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

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt