Turban Decay deals with images of Arabs in the cinema, as observed by Front Row Central staff writer and actual Arab Jordan Saïd. The column deals with stereotypes and changing perceptions both before and after 9/11.
I recently got talked into hate-watching God’s Not Dead. Frankly, only one thing about this turkey ever interested me: the irony that this film exists to gainsay atheists… but technically, atheists agree with the title. Of course, the film fully lived down to my expectations of wholesale incompetence. God’s Not Dead probably unseats Buffalo ‘66 as the most spectacularly oblivious display of psychological projection in film history.
For those with the unlikely good fortune not to have heard of this one-sided tailpipe of a movie, it deals mostly with a small collection of upper-middle-class white Christian Americans (and one benign foreigner) who each meet with an unlikely adversity that tests their faith in Christianity. For lack of a better word, they get “Jobed.” The A-plot depicts pious college student Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) standing up to atheist philosophy professor Jeffery Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), who attempts to force Josh to forswear his religion in exchange for a good grade.
I usually try to jump straight into the Arab/Muslim issue, but as an academic, I have to touch on the plot’s utter implausibility. Radisson begins the course by threatening to drastically expand the class’s workload unless every single student signs a note saying, “God is dead.” Only Josh refuses, at which point Radisson assigns him the work of convincing every last one of his classmates to convert to Christianity. Every single public school in the country would summarily fire Radisson for his actions, even if he had tenure. Radisson’s modified prisoner’s dilemma clearly violates federal law, which prohibits religious discrimination on public school grounds. This movie could have ended in five minutes if Josh just reported Radisson to a dean. That Josh didn’t convinces me that he desperately needs schooling anyway.
From this impossible premise, nearly two hours of sophistry ensue. Josh and Radisson engage in a protracted duel of appeals to authority. Red herring remises meet with straw-man ripostes, with everyone pretending Josh has the upper hand because he never deigns to open a science book. Even the film itself attempts to undermine Radisson by revealing him as smug, narcissistic, emotionally abusive, and eventually, an angry Christian who still subconsciously believes in God. Even if Radisson didn’t get shitcanned for discrimination (and you can bet your ass he would), college brass would sack Radisson anyway for rhetorical incompetence.
In the thunderous climax, Josh succeeds in convincing every last one of his classmates to stand up and convert to Christianity. Really. Josh’s strategy didn’t work on indigenous peoples under threat of slaughter and enslavement during centuries of colonization, yet it works on a classroom full of bored millennials watching a debate over material that doesn’t even relate to the class. As an academic, again, I cannot quantify the abject improbability of getting a classroom full of sleepy, bored, newly-emancipated college students to do any such thing, especially for an irritating classmate whose intransigence got them assigned weeks of additional work. I wouldn’t even have that enthusiastic of agreement if I asked my class, “Holler if you like pizza or oral sex!”
Now let’s talk Muslims.
I suspected I wouldn’t truck with the depiction of Islam early on, when Duck Dynasty’s Willie and Korie Robertson made the first of two cameo appearances. Willie’s father Phil, of course, has made famously bigoted comments in the past, including several involving Muslims. (No, Muslims don’t automatically kill people who refuse to convert. There exist over a billion Muslims in the world; if their religion required all of them to kill you, they’d have done a better job of it by now.) Ordinarily I only care about one thing less than Duck Dynasty: the religious views of people on Duck Dynasty. But I felt a tinge of trepidation when I realized the film’s two significant Muslim characters, Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu) and Misrab (Marco Khan), would actually appear more than once.
As expected, God’s Not Dead jumps headlong into the oppressed-women/angry-men stereotype. Ayisha, who attends school with Josh, lives under the ever-pressing thumb of her traditionalist father Misrab, who has the warmth of Fimbulvetr and communicates in minatory glances and guttural threats. He forces Ayisha to wear a niqab, which she surreptitiously removes as soon as he can’t see her. I don’t doubt that such asshole fathers exist, but I’ve met more Muslim-American fathers with gentle, loving personalities, fathers who genuinely want their daughters to live happy lives and don’t fuss over a single garment. I just wish we saw one or two of them on film now and then.
Ayisha later finds Jesus and coverts. Here, we have the biggest failure of God’s Not Dead: the film depicts most of its characters converting to Christianity for specious or self-serving reasons. For instance, a left-wing journalist (Trisha LaFache) converts upon finding out she has Stage 3 cancer. Radisson eventually converts when faced with the prospect of imminent death as well. (Interestingly, Qur’an 4:18 forbids this exact scenario.) For Ayisha’s part, the film implies that she converts because she has a crush on Josh.
In a movie packed with subplots, it comes as little surprise that we only see Ayisha’s conversion process in two scenes. In the first, her brother catches her listening to Franklin Graham on her smartphone. To put it simply, this scene would never happen. Why would a Muslim listen to Franklin Graham—who has loudly spewed Islamophobia for over a decade now—and like what she hears? That seems like a fish endorsing a bear. Personally, I first heard Graham’s comments in college myself. I never forgot what I felt: fear. Fear of changing attitudes. Fear of plow shares beaten into swords. Fear for my safety.
In the second scene, Misrab catches Ayisha becoming interested in Christianity. In the heat of the moment, with her infuriated father gnashing his teeth at her, Ayisha loudly declares her love for Jesus Christ and her conversion to Christianity. (Incidentally, I’ve seen Muslim dads at their angriest, and I’ve never met a Muslim child stupid enough to go for the nuclear option at that sight.) Misrab physically strikes her and banishes her from the house, amidst tears from all family members.
Unfortunately, some Muslims actually do think this way; I find that mindset as unpleasant, repugnant, and barbaric as you do. More to the point, some Islamic scholars state that Islamic parents may disinherit, but not disown, wayward children. Even more to the point, it feels insulting to see a story thread about Muslims disowning children in a Christian movie. As many as 400,000 LGBT youth live homeless in America. 89% of them became homeless as a direct result of their parents discovering their sexual orientation or gender identity. I’ve personally met a number of children disowned, abused, or persecuted by their Christian parents. But as with Islam, one can argue that disowning children for any reason goes against the religion (1 Timothy 5:8). Nevertheless, seeing a non-Christian parent disown a child in a Christian movie amounts to projection and propaganda.
Of course, this film—this sanitized, saccharine interpretation of Christianity—doesn’t waste its running time on actually-relevant issues like youth homelessness. We next see Ayisha at a Newsboys concert, where she declares her love for Jesus and flirts with Josh. This raises so many questions all by itself. How does Ayisha—who doesn’t even have a home—have money for tickets to a Newsboys concert? Doesn’t anyone find it weird that she tracked Josh down to said concert after only meeting him once? Why does this Christian movie depict a homeless character without showing anybody doing that thing Jesus actually did say—repeatedly—about helping the poor?
Josh doesn’t return Ayisha’s affection, because interracial romance in Hollywood requires a far more progressive and courageous movie. Indeed, the film’s core message regarding Islam amounts to: they hate us and they hate each other.
Look. I don’t have a problem with Christianity. Christians make up most of my friends, and I have nothing but love in my heart for each and every one of them. Folks should follow whatever religious teachings make the most sense to them or give them the most happiness. But I part ways with anyone who makes propaganda impugning other religions whilst at the same time ignoring said behavior within their own house. One Bible verse springs to mind… John 8:7, “Don’t act like a Goddamn hypocrite.”
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