya and her family. It will then show the scene where the police arrived to rescue her and her family, only to decide she had in fact committed the “crime” of blasphemy, and take her away to prison.
After 18 months in prison, in appalling conditions, she was eventually sentenced to hang by a court. The sentence was later suspended, and she remains in prison, still in appalling conditions, in a bad state suffering internal bleeding for which she receives no treatment. Two brave politicians, one a Christian, and one a Muslim, have been assassinated for their attempts to save her from this harsh punishment. Perhaps those seeing this shocking and moving film will be reminded of the “body and soul” that the prior Christian referred to, the soul of course meaning Islam. According to Pew research, a majority of Muslims in Pakistan support such punishment. Apparently 10 million Pakistanis have said that they would be willing to execute her themselves.
Of course if a prominent director like Xavier Beauvois were to make such a film, the whole world might descend into chaos. Rioting could occur around the Muslim world, the French flag might be set on fire (again) (2), fatwas would most likely be issued for his assassination. I fear though that until the high profile film makers of the world start to make such films, such intolerance and brutality will continue to escalate, as the fear and intimidation that Islam promotes, begins to gain the upper hand in the world. Only courage and honesty about the true nature of Islam can stop this tide.
Note: A film has in fact been made about Asia Bibi’s case, but I don’t expect we’ll be hearing about it at the Cannes film festival, more info can be found here (pass it on):
I have also written a short poem about her: