VIEW: Post-9/11 — the diverse Muslim experience —Miranda Husain
Some Pakistani liberals have called on European Muslims to drop their ‘anti-Western’ rhetoric which tarnishes the name of Islam. However, the European Muslim reaction to 9/11 has hardly been uniform. Many have taken an aggressive stance against their national governments. But many have also fallen victim to the West’s own paranoia about militant Islam
The French and Dutch rejection of the EU constitution has been described as the overwhelming fear of Muslim Turkey joining the Union. That is, the anxiety of having a nearly 70 million-strong Muslim population within Europe’s borders. It is believed that this would not only alter the character of the traditionally Christian bloc, but also invite Islamist terrorism into the very heart of Europe.
After all, both countries have fallen victim to Islamist extremism in the past. France, when some of its journalists were taken hostage in Iraq as retribution for President Jacques Chirac’s banning of the hijab in state-run schools; Holland, when filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered for offending Muslim sensibilities. Even Britain has seen many of its Muslim nationals go to Afghanistan to take up jihad against coalition forces.
Not surprisingly, many European countries believe that their Muslim populations’ often-violent reaction to the war on terror has made them vulnerable to religious extremism at home. As if to lend credence to this notion, some liberal scholars in Pakistan have — for fear of further tarnishing the name of Islam — called on their Muslim brethren in Europe to exercise restraint and refrain from indulging in anti-Western rhetoric. Better, the scholars say, for European Muslims to act as ambassadors of their faith abroad to give the West a better understanding of the true nature of Islam and, by association, the Muslim world at large.
However, such notions rest on the assumption that the European Muslim reaction has been uniform. That Europe’s Muslim communities have simply used the 9/11 terrorist attacks to pit themselves aggressively against their national governments.
While this has certainly been true in some cases, it is not reflective of the entire reality. For just as many European Muslims have risen up and pro-actively criticised their governments over what they perceive as the West’s war on Islam, many have also fallen victim to the West’s own paranoia about militant Islam.
The co-existence of these two diverse experiences has been excellently portrayed in Kenny Glenaan’s film Yasmin. The Scottish film director uses the backdrop of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre to explore the diversity of Muslim experience in post-9/11 Britain. Through the eyes of a young Muslim girl of Pakistani origin, the audience witnesses how Bin Laden’s hijacking of the Muslim faith turns her world upside down.
When we first meet Yasmin, we find her lying in a field pulling on her jeans, as she discards her shalwar kameez and hijab before setting off to work. The image symbolises her daily struggle to balance the different dimensions of her being: the independent ‘westernised’ working woman and the dutiful daughter and sister who does what is expected of her. It also highlights how Muslim women’s choice of dress has become synonymous with the battle between tradition and modernity.
At work, away from the prying eyes of her family and community, Yasmin happily accompanies a white male colleague to the pub to unwind after a hard day’s work. At home, she cooks and cleans for her widowed father, younger brother and uncle. She effectively runs their household as well as her own and contributes to the family income. At work, she can flirt with her co-worker. At home, she has to deal with a husband, a relative whom she married at her father’s behest. At work, she does not tell anyone of her arranged marriage. At home, she tells her father that she wants a divorce as soon as her husband is declared ‘legal’ by the British immigration authorities.
Yasmin is at work when she sees live footage of the aeroplanes flying into the World Trade Centre. She does not know what it means. But her colleagues have identified the new fault lines and the dynamics of their interaction with her shift overnight. On finding a note on her locker proclaiming, “Yasmin loves Osama”, she has to ask to whom it refers.
As the impact of 9/11 sinks in, Yasmin finds herself increasingly ostracised at work. She does not understand how she has become the personification of the terrorist attacks. Her feelings of displacement and alienation come to a head when she approaches her female colleagues and tells them that she is sorry; that even though she did not fly the planes herself, she is truly sorry. Thus the film captures how, in the immediate 9/11 aftermath, brown skin automatically became synonymous with Islamist terrorism.
When her husband is arrested on suspicion of terrorism and she herself is locked up for ‘withholding information’, Yasmin understands that in post-9/11 Britain, it is her religion and skin colour by which she will be judged. Wondering how her religion can make her an enemy of the state, Yasmin turns to the Quran. She turns not to fundamentalism, but seeks salvation in her religion after being cast aside by a society that she had previously claimed as her own.
In choosing a female protagonist, Glenaan is able to epitomise the complexity of the Muslim experience before and after 9/11. Prior to the attacks, Islam simply represented a personal battleground between Yasmin and her father, between his notions of tradition and her aspirations to freedom. However, Glenaan is careful to stay away from the stereotype of the submissive Muslim woman. When her husband slaps her, Yasmin does not hesitate to throw him out of her house, even though her father threatens to disown her.
The triumph of the film is in its ability to present various dimensions of the Muslim reaction to 9/11. While Yasmin turns to religion for comfort in a hostile world, her brother Nasir uses the attacks to give his life added meaning. During visits to the local mosque, he becomes aware of the plight of Muslims in Palestine and Chechnya. He decides to turn his back on his drug dealing, womanising ways and sets off to Afghanistan to fight for his Muslim brothers and fulfil his political awakening.
The audience is presented with the contrasting responses of second generation Muslims to the political legacy of 9/11. Interestingly, the film also explores the reaction of the older generation, the immigrant generation. When Nasir proclaims the Qaeda attacks stylish, his father tells him to get out of his sight. He wonders how a son of his could welcome the killing of thousands of innocent people. Here, the character that represents the orthodox Muslim perspective appears more tolerant than the youth. Also, even though he dreams of returning one day to his native Karachi, he does not abandon his loyalty to Britain, a country that gave him shelter and a livelihood.
The film’s script drew on extensive interviews with Muslim communities across Britain. Glenaan took their stories and told them through the plight of one working-class family in northern England. And as the director himself says, Yasmin’s message is to simply give a voice to the minority group that has been most affected by the nature of post-9/11 Britain.
The fact that it won the 2004 Templeton European film of the year suggests that European audiences have heard its message.
The writer is a staff member