In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate
“Extraordinary rendition”; “torture”; “civil rights”; “national security.” These are words that are bandied around in the news and popular consciousness a lot these days. Yet, they are faceless, shapeless concepts that are difficult to fully understand. Yes, they may receive brief media attention from time to time, yet they almost always fade from public consciousness. It is like the television journalist said (played by Joaquin Phoenix) in the film “Hotel Rwanda”: people will say “that’s terrible” and then “go on eating their dinners.” I fear the same is true with our government’s terrible excesses of its prosecution of the “war on terror.”
Enter the film “Rendition,” which was released by New Line Cinema October 19. My “stereotype antenna” was on overdrive as I walked into the theater to see the film on the night it was released. “Rendition” is the story of an Egyptian-born Muslim, Anwar El Ibrahimi (played by Omar Metwalli) who is detained by the CIA after a suicide bombing somewhere in North Africa (unintentionally) claims the life of the CIA station chief.
El Ibrahimi, a U.S. permanent resident who is married to an American woman (played by Reese Witherspoon) and is living the American Dream in suburban Chicago, was linked to phone calls to a known terrorist overseas believed to be behind the terrorist attack, the target of which was the chief of police in this North African city. El Ibrahimi could not explain the phone calls, and thus the CIA counter-terrorism chief (played by Meryl Streep) tells the interrogator to “put him on the plane.”
El Ibrahimi is then sent to said North African country where he is tortured brutally by his Arab interrogators, because, as Streep said in the film, “The United States does not torture.” The acting station chief, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, was sent to observe the interrogation, but eventually could not stomach what was being done, and he had him released and flown back to the United States. The story is more complex than that, but so is the story of terrorism, religious extremism, and the tension between national security and civil liberties, which the film captures quite well.
Of course, no film about the Middle East is complete without young men shouting “Allahu-akbar,” but radical Islam is almost an afterthought in the film. It would have been a little easier to watch if I knew that this was a completely fictional scenario, but “extraordinary rendition” has been an actual practice of our government in the past (can you say, “Maher Arar”?), and all throughout the movie I was thinking to myself, “This could happen to anyone,” which made the film all the more disturbing.
In addition, “Rendition” was perhaps one of the best researched Hollywood films about the Middle East I have ever seen. True, there is a risk of audiences coming away from the film thinking that Arabs are nothing but brutal torturers. Moreover, there was this side commentary of the oppression of women in Arab society that seemed to be forced into the film. But, there is nothing this film depicts that is not actually occurring in the Middle East today, and this makes me truly sad.
Although it is heartening to see such a “pro-Muslim” film to come out of Hollywood, I do not think this movie was specifically made with Muslims in mind. This movie was a blatant attack against our government’s apparent sanction of torture against suspected terrorists as well as the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” the victims of which are almost always Muslims. The film helps audiences understand what is feels like to be detained without charge and access to counsel, as well as gives them a firsthand look at the brutality of torture. It is much more powerful than any newspaper article about the practice could ever be, and the release of the film could not be more timely.
And that is the point. Hollywood has an enormous impact on the American public psyche and consciousness, and the film industry can play a very constructive role in helping to educate society about what is happening in the world around it. Although no one wants someone else’s version of morality forced upon them – most especially Hollywood’s sexual morality – there are things that are universally accepted as wrong: genocide, torture, slavery, and the like. And a well-made feature film can go a long way to help make these concepts become “flesh.”
And here is where Muslims can play an important role. Rather than simply protesting against the negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims in film, the American Muslim community should engage Hollywood as much as possible: first, by supporting Muslim filmmakers, screenwriters, and production companies, so that quality work can be produced which will not only entertain, but also educate. In addition, there are ongoing efforts to work with Hollywood directly, which has admitted that it has had very little contact with Islam and Muslims. Organizations such as Unity Production Foundation are working to create a resource on Islam and Muslims for the film industry, so that films in the future will portray things pertaining to Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East more accurately, and films such as “Executive Decision” and “Hidalgo” will become a laughable relic of the distant past.
Despite some of the negative reviews “Rendition” has received, this is a very important film for everyone to watch. Just as “Hotel Rwanda” helped show audiences the horror of what happened in Rwanda (and the world’s indifference), “Rendition” helps the audience understand the insult to American values that “extraordinary rendition” truly is. The film also raises a number of questions, which is what a good film should do: “Is the suicide bomber the only terrorist?” “What motivates someone to become a terrorist?” “Does torture work?” In addition, “Rendition” reminds us that Benjamin Franklin’s famous statement still remains relevant today: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”