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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder