A life less ordinary

Why modern film-makers should not be afraid of tackling Islam

When I was growing up, watching The Message was the Eid festival equivalent of watching It's a Wonderful Life at Christmas. An epic detailing the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the rise of Islam, it was shot twice -- once in English with western actors and once in Arabic with a pan-Arab cast. The Prophet was never represented on screen, but his disciples, enemies and followers were. The power of the film, as far as I was concerned, never really resided in its religious significance but lay in the storytelling and characterisation.

Barrie Osborne, one of the producers of The Matrix and Lord of the Rings, is reportedly planning a biopic of the Prophet's life. This is to coincide with a remake of The Message by Oscar Zoghbi. What is to be gained from this surfeit of coverage of the Prophet's life? Shahed Amanullah, writing for the Guardian's Comment is Free website, believes that the world, steeped as it is in prejudice and negative attitudes towards Islam, is not ready for all of this. He also suggests that observing the Islamic prohibition against portraying the Prophet (which Osborne et al will reportedly respect) renders "a serious biopic with this subject matter nearly impossible" in this day and age.

I would imagine that the opposite is true, as developments in cinematic production since the 1970s would allow much more scope to be creative. Moreover, it will facilitate a focus on the actual message and values of Islam as espoused by the Prophet, minimising the risk of stereotyping or caricaturing him. This was done before and it worked; there is no need to be gratuitously offensive just to "push boundaries". Controversy is no proxy for talent. Aversion to the idea stems partly from obvious accusations of self-censorship, informed by reaction to the Danish cartoons.

In one of the most powerful scenes from The Message, the Prophet destroys the idols within the Kaaba. Shot from his point of view, even using quite basic production facilities, the image of the Prophet's staff smashing the idols and then emerging into the sunlight could not have had more impact if he had been shown. The tone of deference did not ever ascend into reverence, as the film retained a gritty, sand-swept, sun-scorched ambience but did not go out of its way to be iconoclastic. The story was merely told, not proselytised. In this way, it managed to bridge a cultural divide, earn an Oscar nomination and eventually win over audiences in the Muslim world, especially in Arab countries.

I have more faith in both the viewing public and the resourcefulness of film-makers. There is so much more to the Prophet's life and story than Aisha's age at marriage (a hackneyed and pivotal part of efforts at character assassination). Besides, this is a point of detail that not even Muslim historians are in agreement about.

Muhammad's tale and the birth of Islam are part of universal human history, and Muslims should not be covetous or culturally territorial. This only plays into the hands of those who have made a priori judgements about Islam, and deprives us of enjoying and retelling what is, above all else, a gripping story.

Nesrine Malik is a Sudanese-born writer who lives in London

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.