Of Gods and Men

[Film Review]

‘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:



(1) http://www.usc.edu/org/cmje/religious-texts/quran/verses/033-qmt.php

(2) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/charlie-hebdo-protests-five-dead-as-churches-and-french-flags-burn-in-niger-riots-over-cover-9985195.html








The Reluctant Fundamentalist

(Film Review)

I have to confess I was something of a reluctant audience, I did not really want to watch this film. Aired as it was, on the BBC, I suspected from the start that it would in fact be a propaganda piece, with a heavy “narrative”. I was not wrong. I won’t bother with a spoiler alert, because I don’t want you to watch this film. I watched it so that others would not have to.

The film opens in Pakistan, where our “hero” Changez (played by Riz Ahmed) is attending a social gathering. Musicians and singers are performing a not completely worthless but rather sombre song. He serves a glass of whisky to his dying relative. Right there was the first moment when I felt a bit irritated, there was a signal here. You see, Muslims aren’t all bad, they drink a glass of whisky now and again. I’ve heard rich Saudis sometimes do the same, but what do I know. I have also heard that sometimes people get flogged to within an inch of their lives for drinking alcohol in Islamic societies, but no doubt its seldom the rich and powerful individuals.

As the musicians play, the scene cuts to the street where an American man is walking along accompanied by a Pakistani woman. The pair are ambushed and the man is bundled into a car. This kidnapping sets the scene for the rest of the film. The scene cuts to a cafe where Changez is sitting talking to an American journalist played by Liev Schreiber. It turns out Schreiber is really a CIA agent, who is investigating the kidnapping.

The film flashes back to our “hero” Changez’s earlier days when he studied at an Ivy League US university. He then joins some big company as a financial analyst. His boss is Kiefer Sutherland, who plays the first baddie white guy, a ruthless corporate guy who makes big money by making companies more efficient. He joins a team with three other young recruits. One is a white guy, who gradually morphs into another baddie white guy as the film progresses. One is a black guy, who turns out to be a goodie and becomes Changez’s friend. The other is a white girl who isn’t that important in the plot.

The young team of 4 have a barbecue in a park. They talk about their ambitions for the future. The goodie black guy is not really out for himself, he has a plan to become a rich philanthropist and wipe out malaria. Changez quips that he is going to become a “dictator of an Islamic Republic with nuclear capability”. Hilarious. Changez runs into the love interest of the film, played by Kate Hudson. She is photographing skateboarders. As the plot develops, they begin an affair.

Then one evening Changez is watching TV in his hotel room. The news of the 9/11 attack comes on the TV, and he turns to watch. At first he is quite shocked, but then he smiles as he watches. I’ll just repeat that, he smiles as he watches.  I felt quite nauseous.  The scene flashes back to the present, where Changez is talking to the CIA guy in the cafe. Changez explains his emotions at the time. He says he should have felt sorrow, but all he could feel was a sense of awe at the “audacity of the thing”. As you can guess I’m really warming to the guy at this point. “David had struck Goliath” he says, “arrogance brought low”. CIA guy doesn’t look too happy about it. What was the arrogance Changez was talking about, I wondered?  Was it the arrogance that led the US to help the Afghan Taliban during their resistance of the Soviet occupation?  Was it the arrogance that led the US to give billions in aid to Pakistan :


What arrogance was he talking about, exactly?

It turns out Changez is now a lecturer at a Lahore university. The authorities are harassing Changez and they talk about why.  As he was speaking, a terrible thought came to my mind. Wasn’t Lahore the city where Asia Bibi was sentenced to hang for “blasphemy”? Could it even be that she was incarcerated in a filthy prison not far away from this very film set? A horrible nauseous feeling swept over me and I had to pause the film and run upstairs to the bathroom. I wondered if this spoilt brat rich kid from the leafy suburbs had bothered to join any rallies calling for her release? There are victims and victims though, and no doubt his higher status as a Muslim victim enabled him to not have a troubled conscience about that. A little recovered I managed to return to my living room and resume the viewing.

We flash back to the US, where the younger Changez’s career is developing. In the wake of 9/11 tensions are high. He is stopped at an airport and strip searched. The sense of victimhood is growing. He visits a company to lay off staff and has his tyres slashed. He starts to grow a beard and gradually tensions with Hudson grow. She puts on a self-indulgent “art” show (rich kids can afford to do this sort of thing). The art show is full of references to her affair with Changez, in large neon writing. “I had a Pakistani once”, reads one of the signs. Its pretty sick. He finally decides he’s had enough of the US and returns to Pakistan to become the lecturer he now is.

We flash back to the present. A protest has gathered outside the cafe. The CIA guy decides that Changez was involved in the kidnapping – the hostage is now dead. The CIA guy arrests Changez and marches him out of the cafe at gunpoint. But, guess what, its all a big mistake. Changez is not really a baddie at all, he’s a good guy. There’s a scuffle, one of the protesting students gets shot (he later dies). The film ends with the student’s funeral.  Another victim of dumb American aggression, or so we’re supposed to think.  Its not a perfectly legitimate arrest of a suspect in a kidnapping (that’s apparently now also become a murder because the kidnapped man has been murdered).

You can feel a bit of pity for the student who dies, but really its not the CIA’s fault. Changez associates with a guy who seems to be a mujahideen of some sort. Its only reasonable that Changez should be under suspicion. I don’t think that’s what the makers of the film wanted us to feel however. I think they wanted us to think of Muslims as victims, the underdog, and white men as the baddies. However, I don’t have sympathy for a guy that smiles when thousands of people are murdered.