Offensive to Muslims? Give Me a Break.

[7 November 2010]

By Leila B. Akkara

I recently sat down to watch Sex and the City 2, months after its release in theaters. It took me that long mostly because the reviews were so unanimously and stridently awful. I didn’t have much faith in something as colorful, fun and, yes, decidedly feminine as Sex and the City to begin with, and the reviews, from major outlets to smaller ones, stubbed out any remaining hope I had for this movie. Not only was it purported to be bad—very, very, bad—but it was also deemed unacceptably offensive to Muslims. This last charge, in particular, filled me with dread. It is not that I pick films according to critics’ opinions; our world is based on the normal curve and the most just means the average. However, all of the reviews I read were bad. How could they all be wrong?

Well, I think they were. Sex and the City 2 is a remarkably brave, unique, and important piece of art for the Western-Muslim relationship and, in particular, for the Muslim woman. I wholeheartedly challenge the leitmotiv in reviews proclaiming that the movie was an affront to Muslims, especially given the way Muslims have traditionally been depicted in American film and television.

To start off with, the makers of the movie showed some moxie by picking the United Arab Emirates as the setting for the girls’ adventure.  Our world offers a lifetime’s worth of getaway destinations, but King et al zoned in on a tricky area, the Middle East. It wasn’t long ago that our lawmakers decided against a business deal with the UAE involving the sale of an American port because of an irrational fear of the UAE based solely on the fact that Emiratis are Arabs, and Muslim. In Sex and the City 2, not only do the movie makers bypass this nonsense without giving it more than a sensible nod (Charlotte traveling by her maiden name of York rather than her married Jewish name of Goldenblatt), but they pick the connoisseur’s UAE destination of Abu Dhabi, not Dubai. Picking an Arab and Muslim location in the Middle East is a bold move in and of itself and a welcome respite from the aura of suspicion and fear forced on the region and its citizens.

Though a slew of Hollywood movies have included the Middle East as a site within their stories, once viewers arrive at these destinations, the natives are generally depicted as a case study in orientalism (Salah from the Indiana Jones movies), or in the far more dangerous and dreaded modern archetype of the terrorist (pick any Muslim TV or film character in the past decade). Arabs and Muslims are either infantile and subservient, cunning tricksters with too wide grins, or they are building bombs. By contrast, in this movie, the natives are displayed as people: wealthy and Arab, but with some degree of variation in their portrayal. They are not all heroes (the anti-stereotype being as annoying as the stereotype), but neither are they all sinister weasels. This simple strategy of depicting people, Middle Easterners or not, as they probably are—which is not-terrorist—may score a much sought-after point in the hearts and minds of Muslims. Carries and company’s characters refrain from judging too much, although again, a free pass is not entirely given to the culture, as Carrie observes what many of us are thinking when it comes to Middle Eastern dress: the headscarf is understandable, but the veil across the face is freaky.

Here are a couple of examples to show that Sex and the City 2, far from succumbing to the traditional stereotype reserved for Muslims in film, goes beyond the status quo. The souk vendor Carrie buys shoes from is not out to cheat her, but in fact holds on to her lost passport until she comes to get it. What? He didn’t blackmail her into joining his harem? Amazing! The official that ultimately arrested Samantha for having sex on the beach? A well spoken Muslim guy who does his job, which, gasp, does not include torturing people! Unbelievable!

I can only imagine the sigh of relief, perhaps hidden or muted, that moderate or secular Muslims, particularly American ones, breathed when they saw Muslims on screen that are not terrorists, torturers, or even dumb and deceitful! The concept for Hollywood is nothing short of revolutionary. Thus I do not understand the repeated claims by professional critics that this movie is offensive to Muslims, especially given the role the Muslim has typically played in American film, and frankly, the way Muslims have been portrayed in real life by the media, by politicians, by bloggers, by your neighbors. When did an offense to Muslims even become worthy of mention?

This movie has been one of the kindest gestures to Muslims made through a mainstream medium in a very long time, and, couched in materialism and glitz, sexiness and fun, the movie has some positive repercussions in the Western-Muslim dialogue, especially at the populist level. Things being the way they are, any positivity, any advance in that dialogue should be welcomed and celebrated, not summarily sneered at.

Sex and the City 2 does not shy away from the problem of portraying Muslim women either, and the writers handle this area with grace and humanity alongside the expected whimsy. In the girls’ final caper, they are ultimately saved by a silent flotilla of dark forms that are the women in too many Middle-Eastern countries. The local women usher them indoors where they can unveil, speak, and be with their Western sisters. Why hasn’t anyone else thought to unveil these women that so many seek to liberate where they actually can: on film? This scene may have come across as a “duh” moment, that women around the world share a common bond, but it is an obviousness that has been obfuscated elsewhere in media, even amongst many feminists.

Aside from how this movie might help relations between (and within) Muslims and Westerners, it also might aid in the dialogue the Muslim world desperately needs to have with itself. The heroines of the movie, in their naïve arrival in the Middle-East, offer Muslims the chance to view themselves through the girls’ childlike prism. As stated before, yeah, the face veil is creepy and bizarre, for anyone, not just Americans. But the most powerful scene comes towards the end. This scene was described by critics as being particularly offensive and vulgar. Samantha makes a spectacularly (of course) simple proclamation in the marketplace that causes a mob to come after her. The proclamation is a truth, one that every Muslim woman desperately needs to scream in the face of many a Muslim man: “I have sex!” Yes! Is it a coincidence that the writers constructed the scene that way, a seemingly mad person professing a truth in a Middle Eastern marketplace and being condemned for it? The reference may seem offensive to some, but an 11th century mystic in Baghdad by the name of Hallaj was hung from the gallows for professing “I am the Truth!” in a marketplace. The comparison is perhaps tenuous, but in considering the tragedy of the Muslim woman, Samantha’s spectacle is a powerful testimony whose suppression in the Muslim world has led to suffering, misery, and even death for Muslim women. It may be gratuitous to you, but what does her proclamation mean for them?

Similarly, this film is the first time I have seen a gay Muslim man depicted in popular culture. This movie even found time to reach out to the Muslim gay community by giving them a presence too, a right to exist, at least onscreen. Such a portrayal could challenge Muslim sensibilities towards homosexuality and hopefully make a dent towards the acceptance of the latter within the culture. Again, this minor character in the movie is a courageous move on the part of the writers.

The movie also challenges the UAE’s culture specifically. When I watched the scene where the girls arrive at their hotel in Abu Dhabi, I was convinced that the emirate or the hotel itself, had financed the movie. The liturgical description of every conceivable and ridiculous amenity the hotel provided had me thinking that the hotel’s own press agent wrote the part. Come to find out later that the movie was not filmed in the UAE, and was even banned from the country. The silly, shallow movie makers clearly had an intimate knowledge of what oil-rich Middle-Eastern wealth sounds like when it boasts of a particularly ostentatious product. The whole scene was a tongue-in-cheek poke at the unbearable extravagance of oil-rich culture, which displays a wealth that makes one wonder where halal ends and haram truly begins. The writers even include, as an admittedly minor side story, the plight of the South Asian migrant come to work in the Middle-East, a social issue that, at least in those parts of the world, is sure to become far more important in the coming generation.

Though I am mystified at the chastisement Sex and the City 2 received for purportedly insulting Muslims, I feel the need to address at least a few of the specific points raised in support of the charge. Some critics complained that the Muslims in the movie were one-dimensional props, but the movie wasn’t about them, it was about the girls. Further, does a serious movie like Syriana really allot more depth to its Muslim characters? Other critics, pointing to the Bedouin chic aesthetic and magic carpet references have maintained that the movie was a shameless orientalist extravaganza. Though magic carpets and turbans are strong symbols of an orientalist vision, they are a) harmless compared to other orientalist currents which are absent in this movie, and b) actual cultural artifacts. An association with flying carpets is whimsical; an association with rabid, suicidal fanatics or a shared, monolithic mind is deleterious.

Finally, Sex and the City 2 has been accused of the crime of not taking the opportunity to educate the public on what Muslims are really like. Well, one will probably never get an idea of what Muslims are really like because there are over one billion of them. The movie does educate the public in the following two ways: its depiction of the UAE (a country which has its own specific culture and cannot represent the entire Middle-East) is pretty factually correct, and Muslims do not generally spend all their time hating American freedom or killing innocent people.

The movie, for me, was a real tour de force at a time when pasting a turbaned head on a dog’s picture can earn you a death threat. Maybe it was completely unselfconscious on the movie makers’ part, but the elements I took from watching the film left me with the impression that the movie writers played the wise fools in minefield territory. Dealing with Muslim culture in our times is not easy. By nonchalantly riding the female Fabulous Express, the superficial bimbo of this year’s movies could glide through to the hearts and minds of at least some, while posing as mere brain candy.

Each instance of a Muslim without a bomb is an opportunity to delete the association that has bombarded the public: Muslims and indiscriminate murder.  The image of the Muslim as terrorist has been repeated so often that it has shouted down any possible chance for the latter to be viewed otherwise, and I am certain it has unfairly caused tangible, real-world difficulties for your average (Muslim) Joe, or Moe. Thus, any movie these days that includes Islam sans terrorism is a compassionate one.

The virulence of the reviews, I suspect, generated its own momentum, and this may have prevented any reviewers from assessing the film objectively. I urge critics to watch the film again, perhaps as a comparative study of films depicting Muslims. The unanimity of critics’ opinions could indicate the movie is really just bad, but that stands in contrast to the box office numbers. There are many ways to defend Muslims against offense, and I will refrain from stating the obvious ones. Trashing this movie, in my opinion, is not one of them.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/131552-offensive-to-muslims-give-me-a-break/