My friend Inamul Haq rarely goes to theaters to see movies. In fact, he could probably count the number of movies he's been to on one hand. So when he agreed to go with me to see Kingdom of Heaven, the new historical epic about the Crusades, I knew he considered this movie of some consequence—particularly to his fellow Muslims.
Yet whether it was the weighty matters Kingdom of Heaven handled, or the sheer—and exhausting—spectacle of war we sat through, neither of us was in much of a mood to meet right afterward to discuss what we'd seen. So we decided to meet for breakfast the following morning at a restaurant, once we'd had a chance to rest and collect our thoughts.
Haq, as some of his friends call him, was ready to talk. "You know," he started off, "every movie has an element of drama in it, and maybe some exaggerations. It has to, in order to attract people. But this is the first movie I've seen where Muslims are not depicted as evil terrorists, traitors, or womanizers. The movie really shows both noble and ignoble men, particularly on the side of the crusaders. I can imagine most Muslims will be happy with the film."
"Do you really think so?" I ask. "Isn't there a chance that the spectacle of Muslims dying in Kingdom of Heaven will lead some Muslims to hate Christians even more?"
Haq looks down thoughtfully. "Yes, perhaps so—especially among radical Muslims who see the Crusades as merely the first attempt to colonize Islamic lands, an attempt that was followed up successfully by European powers in the 19th century. These Muslims look at the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq through the same lens. This movie may tell such Muslims that their struggle against the West—what Americans call terrorism—is justified."
"Then do you think that this movie will actually aggravate relationships between Christians and Muslims?" I press Haq.
Haq looks me square in the eyes. "No, I don't. The movie shows how complex people's motives are, that they may express their conviction in religious terms, but they're doing so with base political and economic motives. You say you're doing something for God when you're really doing it for yourself. I think this movie will force people to see that what they thought was an act of religious faith on their part was not really religious at all."
I lean back in my chair. "I wonder, though, Haq. This movie may lead some people to re-examine their motives, yes. But it may just as well make many others that much more cynical of religion. I got that feeling when we were watching the movie in the theater, and the people behind us basically voiced their opinion that anyone going on Crusade was a fool and that the whole 'religious thing' was just a bunch of nonsense."
"Yes, you are right," Haq admits. "Yes, that's quite possible. But then remember that Muslims are not simply individuals who believe; they are a community that finds it very hard to separate religion from politics. Islam is their identity. Theologians can better separate the moral and spiritual dimensions of Islam from the national politics. But the common person probably can't. Certainly the radical Muslim won't."
I decide to bring the discussion back to the movie. "Haq, was Saladin an example of radical Islam? I mean, after all, he made war on the crusaders. One of his warriors reminded Saladin of his promise to retake Jerusalem."
"No, I don't think Saladin was radical," Haq says. "Radical Muslims are obsessed with power."
"And Saladin wasn't?" I ask.
"No. Remember he only attacks Jerusalem when he receives notification that Muslim women have been attacked," Haq points out. "If Muslims are living freely without restrictions in non-Muslim lands, Islamic law does not obligate you to attack non-Muslims. You don't kill innocent people, or burn down their churches or synagogues without provocation."
"Haq, what if Saladin had not succeeded in recapturing Jerusalem?" I ask. "Would that have meant God was not on their side after all? Can we really know the will of God when it comes to these wars?"
Haq puts his hands together emphatically. "No, we cannot. We can try to discern God's will, but we can never be certain of it. In the Qur'an, we have the story of Moses complaining to God that Pharaoh has so much prestige and wealth. He cannot understand why power and truth do not always go together. Even the prophet Muhammad did not find military success until the end of his life. He met defeat and setbacks more than once during his lifetime."
I decide to steer the conversation in a different direction. "From the perspective of a Christian, I found this movie really disappointing. I tried to pinpoint one Christian of true piety, and I couldn't. Even Balian, the most 'honorable' crusader in the story (short of the king, perhaps), loses his faith. Yet no Muslim loses his faith in the movie."
Haq leans back with a knowing look. "You're quite right about that. Whereas some Westerners may lose their faith, or find the movie justification for the faith they already lost, I doubt any Muslim would lose his over this."
I follow up my thought with another. "I do think, though, that many Christians will find justification in this movie to disassociate themselves from the Crusades altogether. They'll say 'These crusaders weren't real Christians. Real Christians don't do that!'"
Haq's eyes light up. "Just like how some Muslims will say Osama bin Laden is not a true Muslim. That we have nothing to do with him, even though what he's doing, he's doing in the name of Islam. I think it's good that we take a critical look at our motives, and ask whether what we're doing is really in God's will or not. I think that's a question both Christians and Muslims need to be asking themselves.
"But let me say this." Haq stops and gives me a reassuring look. "If you think Christians are not represented well in the movie, I think something good will come out of it. Thoughtful Muslims will ask themselves, 'Are Muslims today behaving like crusaders did back then, using God's name as justification to accomplish their own ends? That in the name of God they are taking property and life unjustly?' I hope some Muslims will give some thought to this."
"Do you think many Muslims will even go see this movie?" I ask.
"Hard to say," Haq says. "But I feel a good number will, simply because of the way it's linked with the Crusades. You know, the Crusades are still remembered well by Muslims. Christians have forgotten them, because Christianity has gone through a lot of transformation since then. But in the minds of many Muslims, the modern West is the heir to Christendom. The West's motives may have changed—they've become more secularized—but for Muslims, it's still the same old war."
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