ETHNIC-BASED CINEMAGOING PRACTICES [A CONTINUATION OF PAPER 4e]
Bollywood, Hollywood, and the attitudes of diasporic Muslim “cultural clusters”
As has been observed throughout this project on East Ham [and especially in Paper 3 and Paper 4a], the area has also been settled by various Muslim-based “cultural clusters”. An examination of generally ethnic-based cinemagoing practices pertaining to this area and its environs must therefore also consider the case of Muslims and the precise manner in which such particular religious-cultural groupings relate to the world of cinemagoing, be it the projection of Bollywood movies, British movies and/or the Hollywoodian genre. Of course, in our discussion of the operation of East Ham’s Boleyn and Ilford’s Cineworld cinemas, as also in examining the reception of the Bollywoodian genre in the UK, there have been a variety of references to the area’s Muslim settlers and how these have been responding to movies screened in their vicinity.
The obvious question that here arises, however, is the extent to which the relationship between Muslim “cultural clusters” and their cinemagoing practices is in some sense unique or at least clearly distinguishable from other ethnic-based “clusters” in the area under discussion or around the UK as a whole. It is apparently impossible to gauge the uniqueness or discreteness of Muslim cinemagoing practices in an area such as East Ham unless one has a more general understanding of the Islamic worldview and how it sees the cinema as a whole. While such a general consideration of the Islamic attitude towards the cinema would not necessarily allow us to penetrate the concrete and variegated cinemagoing practices of specific Muslim “cultural clusters” in East Ham, it would nonetheless provide us with a working framework within which the problem may be approximated. It should also be clarified here that when we speak of the general Islamic attitude towards the cinema, we would not merely be referring to present-day Islamic teachings pertaining to practices such as cinemagoing – in fact, we intend to examine the specific manner in which a genre such as that of Bollywood has portrayed or portrays Muslims, as also the recorded reactions of UK Muslims to such portrayals.
The continuation of this Paper 4e shall therefore be examining the following themes:
- The extent to which the Bollywood genre has been characterized by a certain nationalistic ideology which has indulged in the so-called “othering” of Muslims as a people and the so-called “othering” of Islam as an ethnic, religious or cultural practice;
- More specifically, the manner in which Bollywood movies [though also UK and other Western movies] have been “othering” Muslim men and women as a whole;
- Even more specifically, the manner in which the Bollywood genre in particular [but without excluding Western movie genres] has been “othering” Muslim women in particular;
- The Islamic worldview generally and the implications of this regarding cinemagoing, and especially with respect to Western and Bollywood movies;
- How Muslim cinemagoers themselves feel about Western and/or Bollywood movies; and their reactions to the so-called “othering” of Muslim men and women, with specific reference to the case of the UK;
- The extent to which cinemagoing – or more specifically Bollywood viewing – is [or is not] accepted amongst ethnic-based communities in areas such as East Ham, but especially regarding Muslims generally and Muslim women in particular.
The nationalistic ideology of the Bollywood genre, and the so-called “othering” of Muslims and their Islamic worldview
We need to further chart the general ideological framework that has come to characterize the Bollywoodian genre, this time with specific reference to Islam and Muslims. Such ideological discourse has played a significant role in determining the cinemagoing reactions of Muslims to this genre in both India and amongst the diasporic Muslims that have settled in the UK. While such determining role has never been mechanical, automatic or uniform, it has nonetheless delineated certain limits of cinemagoing behaviour amongst great numbers of Muslims: many would avoid watching Bollywood movies altogether; as many would choose to watch such movies but would do so either with a critical eye regarding elements of the adopted diegetic approach or with a certain sense of alienation with respect to such approach.
We know that very many [not to say most] films are carriers of a specific politico-ideological paradigm – the Hollywoodian genre and especially the type of movies presented on Netflix certainly verify what has proved to be an indubitable fact. The Bollywood genre has itself tended to carry an ideological paradigm aimed at specific audiences, whether within the Indian subcontinent or amongst diasporic Asians settled in countries such as the UK. In this Paper 4e we have already discussed the specific sense in which Bollywood movies have functioned primarily as cultural products targeting Asian “cultural clusters” in localities such as East Ham; we have also discussed the ideology of “Indianness” that has been promoted by the Bollywoodian genre, especially since the 1990’s. A study of the Bollywood genre undertaken at the University of Warwick in 2015 certainly confirms both such observations. Focusing on the manner in which Bollywood movies represent Muslim women in particular [though without excluding the representation of Muslim men], Nazia Hussein and Saba Hussain introduce their paper as follows: “In this article, we use the example of Bollywood’s representation of Muslim women given its global recognition and its position as an influential cultural product which both constructs and disseminates the important paradigm of ‘Indian-ness’ and ‘collective identity’…” [cf. Nazia Hussein and Saba Hussain, “Interrogating Practices of Gender, Religion and Nationalism in the Representation of Muslim Women in Bollywood: Contexts of Change, Sites of Continuity”, Exchanges: the Warwick Research Journal, 2 (2), p. 285, my emph., https://www.wrap.warwick.ac.uk].
Although this 2015 Warwick paper does have its problems – it is infused with the jargon and global ideological dogmas currently in fashion amongst academics – it nonetheless gives us a fairly clear idea of the contents of the Bollywoodian ideological paradigm pertaining to Islam and the Muslim populations. It is therefore worthwhile considering what it is that Hussein and Hussain expound in their paper.
While we know that Bollywood movies have constructed and disseminated a “collective identity” of “Indianness” [we have ourselves explored this theme throughout Paper 4e], we also need to identify the manner in which such nationalistic ideology of “Indianness” relates to Islam and Muslims in particular. To clarify this specific relationship, Hussein and Hussain point to a central contradistinction embedded in the ideology of Bollywoodian “Indianness” – viz. that of “Quam” [or “community”] versus “Mulk” [or “nation”]. In this contradictory dichotomy, it is “Mulk” that constitutes “home” [or “Ghar”]. This conflictual relationship between these two entities bears major ideological implications regarding the status of Islam and Muslims – put simply, Islam and Muslims belong to a “community” that can be [or is] alien to the “nation” and to the “home” that such “nation” represents. The “nation” or “home”, of course, is none other than that of Hindus and Hinduism.
This is what Hussein and Hussain write with respect to the “Quam”–“Mulk” contradictory dichotomy: “The nationalist ideology of Bollywood positions ‘Quam’ (community) against ‘Mulk’ (nation), which is declared as a synonym to ‘Ghar’ (home)” [p. 290]. And they go on to explain what each of these two antithetical entities entail. As regards the “Mulk”, they note the following: “… the ‘Mulk’ is the Hindu, middle-class, territorially distinct, efficient, benevolent, reasonable, forward-looking and militarily-vigilant modern nation-state that India aspires to be” [ibid.]. Generally speaking, therefore, in this Bollywoodian ideological paradigm, “Hinduism comes to be presented as the philosophy that embraces modernity, plurality and secularism” [ibid.]. It should be noted here that such an understanding of Hinduism does not necessarily exclude elements related to Hindu traditionality or what Krämer has referred to as “the negotiation of tradition and modernity” [cf. above] – the supposedly superior status of the Hindu traditional worldview lies precisely in its capacity to “embrace” modernity and/or secularism within itself.
‘Quam’ is presented as the exact opposite to Indian modernity. Hussein and Hussain write as follows: “On the other hand, ‘Quam’ is constructed as the antithesis of this Indian modernity. It is constructed as feudal and decadent, unable to keep the sufferings of the past in the past, unable to move forward, calcified, irrational, sentimental, somewhat deranged, criminal and ultimately dangerous” [pp. 290-291].
It is quite obvious, therefore, that the Muslim ‘Quam’ is presented as a threat to the Indian nation-state, Indian modernity and the identity of “Indianness” as such. Hussein and Hussain go on to provide us with an example of the manner in which such Muslim ‘Quam’ is a threatening element of all that present-day “Indianness” entails – they write: “… the Muslim ‘Quam’ is viewed as threatening towards the Indian modernity because of its association with the partition and setting up a Muslim ‘Mulk’-Pakistan as opposed to the imagined secular Indian ‘Mulk’…” [p. 291]. Of course, the particular threat posed by the Muslim ‘Mulk’ is here presented in the context of what Hussein and Hussain view as an “imagined” Indian nationhood – there are two points that should be noted regarding the use of the term “imagined”: [i] The term has been used haphazardly or indiscriminately in almost all academic papers afflicted with what we have referred to as the prevailing global ideological dogma, and should therefore be treated with the greatest of caution; [ii] We know that all ideological discourses ultimately refer to tangible material realities, or scraps of such realities – although they may [or do] distort, overemphasize or reinterpret such realities. On the other hand, ideological discourses cannot be reduced to a mere “imagination” of material conditions: thus, it may very well be true that the Muslim ‘Quam’ is in fact “feudal” or “partitionist” or whatever. Such matters can only be investigated and decided on by “interrogating” [a term as highly fashionable nowadays] reality per se.
Bollywood’s ideological discourse, pivoted around the “Quam”–“Mulk” contradiction, has yielded a chain of binaries attached to an internal typology of the Muslim character itself. Hussein and Hussain write as follows: “In the patriot–terrorist binary, as in the Good Muslim–Bad Muslim binary, it appears that only trustworthy Muslims are those who place India first… The good vs. bad dichotomy also encompasses the tradition vs. modern and religious vs. secular dichotomies wherein Muslims embodied by the terrorists, the mafia dons, lecherous Nawab [referring historically to the title once bestowed by the reigning Mughal emperor to semi-autonomous Muslim rulers of princely states], and so on get presented as inherently incompatible with values of modernity, democracy and secularism that the post-colonial Indian state espouses for” [p. 290].
The chain of binaries produced [and, it is of importance to note, not necessarily merely “manufactured”, unless otherwise empirically evinced] by the Bollywoodian ideological discourse may therefore schematically be presented as follows:
- A “Good Muslim” is he/she who chooses to place “India first” and is thereby a “patriot”; that type is a trustworthy Muslim; he/she espouses modernity and democracy as articulated by “Indianness”; he/she belongs to the “secular” type.
- In direct contrast, a “Bad Muslim” is he/she who does not choose to place “India first” and is thereby [potentially] a “terrorist”; that type is untrustworthy; he/she sticks to a Muslim traditionalism that is hostile or alien to modernity and democracy as articulated by “Indianness”; he/she belongs to the “religious” type.
It is this chain of binaries that has come to characterize the Bollywoodian genre as regards Islam and Muslims [as we shall further see, certain elements of this ideological chain are also evident in at least some Western movies depicting Muslims – in such cases, of course, the chain of binaries is unrelated to “Indianness”].
The Bollywoodian genre, the UK movie industry, and the forms of so-called “othering” of Muslim men and women
Hussein and Hussain are of course not alone in drawing such conclusions as regards the nationalistic ideology of the Bollywoodian genre and its implications for Islam and Muslims. In fact, the vast majority of commentators, analysts and researchers would confirm that the Bollywoodian genre – though also various films of the UK movie industry – has promoted different forms of the so-called “othering” of Muslim people. Before focusing on the specific type of “othering” related to Muslim women in particular [on which Hussein and Hussain focus], we shall have to survey some of the relevant literature investigating the so-called “othering” of both male and female Muslims.
We may commence such survey by considering the work of Maidul Islam, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. In 2019, he would publish a book entitled Indian Muslim(s) after Liberalisation [Oxford University Press], and which would deal with the relationship between Bollywoodian “image construction” and the presentation of Muslim people in the period of the 1990’s [marking the initiation of India’s so-called “liberalization” policies] and thereafter. We believe that his work is best summarized by Pranav Kohli and Prannv Dhawan in an article entitled “Bollywood: ‘Othering’ the Muslim on screen” and published in Frontline [cf. https://www.frontline.thehindu.com, 27.03.2020]. They write: “In his book Indian Muslim(s) After Liberalisation, Prof. Maidul Islam argues that the forms and narratives of image construction of Indian Muslims in Bollywood cinema deserve widespread critique. His book enunciates the constant process of vilification of Muslims in Hindi cinema and how it has produced the image of a ‘Muslim Other’…” [my emph.]. Such vilification has meant that “Muslims are demonized and brutalized” in Bollywood movie narratives. Thus, Kohli and Dhawan observe that “In recent times, Bollywood has played an immensely influential role in producing myths, prejudices and stereotypes about Indian Muslims”.
According to the Kohli and Dhawan presentation of Maidul Islam’s work, the Bollywoodian genre would come to be characterized by four central themes pertaining to Muslims in the period of the 1990’s, and which would continue along a similar ideological trend right up to the present. In their presentation of these central Bollywoodian themes, they write: “Prof. Islam’s book posits that the dominant trend in representing Muslims in Bollywood cinema has changed significantly following liberalisation. Four key themes dominate the representational scheme of Muslims in Hindi films released in the 1990s and after: (a) the ‘Muslim Other’ as an enemy of the nation; (b) an imaginary notion of a ‘Hindu-ised nation’ where Muslims are relegated to a lower citizenship status; (c) Muslims as a source of terror within the nation state; and (d) a conflation of Muslim, terrorist and Pakistani” [my emph.].
We note that these four ideological themes characterizing the Bollywood cinema are said to be a pervasive phenomenon – as Kohli and Dhawan write: “Bollywood’s otherisation of Indian Muslims is a well-entrenched practice”.
Maidul Islam’s 2019 work focuses on the so-called “otherization” of Muslims by the Bollywoodian ideological discourse in general. Such “otherization”, however, is not only limited to Bollywood movies. An earlier University of Sunderland study undertaken by Amir Saeed in 2007 would examine a similar process of Muslim “otherization” within the UK media as a whole, and which would of course include the case of the British movie industry. The study, entitled “Media, Racism and Islamophobia: The Representation of Islam and Muslims in the Media”, is introduced by Saeed as follows: “This article… suggests that British Muslims are portrayed as an ‘alien other’ within the media. It suggests that this misrepresentation can be linked to the development of a ‘racism’, namely, Islamophobia that has its roots in cultural representations of the ‘other’. In order to develop this arguement [sic], the article provides a summary/overview of how ethnic minorities have been represented in the British… [mass media] and argues that the treatment of British Muslims and Islam follows these themes of ‘deviance’ and ‘un-Britishness’…” [cf. Sociology Compass 1/2 (2007), pp. 443-462; my emph.; https://www.eclass.upatras.gr/modules].
Saeed’s work, of course, raises more questions than it attempts to answer. One may accept that the British mass media – or, rather, particular segments of the media and/or certain movies produced in Britain – do in fact present UK Muslim settlers in terms of a certain “deviance” and a certain form of “un-Britishness”. Yet still, the obvious question that has to be investigated [and this is what constitutes the real work of any sociologist] is the extent to which such “themes” constitute a representation or a misrepresentation of the real behaviour of Muslims residing in the UK. And further, and to the extent that such “themes” are in fact a mere misrepresentation of reality, one would need to investigate why such misrepresentation actually occurs. Saeed may wish to put it all down to “racism” – yet again, however, he would be obliged to offer a strictly sociological explanation of such “racist” sentiments amongst UK’s non-Muslim “cultural clusters”. The fact in any case remains that sentiments concerning Muslim “deviance” and “un-Britishness” must constitute a certain social reality within UK society, thus pointing to real divisions within UK’s “cultural clusters” – it is such divisions that are willy-nilly reproduced within the ideological discourses of UK movies dealing with Islam and Muslims, and which in some manner can reflexively determine the cinemagoing practices and/or attitudinal behaviour of UK’s Muslim “cultural clusters”.
The UK’s Islamic Human Rights Commission [IHRC] would confirm both Maidul Islam’s and Amir Saeed’s findings regarding the element of “Islamophobia” in the British mass media, and would further argue that all film genres are guilty of presenting “negative stereotypes” of Muslims that are expressive of such “Islamophobia”. In 2007, the IHRC would publish an important report entitled “The British Media and Muslim Representation: The Ideology of Demonisation” [cf. Saied R. Ameli et al, https://www.ihrc.uk/publications, 16.02.2007]. One should note the key word encapsulating its own assessments regarding the British mass media – viz. that of the “demonisation” of Muslims.
Examining the various types of movies screened in UK cinemas, the report would draw the following conclusion: “It was evident from all [film] genres that they contained negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims/Arabs. The thrust of these differed as did the actual manifestation, nevertheless, they all exhibited examples of Islamophobic discourses, including dual discourses of racism and Islamophobia, where the ethnicity of the character was understood to be irreducibly Muslim” [my emph.].
While the Warwick research paper by Hussein and Hussain [cf. above] focuses exclusively on the ideological discourse of the Bollywoodian genre, and while – as mentioned – it concentrates almost as exclusively on the representation of Muslim women within that particular genre, its general observations regarding both male and female Muslims fully corroborate the findings of Maidul Islam, Amir Saeed and the IHRC. It would therefore be useful at this point to also consider relevant observations made by Hussein and Hussain. For them, the Bollywoodian type of movie creates “hierarchical identities” whereby all Muslims – be they male or female – are “othered” as “inferior” vis-à-vis Hindus. They write as follows: “Through a discourse analysis of four commercially successful Bollywood films between 2012-2013, this paper investigates Bollywood’s role in creation of hierarchical identities… wherein Muslims occupy the position of the inferior ‘other’ to the superior Hindu ‘self’…” [p. 284].
The hierarchical presentation of “identity” whereby Muslims are relegated to an “inferior” status necessarily relates to the above-mentioned chain of conflicting binaries said to emanate from the nationalistic discourse of the Bollywoodian genre. Thus, the Muslim community as a whole – bar perhaps the “good” or “patriotic” Muslim – is, not merely “inferior” to that of Hindu communities, but should also be mistrusted as a social entity. Hussein and Hussain put this as follows: “Bollywood, as a popular cultural medium, can be seen to disseminate and reinforce this popular ideology of mistrust and suspicion towards the Muslim community… Bollywood movies have in essence created stereotypical images of Muslim characters with clichéd forms of cultural and religious symbols like ‘beard’ and ‘caps’ for men and conservative Islamic headscarf or ‘burqa’ for women creating a monolithic portrayal of the community…” [p. 289, my emph.].
Although the “mistrust” and “suspicion” is meant for the whole of the Muslim community, it seems to be especially directed at males – these are often presented as “terrorists” or as socially “dangerous”. And while such type of discourse had become popular by the 1990’s, it would gradually become more intricate as it adjusted to the socio-historical events of the day. Hussein and Hussain note: “The portrayal of Muslim men as terrorists, villains and gangsters has also been a recurrent theme in Bollywood movies… The Muslim as terrorist genre of movies became popular in the 1990s and themes has [sic] been elaborated and diversified in recent times with specific references to the trans-national nature of terror since the events of 9/11 in the USA” [ibid.].
The Bollywoodian elaboration of the theme of Muslim terrorism – based on the apparently “inferior”, “untrustworthy” and therefore “dangerous” nature of Muslims – has been such as to redefine and broaden the application of such ideological concept. According to Hussein and Hussain: “By assigning an intense image of the ‘dangerous other’ or the ‘inferior other’… the image of a Muslim in Indian films have [sic] sociologically broadened the definition of Islamic terrorism” [p. 292].
We may end this brief review of literature on the Bollywoodian “othering” of both Muslim men and women by considering an article written by Amaal Akhtar, a PhD research scholar in Modern Indian History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. While Akhtar – like Hussein and Hussain – focuses her work on the case of Muslim women, she nonetheless makes a number of observations of relevance to both sexes. Published in The Indian Express, her article is entitled “The unseen Muslim women of Hindi cinema” [cf. https://www.indianexpress.com, 18.07.2020]. With respect to the period of the 1990’s, Akhtar notes the following: “In the 1990s, amidst a surge of communalism, Hindi films explored a criminal underworld disproportionally populated by Muslim men and where Muslim women were either absent, inconsequential, or disposable”. Akhtar’s reference to the “surge of communalism” most probably relates to what Hussein and Hussain have identified as the ‘Quam’ versus ‘Mulk’ conflictual dichotomy as discussed above.
Akhtar’s article confirms the essential continuity of such Bollywoodian ideology regarding Muslim men and women by referring to the Bollywoodian state of affairs in the course of the last twenty years – she writes: “In the last two decades… both Muslim men and women… are required to constantly prove their loyalty, patriotism and ‘not-terrorist’-ness”.
The Bollywoodian genre, with specific reference to the so-called “othering” of Muslim women
One would have to focus on the specific case of the treatment of Muslim women in Indian cinema discourse for two basic reasons: [i] much or even most of the published literature on the Bollywoodian ideological discourse does exactly that [and which must of course relate to the current academic fashion embracing so-called “gender studies”; [ii] the specific case of Muslim women is in itself such as to highlight the core ideological paradigms of the Bollywoodian genre [and which would also be of relevance to the ideological discourse of the Hollywoodian and/or British movie industry].
One obvious source of information regarding the so-called “othering” of Muslim women in the Bollywoodian genre would be the scholarly findings of feminist-oriented research [and which may take the form of present-day “gender studies”]. We shall here consider certain samples of such research work, although we need keep one basic reservation in mind: unlike any surgeon’s scalpel, the “tools” used by feminist scholars are inevitable carriers of an ideological [and therefore subjective] bias informed by a dogmatic “ism” which can only but distort reality.
We may commence our presentation by considering a 2017 article written by Aqsa Khan and published in FII [Feminism In India], which is said to be the organ of a “digital intersectional feminist media organization” based in India. Khan’s text is entitled “Muslim Women in Popular Cinema: A Series of Flat Characters” [cf. https://www.feminisminindia.com, 07.07.2017].
The first observation made in this text is that there has always been a quantitatively insubstantial representation of Muslim women in Indian movies and/or the Bollywoodian genre – Khan writes: “The representation of Muslim women in Indian cinema has been meager. There are hardly any films solely dedicated to them”.
The basic thrust of Khan’s paper may be summarized as follows: [i] Indian cinema has been representing Muslim women in terms of certain specific “stereotypical norms”; [ii] such “norms” date as far back as the 1970’s and continue to apply even to the present; [iii] this continuity in cinematic discourse has persisted despite the fact that there has been a gradual mutation of “norms” applying to Muslim women at the level of real society [or real socio-cultural practices]. Khan puts this as follows: “In films where they [Muslim women] can be found, their roles are often diminished or stereotypical. Starting from the 1970s to the contemporary state of Bollywood, their representation has conformed to norms, even when those norms have gradually changed”.
Obviously, what is expected of Khan is to verify empirically at least two of her basic assertions: Firstly, that the “stereotypical norms” of the Bollywoodian genre are by now anachronistic; secondly, that there is such ideological anachronism given that there has in fact been a mutation of “norms” applying to Muslim women. One could say that Khan does attempt to illustrate the presumably anachronistic discourse of Bollywoodian movies by pointing to certain all-time “stereotypes” with respect to Muslim women – there is, however, no rigorous attempt at comparing the “norms” of the 1970’s period to those of the present. Since the question of “rigour” is rather subjective, one may give her the benefit of doubt and accept that a certain comparison of “norms” across time is somehow implied in her presentation. What Khan certainly fails to do is to verify that there has in fact been a certain radical change in the “norms” applying to Muslim women as-a-whole in everyday socio-cultural practices [be it in India or in Muslim settlements in the Western world]. Changes in societal “norms” may definitely apply to certain very specific social categories of Muslim women [as in the case, say, of Muslim middle class university students, and especially those “nurtured” in the new “norms” of “gender studies”] – that, however, would tell us very little as regards the “norms” of female popular masses belonging to Muslim communities either in India or in a locality such as East Ham.
We may in any case present here Khan’s enumeration of what she sees to be essentially static “stereotypical norms” that have applied to Muslim women from the 1970’s and through to present-day Bollywood. There have been at least three such “norms”:
- The first static “norm”: Khan observes that Muslim women have been represented “in the form of a ‘tawaif’ (courtesan or dancing girl)… Dressed in glorious dresses, shimmering in gold and silver, the characters… were overtly sexualized despite being covered from head to toe. They would entertain guests and ‘nawabs’ [cf. above] by singing and dancing but would remain pure and chaste, thereby desirous of marriage”.
- The second static “norm”: Khan argues that “The second most common type of representation is that of the silent Muslim woman, subservient and easily oppressed”. To illustrate this particular “norm”, she examines a sample Bollywood movie released in 2004 by the name of “Veer Zara”, which is an Indian Hindu-language period romantic drama. Khan writes as follows: “The character of Zara in ‘Veer Zara’ is an ideal example. While at the beginning of the movie she is shown as the vocal young woman who has the courage to be herself despite others wanting her to change, as the movie progresses she falls into the trap of being a lonely woman pining for her hero. She is shown as the passive woman who her lover must fight for. A slight twist in the storyline and she is easily put into a position where she lacks agency and must rely on someone to carry her message to her lover, who can ultimately rescue her”.
- The third static “norm”: As regards the third representation of Muslim women, Khan writes that “The women are almost shown as symbolizing the feminine national force… epitomizing sacrifice and balance”. Often enough, the context of such representation is accompanied by a “stereotypical representation of the religion [of Islam]” – viz. “the apparent inextricable association shown between Islam and terrorism”. This third “norm” is also corroborated by the observations of Amaal Akhtar [op. cit.], who tells us that “the unseen” or “disposable” Muslim women may attain a presence in Bollywoodian movies, but only do so within the context of India’s national or patriotic struggle against the Islamic Pakistani separatists – as Akhtar writes: “When they [Muslim women] did appear in focus,… cross-border tensions became a precondition for their mere presence”. Alternatively, in cases where Muslim women are not shown “as symbolizing the feminine national force”, they would assume the role of Pakistanis – Akhtar continues: “If Muslim, they would also usually be Pakistani, in a neat overlapping of religion with nationality, with Kashmir as a third recurring axis”.
It is all too obvious that, for Aqsa Khan, these three “norms” [and especially the first and second] clash with the present-day standards of the “feminist” ideal, and as that is supposed to be embodied in the “modern” Muslim woman whose own socio-cultural “norms” are said to “have gradually changed” [cf. above] in the course of the postmodern period. It follows that Khan’s understanding of the “modern” Muslim woman – who is by now informed by so-called “feminist” [or “feminist”-prone] standards – would be inevitably alienated by the apparent anachronisms of the Bollywood genre. As already alluded to, this may only apply to very special categories of “educated” middle class Muslim women – such alienation may not necessarily apply to cases beyond such specific social categories, such as the vast popular masses residing in India or composing the diasporic settlers of localities such as East Ham. On the other hand, scholars such as Hussein and Hussain [op. cit.] – themselves students of the “gender studies” and/or “feminist” trend – consider the ideological discourse of Bollywood regarding Muslim women from a much broader perspective, and one may say that quite a number of their observations would most probably apply to the average Muslim woman residing either in India or in a locality such as East Ham. As already mentioned above, Hussein and Hussain attempt to examine the representation of Muslim women in Bollywoodian movies through that genre’s perspective of nationalist ideology and the conflictual dichotomies implied therein [some of their own findings, of course, would definitely overlap with those identified by Khan herself].
Hussein and Hussain would more or less agree with Aqsa Khan that one can detect an ideological continuity in the representation of Muslim women in Bollywood films. For them, that which above all continues to determine the representation of Muslim women in Bollywood movies has been the genre’s religious-nationalistic ideological discourse of “Indianness”. This dominant perspective, however, would only emerge in the period of the 1990’s [not, that is, in the 1970’s]. And they argue that this continuity would persist despite certain “signs of change” within the diegetic content of present-day Bollywood movies. Hussein and Hussain wish to argue that “in comparison to signs of change [in Bollywood cinema as such] the sites of continuity are strongly embedded in the religious-nationalistic meta-narrative that drives the paradigms of Indian femininity/womanhood” [p. 284].
Bollywood’s religious-nationalistic so-called “meta-narrative” has meant that, whenever Muslim women are brought into play in present-day films [as they more often are], their “inferior” position in society is simply being reinforced, and it is so reinforced given the Bollywoodian ideology’s hierarchical presentation of “identity” referred to above. Hussein and Hussain note as follows: “… the nature of the recent deployment of Muslim heroines in Bollywood reinforce [sic] the hierarchy between the genders (male-female), between the communities (Hindu-Muslim) and between nations (India-Pakistan)” [ibid.].
Hussein and Hussain go on to investigate the particular “signs of change” that are said to be evident in more recent Bollywood movies. They do identify a somewhat “new” re-casting of female Muslims, though such re-casting fails to challenge the stereotypes emanating from the original ideology of religious-nationalistic values. This is what they write: “Our research findings suggest that, in recent times, there have been several cinematic attempts to somewhat re-cast female Muslim characters as the ‘new age girl who does not desist from bending the conservative (Muslim) societal norms’ (Daily Mail, 15 Feb 2013). However, these ‘new’ representations of Muslim women in Bollywood neither challenge stereotypes about Muslims [sic] subordinate position through their portrayals as anti-nation or as the ‘other’… nor do they offer a nuanced picture of the association of Muslim religious practices with women’s experiences of gender injustice…” [pp. 285-286]. As regards the latter point, of course, we need only observe that the manner in which Muslim women “experience” the so-called “gender injustice” of Muslim practices would depend, not only on their specific socio-economic position, but also on their own highly subjective interpretation of what is or is not “injustice”. An illiterate or semi-literate Muslim woman residing somewhere in the state of Tamil Nadu or in London’s East Ham region would hardly bother to identify the “nuanced” forms of “gender injustice” while watching, say, a Kollywood romantic movie. On the other hand, a woman such as Mrs. Damini – the owner of the Daminis London clothes shop along Green Street [cf. Paper 4c] – may possibly feel somewhat “alienated” by “gender injustices” emanating from Muslim religious practices as depicted in a Bollywood movie.
In contrast, one may say that the former point made by Hussein and Hussain in the above quote – viz. that pertaining to the subordinate position of Muslim women within the Indian nation or in relation to whichever diasporic Indian [or perhaps other ethnic] community – could have a certain impact on the average Muslim female cinemagoer, whatever be the social status or educational background of such female. Hussein and Hussain write of such “inferiority” as follows: “Much like the demonized Muslim man, the Muslim woman has often been incorporated into the imagination of Bollywood as the inferior ‘other’ to the ‘ideal’ upper caste Hindu woman” [p. 291].
Hussein and Hussain further explore this Bollywoodian theme of Muslim female inferiority vis-à-vis Hindu females. It seems that one major way in which Bollywood movies portray such “inferiority” is through the medium of attire [by the way, it would be interesting to compare their observations regarding Muslim attire as depicted in the Bollywoodian genre with our notes on ethnic-based attire as discussed in Paper 4c and wherein we discussed the functionality of ethnic attire as a “signifier of difference”: both movie representations of Muslim attire as discussed by Hussein and Hussain as also real life practices regarding manner of ethnic dress seem to confirm the relevance of this concept].
Bollywoodian movies, according to Hussein and Hussain, portray the “inferiority” of Muslim women through their wearing of the “veil” – this headdress is presented as a signifier of “barbarism”, and thus runs counter to the “civilized” Hindu. They write as follows: “The [Bollywoodian] image of the veiled Muslim woman has gained iconic status, both in India and globally [and therefore in countries such as the UK]. It has become a trope in support of clash of civilizations argument [sic] between the civilized Hindus and the barbaric Muslims…” [ibid.].
Further, the Muslim “veil” is counterposed to the Indian “sari”, and again in a manner suggesting different signifiers of national and/or anti-national values. Hussein and Hussain continue as follows: “Women’s dress in India is produced, performed and read through an opposition of putatively ‘Hindu’, thus Indian sari, and Muslim thus un-Indian ‘veil’…” [ibid.].
In a sub-section of their 2015 Warwick paper tellingly entitled “Narratives of sartorial display: Nationalist vs. Anti-Nationalist Clothing”, Hussein and Hussain make the following concluding observations regarding Bollywoodian representations of attire: “The Hindu Indian women in the selected films [examined by the two researchers] always wear a sari, while none of the Muslim characters are ever represented in a sari. Muslim characters only wear salwar kameez, headscarf or western attires… Absence of representation of Muslim women in a sari marks them as the inferior ‘other’, and the headscarf, often generalized as the Muslim women’s ‘veil’, is the emblem of those who are ‘totally’ the other to the nationalist Hindu women in a sari…” [pp. 296-297].
The Muslim worldview generally: a case of “self-othering”
We have thus far examined the various ways in which Bollywoodian [though also Western] movies are said to have been “othering” Muslim communities. However, what also needs to be considered is the manner in which Muslims themselves – or at least various segments of that broad category of people – are as much prone to “other” themselves vis-à-vis the movie industry as a whole [as they would be prone to self-segregate vis-à-vis other “cultural clusters”]. To the extent that this is a reality, we may tentatively speak of Muslim “self-othering” with respect to cinemagoing as a cultural practice [as also with respect to various other forms of Western and/or Bollywoodian-related cultural practices]. For purely practical purposes at this point, we shall have to adopt the term “self-othering” despite our reservations concerning that type of postmodern sociological terminology [which we do find rather flippant, to say the least].
Before we examine the Muslim worldview generally and the extent of its “self-othering” vis-à-vis the world of cinema, we need to pose a simple question: would such “self-othering” have occurred at all had the Bollywoodian [or Hollywoodian] ideological discourse not indulged in the “othering” of Islam and Muslims? To put it slightly otherwise: would Muslims have been more avid cinemagoers had Bollywood [or British movies, for that matter] not been so [so-called] “Islamophobic”? This section of Paper 4e shall briefly attempt to explore this question. It should also be noted here, in passing, that that type of question may be approached from a completely different perspective – viz. does one see a more positive Muslim worldview with respect to the world of film-watching given that the current global ideological conjuncture [inaugurated by streaming services such as Netflix] is gradually shifting towards a more pro-Muslim diegetic discourse? Such an approach, of course, is well beyond the scope of this paper.
To understand the Muslim worldview with respect to cinemagoing as a cultural practice, one would have to begin by first considering the Muslim worldview in general vis-à-vis the Western world and its own mores and habits. Perhaps one of the more interesting – and presumably more reliable – sources of information regarding this type of issue is a book written by Omar Saif Ghobash. Wikipedia informs us as follows about the writer of this book, which is entitled Letters to a Young Muslim, Picador, N.Y., 2017 – we read that Ghobash, born in 1971, “is an Emirati diplomat and author. He was appointed Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to France on November 24, 2017, having previously served as UAE Ambassador to Russia from 2009-2017. Ghobash authored the book, Letters to a Young Muslim… which was written as a series of letters to his eldest son about what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century”. It is absolutely important to keep in mind that, on quoting Ghobash regarding the Muslim worldview, “He is considered by many to be a thought leader on moderate Islam” [Wikipedia, ibid., my emph.].
In his Letters, Ghobash draws an absolutely stark dividing line between, on the one hand, what he calls “a Muslim life” and, on the other, “a polluted world” that surrounds such life. This is how he puts this, addressing his son: “… you live a Muslim life of such high and demanding moral standards that everything around you seems ritualistically and morally incorrect. You find that you are living in a polluted world that needs radical cleansing” [p. 15, my emph.].
The Western style of life, of course, is precisely that mode of living that is devoid of “high and demanding moral standards”, its everyday “rituals” and/or cultural practices being irredeemably secular and “materialistic” – it is exactly this that renders it “a polluted world”. Ghobash’s son, being a Muslim, therefore needs to find a secure refuge from such Western world – his refuge is in the mandatory “communal prayer” taking place in the mosque. Ghobash writes: “There is a sense of peace and balance you feel as you join the communal prayer at dawn, or after work, and mostly on Fridays, when you pray our obligatory communal prayer of the week” [ibid.]. His son’s “peace and balance” can only be achieved in such prayer, operating well outside the social parameters of Western society [operating, that is, as in a veritable “free zone” within that society].
Ghobash explains to his son that, since he happens not to live in a “traditional Islamic” society, he has no choice but to seek the refuge of the mosque – only therein shall he find “warmth”, “community”, “brotherhood” and “recognition”. He puts this as follows: “We all know the mosque to be a place of warmth and community. When we are far away from traditional Islamic societies, we feel a brotherhood and a sense of recognition when we gather in a mosque. The mosque in faraway places is a gathering place, a refuge, a place to sit with your community and Allah” [ibid., my emph.]. The implications here are obvious, and may be enumerated as follows: [i] outside the realm of the “traditional Islamic” world, his son cannot expect to find any real “warmth” – suggesting thereby that all non-“traditional Islamic” environments are ipso facto hostile to Muslims; [ii] his son does not belong to the “community” of people wherein he has settled – when he finds himself “in faraway places”, his only real sense of “community” is salvaged within the mosque; [iii] his son’s sense of “brotherhood” is “exclusivist” – it can only be shared amongst his own kind, and that can only be fulfilled within the confines of a mosque; [iv] his son’s value as a person and/or his real identity cannot be “recognized” by those amongst whom he has settled in some “faraway place” – such “recognition” can only come from his own kind, and again within mosques.
If it is true that for a young Muslim it is exclusively the mosque that must constitute his refuge when residing in [or is a settler of] a non-“traditional Islamic” country, then how is he expected to view that country and its social norms before entering and after departing from such refuge? Since the Muslim youngster can only relate to an “exclusivist community” that is found within a mosque [and relate to it tightly qua “brotherhood”], how is he to view life when outside the limits of such existential “zone”? Ghobash describes such before/after sentiments as follows: “You feel the dread as the sermon is over and the short prayer approaches its end” [ibid., my emph.].
There is that sense of “dread” in a Muslim because the world that he is forced to face before entering and after departing from the mosque is characterized by a sheer “emptiness” – Ghobash writes: “The best moments are the Friday sermon and communal prayer. This is the time when the mosque is most full, and most welcoming. As soon as these moments pass, you know that you will be out in the cold or in dark streets, feeling a little lost and a little lonely. There is the emptiness as a new week builds up to the next Friday prayer” [pp. 15-16, my emph.].
While the norms and values of the non-“traditional Islamic” world are characterized by an “emptiness” that causes “dread”, it is only the Holy Quran that can offer “consolation” when a young Muslim has to face such world before/after communal prayer in a mosque. Ghobash continues: “You are able to console yourself with listening to the captivating recitations of the Holy Quran that are freely available online…” [ibid.].
The recitations of the Holy Quran are the antidote to living in a non-“traditional Islamic” society – they constitute the “consolation” in a world that is “ugly”. Ghobash explains: “The recitations charge you up,… the intensity is too much. It jars with the outside world. Often I cannot manage the balance. The move from the beauty of the spiritual world to the ugliness of the outer world depresses me” [p. 17].
The Holy Quran is a “consolation”, not only because it expresses “beauty” vis-à-vis the “ugliness” of the world, it also “consoles” because it is the one and only stable reference point – and it is so given that its present-day recitation follows the exact same rules as those established fourteen hundred years back in time. Ghobash explains further: “What is special about the recitation of the Quran?... Though you know the Quran as the beautiful leather-bound book with the wonderful calligraphy, the Quran is actually meant to be recited or read out loud. There are rules on how to read it out loud. The way it is recited today is the same way in which the Prophet recited it more than fourteen hundred years ago…” [p. 16].
For a young Muslim, the word of Allah is his singular reference point of moral certitude because it has remained absolutely “unchanged” and “uncorrupted” since its inception – and is has been so in direct contrast to the realities of non-“traditional Islamic” values. Ghobash presents his son with an image of incompatibility between the world of Islam and the rest of the world – he writes as follows: “You become acutely aware of the dissonance between what you have just experienced [in a mosque] – the word of Allah, unchanged and uncorrupted for over fourteen hundred years – and what surrounds you – rubbish in the streets, sullen looks of strangers, late-night rowdiness, meaningless conversations about sports, the housing market, and corrupt politicians” [p. 18, my emph.].
The incompatibility or “dissonance” between Muslim values and non-Muslim values is thus founded on this major chasm between a paradigm based on perennial “stability” and one based on perpetual flux – we read: “The Quran provides a stable reference point in a world of change, of turmoil, and of turbulence” [ibid.].
Ghobash explains to his son that this existential division between the Muslim and the non-Muslim world has been reproduced from one generation to the next – and it is by sharing such a paradigm of other-worldly “stability” that Muslims across generations have come to acquire both a sense of “certainty” and a sense of internal, cohesive “solidarity” – we read: “We know how vigilantly generation after generation of Muslims has made sure that not one word or vowel has been changed in the text [of the Quran]. The text has remained unchanged and perfectly preserved for hundreds of years. It is a stable point in the universe that we as Muslims can hold on to. This gives us Muslims a sense of solidarity and of certainty” [ibid., my emph.].
It is this Muslim “sense of solidarity and of certainty” – based on “laws” and “action” as dictated by Allah – that yields the fundamental “unity” of the Muslim community in itself. Ghobash writes: “In all, between the [Quranic] verses of philosophical and spiritual contemplation and the verses of laws and action, we come away with a sense of the power and wisdom of Allah, and a renewed sense of the unity of the Muslim community” [ibid., my emph.].
We may at this point draw the following necessary conclusions:
- First, it is such “sense of the unity of the Muslim community” in itself that enables it to stand out vis-à-vis the rest of the world, and especially with respect to the Western world and its worldview as a whole [but which would also apply to, say, the Hindu worldview] – it is this that constitutes the special sense of “exceptionality” of the Muslim community in toto as a religious and cultural entity.
- Secondly, it is precisely such unity and “exceptionality” of the Muslim community in toto that has yielded particular types of “cultural clusters” within regions such as East Ham – such Muslim-based “cultural clusters” have come to constitute some of the most cohesive and well-defined “clusters” in the region vis-à-vis other ethnic-based “clusters” [and cf. also the paper entitled “A tentative sociological examination of the ‘political economy’ of the Muslim ghetto in the Western world of the 21st century”, https://www.gslreview, 15.02.2018].
- Thirdly, it may be argued that such unity, “exceptionality” and well-defined “cultural clustering” amongst Muslim communities have all played a certain role in determining the manner in which at least certain segments of Muslims relate to the cinema generally, and especially as regards the Bollywoodian and Hollywoodian cinematic genres.
- It is, lastly, a combination of such factors that is conducive to what may be described as Muslim-“self-othering” – by seeing themselves as a cohesively defined “exceptionality”, Muslims place themselves in the position of the “other” with respect to the rest of the world. And it is within the context of such “self-othering” that one must seek to understand their self-defined relationship to genres such as Bollywood or Hollywood; it may further explain why cinematic genres such as these tend to “other” Muslims in their own ideological discourse. Put otherwise, if it is true to say that a Muslim life is “of such high and demanding moral standards” [as Ghobash himself puts it], then such “self-othering” can only but be a natural [not to say self-inflicted] outcome. The deeply “self-othered” is as deeply “othered” by others – we here need to examine the content of Muslim “self-othering”, especially as regards movies.
The Muslim worldview, and implications as regards Bollywood, Hollywood and UK movies
We have noted above the “high and demanding moral standards” of the Muslim worldview, as also the “exceptionality” and internal “unity” of the Muslim community [we may here ignore the various religious conflicts within Islam itself]. Such a self-conception and self-organization of Muslim society can only but have a bearing on the manner in which the world of cinema is seen by Muslims generally. The Pew Research Center has undertaken various studies related to this issue – one such is entitled “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society” [cf. Pew Research Center/Religion & Public Life, https://www.pewforum.org, 30.04.2013]. Specifically with respect to Western movies, this study has found, inter alia, that “most Muslims think Western… movies… pose a threat to morality… – even though, on a personal level, substantial percentages say they enjoy Western entertainment” [my emph.]. As regards the latter statement, we may simply reiterate what we have already observed above – viz. that the ideological discourse of a movie does not necessarily determine cinemagoing behaviour in a mechanically automatic or uniform manner. This, however, would not annul the fact that most Muslims do perceive a moral threat in what they view while in a cinema theatre – reactions to a Western movie can be both physical [ultimate avoidance] or psychological [alienation] or various degrees of both, and/or can be characterized by an internally contradictory combination of sentiments. We should further note here that the findings of this Pew Research Paper – specifically regarding the “enjoyment” of Western entertainment on the part of Muslims – are based on data that cover a vast range of geographical regions across the world [from Sub-Saharan Africa to South Asia; and from Central Asia to Southern-Eastern Europe]: notwithstanding the interest of such data, their sheer range can render them more or less irrelevant to our own focus on specific “cultural clusters” located in the UK.
In any case, that selfsame Pew Research Paper goes on to repeat its findings on the views of Muslims regarding the issue of Western movies and morality – it reiterates: “… a clear majority of Muslims in most countries surveyed think that Western entertainment harms morality in their country”. Importantly, however, it here clearly emphasizes that Muslims “personally dislike Western music, movies and television” [my emph.].
Such “personal dislike” can take an endless variety of forms, and which in some cases can often prove self-contradictory [as already alluded to]. Of course, such self-contradictory behaviour towards movie-watching may also be evident in the case of many Westerners themselves: for instance, while they may have a certain innate distaste for pornographic films, they may in any case go ahead and watch them. But the point here is that in the case of the Muslim worldview, all or most Western movies [but which may also include genres such as that of Bollywood] are plagued with what amounts to pornographic scenes, something which directly clashes with what Ghobash has described as the “high and demanding moral standards” of an “exclusivist” or “exceptionalist” Muslim community. In this case, whatever self-contradictory behaviour on the part of Muslims with regard to Western movies may take on the form of an existential crisis impinging on his/her very identity – the viewer would become part of that “dissonance” that “surrounds” him/her, as Ghobash has described it above.
What is it exactly that constitutes the content of the Muslim worldview with respect to Western movies? To be able to answer such question, one is obliged to investigate what such worldview understands by the term “pornography” in movies. We have been able to retrieve some basic data regarding this issue from Sound Vision, which happens to be the platform of a major Islamic organization based in the West [Chicago, Illinois] and which concerns itself, inter alia, with the relationship between Muslims and the mass media. This is how this platform introduces itself: “Sound Vision Foundation Inc. is a pioneering Muslim media and communication organization, with a three-decade legacy of flagship programs”. Its stated mission is “to cultivate harmony among Muslims and their neighbors through art, media, strategic communication, and education” [cf. https://www.soundvision.com].
It goes without saying that this important platform is “moderate” in its approach – very much reminiscent, that is, of the Ghobash stance in his Letters to a Young Muslim. How, then, does Sound Vision define “pornographic” scenes in motion pictures? We shall present this organization’s views as published in an article entitled “Islam on Pornography: A Definite No No”, 18.11.2020. The key Islamic concept in this context is that of “Fuhsha” – The Sound Vision text tells us the following regarding this concept: “… Fuhsha is obscenity, vulgarity, indecency, shamelessness and something that is dirty, filthy and foul”. And further: “Fuhsha, translated as anything shameful, is a Quranic term which in the Quran and Hadith has been used widely for unIslamic sexual behavior… It is a set of vices that embraces the whole range of evil and shameful deeds. Scholars of the Quran have included every vice which is intrinsically of a highly reprehensible character into this category whether it be fornication, nudity, public foreplay as depicted in films and photos, pornography, hurling abuses and curse words, promiscuous mixing, or dresses designed to expose the body” [my emph.].
We know, of course, that most or all of these “vices” [bar raw pornography] have been depicted in both Western and Bollywood movies: fornication, for instance, is a routine theme in the Hollywoodian genre, as it is in that of Bollywood [remember, for instance, the movie “Bajirao Mastani”, as discussed above]. From the perspective of the Muslim worldview, it is absolutely forbidden in terms of Islamic law [“Haram”, meaning sin] for someone to allow himself to observe the enactment of such moral crime [referred to as “Zina”]. In a sub-section of the Sound Vision text entitled “Other Scholarly Perspectives”, we read: “If someone is looking at someone committing Zina (sex outside marriage) whether it is in movies or pictures or the actual thing, it’s all Haram” [my emph.].
We note that yet another “vice” is that of nudity. Again, we know that nude scenes are regularly depicted in Hollywoodian and/or Western movies generally. In comparison, of course, the typical Bollywoodian approach on this matter is slightly more puritanical – on the other hand, a film such as “Sarileru Neekevvaru” [which we have also discussed above] does not shy away from depicting the sensuality of the feminine shape or flesh [it clearly shows, in other words, “dresses designed to expose the body”, op. cit.]. This may be directly contrasted to the Muslim perspective – in yet another sub-section of the Sound Vision text entitled “Sayings Of The Prophet: Hadith”, we note that the mere depiction of “the thigh” constitutes a case of “Haram”. We read as follows: “Don’t expose your thigh to anyone and don’t look at the thigh of any person even if s/he is dead. Narrated Ali ibn abi Talib. Ibn e Maja, Abi Dawud, Darqutani. Tafseer Kabeer” [my emph.].
One may therefore draw the very general conclusion that Bollywood, Hollywood and UK movies are viewed as a “moral threat” to the values of the Muslim worldview. Essentially, this has also meant that Muslims have adopted a generally negative stance with respect to the very idea of movie production as such. More specifically, such stance has further meant that there has been no [or little?] production of Islamic language films in the diaspora.
At least as regards the latter observation, one may say that it nonetheless constitutes a rather sweeping statement on the question of Islamic film production amongst diasporic Muslim communities that have settled in the Western world. Our knowledge around this matter is admittedly very limited, and we do not intend to explore it in any detail. In fact, our single source of information here is a publication edited by Daniela Berghahn and Claudia Steinberg, entitled European Cinema in Motion: Migrant and Diasporic Film in Contemporary Europe, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. This study, of direct relevance to the question at hand, makes a number of extremely interesting observations which seem to corroborate what we have said above regarding the Islamic worldview vis-à-vis movies in general.
Berghahn and Steinberg wish to explain why it is that Muslim communities settled in Europe [including the UK] have failed to produce any Islamic language films worth mentioning – this is what they write: “While an Islamic language of film has emerged in, say, the cultures of the Maghreb, the same cannot be said of the Muslim diasporas of Western Europe, and the reason must be found in part within the hedonistic, materialistic assumptions of an industry that consciously Muslim film-makers… find antithetical to their way of life and their authorial aspirations. It is arguable that Muslim film cannot be produced by a postmodern, post-Christian industry…” [p. 285, my emph.]. While this quote certainly does help us understand why Muslim-oriented films cannot possibly be produced within a Western industry that promotes “hedonistic” and “materialistic” values [and which may be said to express Western postmodernity], we cannot at the same time see why Muslim film-making is further obstructed by the fact that Western society is by now “post-Christian”. Perhaps Berghahn and Steinberg here wish to assume that a presumed “Christian Europe” could have provided more favourable conditions for the production of films expressing more “spiritual” [as opposed to “materialistic”] values, such as those found in Islam – such an assumption, however, seems to forget the history of conflict [or at least cultural friction] between Christianity and Islam. In any case, since this remains counterfactual thinking, it simply raises a moot issue.
As regards the specific case of the UK Muslim diasporic communities – and why these too have not engaged in any noteworthy Islamic film production – Berghahn and Steinberg make the following extremely interesting [albeit somewhat tendentious] observations: “In the culturally myopic UK entertainment industry, Muslim characters are regularly played by Hindu actors and Muslims generally feel uneasy in the drinking, socializing, promiscuous film world with its downward pressure on family life” [ibid., my emph.].
It is all too obvious that the Berghahn and Steinberg findings on the absence of Islamic language film-production in Western Europe tally well with the Muslim general worldview as described by a “thought leader” such as Ghobash or by an Islamic organization such as the Sound Vision Foundation. The Berghahn and Steinberg findings also fully confirm the idea we have presented above regarding the “self-othering” of Muslims in the Western world.
From the Muslim worldview in general to particular UK Muslim sentiments regarding the cinema – manifestations of Muslim “self-othering”
Above, we had briefly presented the research finds of the Islamic Human Rights Commission [IHRC] regarding the manner in which all genres of cinema are said to portray Muslim communities – it had come up with the general observation that Muslims have been portrayed in terms of “negative stereotypes” amounting to a so-called “Islamophobia” [cf. above]. Importantly, the Commission would base its findings on the recorded sentiments of Muslims residing in the UK. Here, we shall consider such sentiments themselves and the implications of these as regards, not only the “othering” of Muslims on the part of movie diegetic discourse as a whole, but also as regards the “self-othering” of Muslims themselves vis-à-vis the movie industry in particular, though also vis-à-vis the rest of the UK cultural social formation.
The 2007 report of the IHRC wishes to evaluate “British Muslims’ understanding of Muslim representation in the media” [my emph]. The term “media”, of course, includes the cinema itself. We should also note that what the IHRC is here attempting to measure is, not the “actual” representation of Muslims in the media, but the perceived representation of them – viz. the representation of Muslims as subjectively understood by Muslims themselves. Such perceived representation – although necessarily subjective – must nonetheless be taken to be an objective reality in itself [thoughts are a reality, though not the only dimension of it]. What, then, is the Muslims’ own “understanding” of the media? This is what the IHRC report found: “Significantly [a] high percentage of respondents felt media to be Islamophobic in city areas: Manchester (73.0%), Petersborough (70.4%), London (65.5%) and Bradford (62.1%)”.
These selfsame respondents – presumably in their capacity as UK cinemagoers – would perceive heavy elements of “Islamophobia in Hollywood and British movies”. The report notes: “The accounts of the [UK] respondents indicates [sic] that the negative portrayal of Muslims is heavily presented in the films that are produced in both the UK and the US”.
The respondents’ perceived “Islamophobia” in UK and American movies contains portrayals of Muslim “stereotypes” of the sort presented to us by scholarly papers as discussed above [cf. Hussein and Hussain et al]. According to the IHRC, UK respondents have given the following accounts of what they have viewed in movies: “Films portray Muslims mostly as terrorists who randomly kill people (usually innocents) or blow things up (including themselves), hijackers, misogynistic or stupid”.
It is of extreme importance to consider how the UK Muslim respondents – or at least a more vocal segment of these – attempt to explain such “negative portrayals” of themselves in the media generally. It may be argued that the recorded explanations are such as to point to a Muslim proclivity for “self-othering”: Islam is seen as a religious and cultural force that is superior to Western culture and is thus a threat to the Western world. Muslims feel that that is the reason why the Muslim community is portrayed in terms of an “Islamophobic” diegetic discourse in media such as the movies. Feeling “victimized” by a Western culture that is in decline, Muslims defend themselves through a conscious self-segregation, which itself yields the cohesive and tightly regulated “local” socio-cultural system of Muslim settlers vis-à-vis the rest of the UK’s socio-cultural formation [cf. “A tentative sociological examination of the ‘political economy’ of the Muslim ghetto…”, https://www.gslreview, op. cit.]. Of course, such a reading of the Muslims’ own explanation for “Islamophobia” in the media seems to fully corroborate the manner in which Ghobash has himself presented the “exceptionality” of Muslim communities within the Western world [op. cit.].
The issues pertaining to Muslim “victimization”, Muslim superiority, and Muslim self-segregation – all of which seem to point to a Muslim “self-othering” – are evident in what the IHRC respondents had to say in explaining what they deemed to constitute “Islamophobia” in the media. This is how the IHRC presents the views of respondents:
- As regards the “victimization” of Muslims: “Some respondents believe that the film industry is used as a tool in the foreign policy by the Western countries in terms of demonizing and gaining public support against a fashioned enemy [this being Islam in the present conjuncture]. An illustration of this: the USSR was at the brunt of demonization during the Cold War era” [my emph.].
- As regards Muslim superiority: “According to respondents, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and this fact is worrying the capitalist West since this would diminish Western hegemony” [my emph.].
- As regards Muslim self-segregation: “Respondents believe anti-Islamic sentiments flourish as a result of negative representation in the media and causes profound polarization and conflict in British society” [my emph.].
Generally speaking, therefore, one may say that Muslim settlers within the UK [or segments of these] feel that their up-and-coming religious and cultural superiority within the Western world is the basic cause of “Islamophobia” [and as that is also portrayed in movies]. That type of sentiment against Muslims “polarizes” British society – it is in the context of such “polarization” [and which may even take violently conflictual forms – cf. Paper 2a] that one has seen the rise of self-segregated Muslim “cultural clusters” [as also evident in regions such as East Ham]. It is precisely such type of “clusters” that express a certain Muslim-instigated [or self-determined] “self-othering” vis-à-vis the rest of society. It is this same “self-othering” that is reflected either in the Muslim practices of cinemagoing [but which can vary in form across the internal social strata of Muslim settlers] or in the diegetic discourses of Western [and/or Bollywoodian] movies.
The findings of the IHRC cannot be wished away as merely fortuitous. The importance of such data is evident in the fact that an international news organization such as Reuters has focused on their implications. Although the Reuters article basically reiterates what has been said above regarding UK Muslim sentiments on the cinema, we shall quote parts of it out of mere interest for the specific manner of its presentation [cf. Paul Majendie, “Muslims complain of Hollywood ‘bad guy’ image”, https://www.reuters.com/article, 25.01.2007]. Such presentation is meant to accomplish very specific ideological intentions.
Focusing on the IHRC findings, Majendie makes three basic points:
- Muslims settled in the UK believe that Western films are “Islamophobic” and/or “racist”: “Western movies… promote negative stereotypes of Muslims by casting them all too often as villains, a British Muslim pressure group said… The commission’s study, based on soundings taken from almost 1,250 British Muslims, also found that 62 percent felt the media was ‘Islamophobic’ and 14 percent called it racist”.
- The “demonization” of Muslims fosters social prejudices [by implication, we may say that such conflictual sentiments within UK society have further contributed to the recognizable phenomena of “cultural clustering”, self-segregation, and therefore “self-othering” on the part of the “demonized” group]: “Cinema, both in Hollywood and Britain, has helped demonize Muslims. They are portrayed as violent and backward. That reinforces prejudices”.
- Being “demonized” in British films, Muslims call for the intervention of State censorship: “The report called for British film censors to be given greater power to cut out ‘objectionable material’ and said media watchdogs in Britain should be more effective in ensuring ‘responsible coverage’ of Muslims”.
There are a number of points that need to be made concerning this Reuters presentation, it being a perfect example of the manner in which the Western media – albeit apparently “Islamophobic” in the variety of its discourses [and as so dubbed by Muslims themselves] – is at the same time attempting to “organize” [in an ideological sense] a certain consensus or “harmony” between the Muslim settlers in the West and the rest of the cultural milieus that prevail in Western societies. These points – necessarily tentative given the sheer complexity of the matter – are the following:
- According to the Reuters article, Muslims in the UK are calling for the direct intervention of the State so as to protect themselves from “objectionable material” shown in films – censorship is seen as a means of “protection” for a highly “victimized” [and therefore presumably “disadvantaged”] group of people.
- The Reuters text, however, has nothing to say about the assumed “Muslim superiority” [IHRC] and/or the assumed Muslim “exceptionalism” [Ghobash], as asserted by Muslims themselves residing in Western societies.
- It is such dimensions of Islam which may be said to have provoked conflictual sentiments within the UK cultural social formation [“profound polarization and conflict”, as the IHRC report puts it].
- It may further be argued that it is precisely such sense of “Muslim superiority” that calls for the actuation of State intervention so that the “high and demanding moral standards” of Islam are upheld [or at least respected] within the Western world itself. In that sense, it may be said that a consciously “self-othered” Muslim community wishes to impose its own relative hegemony upon UK society by attempting to determine – via the State mechanisms of censorship and the redefinition of “free speech” – the overall and free-flowing ideological discourse of that society.
- One may argue, in other words, that the Muslim call for censorship is itself a symptom of “self-othering” – and it is precisely such “self-othering” on the part of Muslim communities in the Western world that the Reuters article fails to address.
From “othering” and “self-othering”, to the complexities of individual behaviour as regards the practice of cinemagoing
There is, it seems, much truth in the general analyses that we have presented above: all our attempts at trying to understand Muslim behaviour as regards the practice of cinemagoing point to what we have dubbed as Muslim “self-othering” – viz. a deliberate choice, taken by Muslim communities in the West, to constitute a discreet cultural and religious entity within the societies where they have found themselves settled. That sort of conscious, collective decision is certainly of the type that can determine the behaviour of Muslim individuals qua cinemagoers. And yet we know that the concept of “determination” is quite problematic when it comes to human beings. More specifically, we know that – and despite the accuracy of the analyses we have presented above – it remains as valid to say that there are segments of Muslim settlers within the UK which do frequent movie theatres in the West. It is difficult to gauge what it is that goes on in their minds when they are busy watching a Hollywoodian or Bollywoodian movie – but the fact remains that they can choose to entertain themselves by watching just such movies. We shall end this paper by briefly considering this particular reality.
Above, in our discussion of the issue of Asian women and their role in local cultural affiliation through the practice of cinemagoing, we had observed that a genre such as Bollywood is not universally accepted amongst the UK’s Asian ethnic communities. In the specific case of Muslim communities residing in the UK [at least], one may describe attitudes towards cinemagoing as follows: there is no real and absolute universal rejection of both Western and Bollywood movies amongst Muslim individuals. This is so for a variety of reasons not all of which are easily explainable – here, one would have to enter the realities of individual psychology so as to understand attitudinal behaviour. Of course, the easy way out would be to point to the internal cultural contradictions within Muslim “cultural clusters”, and as these may be manifested in different class positions, educational levels, and so on.
The paradox remains: we may here consider, for instance, how Lucia Krämer [op. cit.] deals with the issue of attitudinal behaviour – on the part of some of UK’s Muslims – with respect to Bollywood movies in particular. She writes: “The Bollywood Batein report indicated in 2004, for example, that especially older Muslim viewers worried about inappropriate sexual content in Bollywood films and that some Muslim men considered the viewing of Bollywood films a frivolous activity and restricted their consumption in their homes…” [my emph.]. The paradoxical state of affairs is here all too obvious: while Muslim viewers are said to “worry” about the content of Bollywood movies, they are nonetheless presented as “viewers”; while Bollywood-watching was rejected as a “frivolous activity”, Muslims nonetheless “consumed” Bollywood at home albeit in a manner suggesting “restriction”. We also need to note that Krämer’s observations speak of “older Muslim viewers” and “some Muslim men”, implying that the attitudinal behaviour of other groupings of Muslims may not necessarily match such stances. These are open questions that await serious empirical [and ideologically unbiased] research work.
We shall end this paper by simply presenting two pieces of data that are of relevance to cinemagoing amongst Muslims in the UK – they raise further questions and may be said to complement the paradoxical state of affairs that we speak of here:
- Four years ago, a resident of East Ham – by the name of Mihai Lamban – had visited the Boleyn Cinema along East Ham’s Barking Road and had probably watched a movie which he then decided to briefly comment on in the popular Goggle Reviews [op. cit.]. Unfortunately, this cinemagoer fails to mention the name of the particular movie – his comment, however, is of special interest. Very simply, this is what he notes about it: “Only for Muslims”. It is possible that what Lamban had watched belonged to a generic strand of Bollywood movies known as “Muslim Social Films” [cf. our discussion of the different sub-genres of the Bollywoodian genre in Paper 4d]. What makes this comment interesting is the use of the word “only” – it seems to confirm the “exceptionality” and/or “exclusivist” nature of Muslim-related cultural practices. Be that as it may, the quote also seems to suggest that the Boleyn theatre halls could at times have been monopolized by Muslim audiences.
- Despite Islam’s “exceptionality” and/or its “exclusivist” proclivities, and despite the fact that it sets “high and demanding moral standards”, Muslim women in areas such as East Ham are said to “openly participate” in the public life of their own “Little India” [and which would include the practice of cinemagoing]. Such “participation” has been emphasized by a number of analysts who may be considered apologists of the Muslim way of life in countries such as the UK. Their own “interested” approach does not necessarily render their findings inadmissible – it would nonetheless have made such findings much more useful had such writers specified the particular social categories of the Muslim settlers they are focusing on. In any case, even if their work wishes to imply that such “open participation” is a generalized phenomenon amongst Muslim females, this would not in itself invalidate the self-segregationist and/or “self-othering” of Muslim “cultural clusters” in regions such as East Ham – the “open participation” of Muslim women can be [or is] a “participation” within a relatively segregated “cluster” of UK society. One writer who chooses to emphasize the “open participation” of Muslim women in the public life of their own “cultural cluster” [in East Ham in particular] is Mohan Ambikaipaker in a book entitled Political Blackness in Multiracial Britain, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. This is a sample of what he writes: “Shopping for daily household necessities, clothes, and wedding supplies and enjoying the pleasures of ethnic restaurants or Bollywood films at the Boleyn cinema represent some of the many activities in which Muslim women openly participate in London’s inner-city urbanism. Their public presence challenges the orientalist stereotype [viz. a European intellectual bias dating back to the 19th century] of the sequestered Muslim women, kept hidden from social view” [p. 106, my emph.].
Muslim women residing in East Ham may not be “sequestered” from the so-called “social view”, and many of them may have been patrons of a cinema such as the local Boleyn – the question that remains to be even further explored, however, is this: to what extent are both male and female Muslims residing in a region such as East Ham “sequestered” from the rest of the UK’s “materialistic” or predominantly secular socio-cultural milieu, and especially in their capacity as cinemagoers. And further: to what extent does it all amount to a cultural self-isolation?