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Killing in the Name

Killing in the Name leaves open questions, at least partly a function of the many logical tangles that inform jihad.

Killing in the Name

Director: Jed Rothstein
Cast: Ashraf Al-Khaled, Nasir Abbas
Rated: NR
Studio: Firecracker Films/HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-09-14 (HBO2)

"As a Muslim, I do believe that it should come from my tongue, to say that these acts do not represent Islam." Ashraf Al-Khaled stands in a cemetery, his head bowed in respect as his voice-over lays out his dilemma. Tragically, this dilemma is not uncommon: as Ashraf looks back at the terrorist attack on his wedding party back in November 2005, the film points out that in the last five years, "more than 88,000 people were killed or injured in terrorist attacks worldwide. The majority of the victims were Muslims."

Killing in the Name follows the Jordanian Ashraf's efforts to make this reality more visible. Even as he and his wife Nadia must live with the consequences of the suicide bombing by Al-qaeda in Iraq -- they lost 27 members of their wedding party, including three of their parents -- he means to turn his experience into an opportunity for education. As an activist, he seeks out young people who might be in training for jihad, as well as self-proclaimed jihadists in order to open a dialogue concerning the killing of Muslims by Muslims.

Jed Rothstein's film -- nominated for a 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) -- alternates between Ashraf's work and an extended interview with Zaid, identified as a recruiter for Al-qaeda in Iraq. Though Zaid refuses to meet with Ashraf himself, he "agrees to answer his questions," and the film structures their scenes so they seem in some sort of dialogue -- even as their actual non-meeting suggests the gap between communities remains wide.

This tension is set up from the film's start, when scenes from the 2005 funeral, featuring close-ups of weeping children, are followed by Zaid's first appearance. Seated in a room somewhere in Amman, Jordan, the light a somber sepia. Zaid speaks precisely as the camera cuts to a tight shot of his hands in his lap, fingertips touching: "Ashraf," he says, "I implore you to count your family and dear ones as being in heaven. Ask for Allah to receive them and accept them into heaven. And also that you forgive the mujahideen, because you can't taint your picture of all the mujahideen based on this one mistake you have experienced."

As shocking as this appeal may sound, it's a helpful introduction to the broader dimensions of Ashraf's dilemma. Zaid's logic here is sound -- not all mujahideen are the same -- but also flawed (which is not to say jihad or any other deeply held belief system is or must be premised on logic). But if he might acknowledge a "mistake," in the sense that "It's impossible for a Muslim to deliberately bomb himself, to kill another Muslim. His destiny is hell," Zaid articulates an inherent illogic, both metaphorical or material, as the suicide bomber is deliberately bombing "himself" by definition. However this can be worked out within each interpretation of the mission, that very notion -- the individual interpretations of the mission -- poses ongoing questions. While Al-qaeda in Iraq doesn't "encourage operations in places full of Muslims," the bomber in this case made a decision to attack a Muslim wedding, identified as such. His reasoning isn't apparent.

Ashraf's several encounters in the film reveal the complexity of finding order in the violence. When he meets with Mansour Al-Banna, father of another Al-qaeda in Iraq bomber, Ashraf knows going in the that the "family is still not believing that he did such an event." Here again, belief (or disbelief) assumes a kind of logic: "When you kill yourself, you don't go to heaven," Mansour asserts, explaining further that his son Ra'ed studied law in college, "loved socializing and loved America." The handheld camera moves between Ashraf and Mansour on the older man's couch, the light from a window behind them creating deep shadows, splitting their faces into halves. Asked "What were you feeling when you saw this on television?", Mansour looks pained. "The news was distorted," he says, "I heard on the internet that his hands were chained to the steering wheel."

For Masnour, Ra'ed's story can only make sense if he was deceived, or misused, by the organization (and certainly, this is not an atypical story for parents to tell themselves regarding children -- of all nationalities and faiths -- whose missions take them outside the parents' experience, including missions that end up reported on television). By the end of the meeting, Mansour is visibly distraught: "Wounds are being reopened, event though Ra'ed's story is unforgettable" he says, "It feels like we're receiving the first announcement of his death in Iraq."

But as Mansour tries to stop talking, Ashraf, off screen, insists the exchange continue: "If you and I and others, none of us speak, then we won't reach a solution." The camera cuts to Ashraf, leaving Mansour out of frame as he answers, "You are right." The screen fades to black and this instance of speaking is over.

Ashraf travels to speak with others, too, including one of the 2005 Bali bombers. Idris, recently released after five years in prison, says of the Muslims killed, "It was God's will and their destiny to die there. They were not part of our target." In voice-over, Ashraf articulates the unease, "I'm sitting with someone who has blood on his hands and I did not feel good." Though Idris is part of a group working with Nasir Abbad, a former member of Jemaah Islamiya, Al-qaeda's affiliate in Pakistan, it's not clear he is "redeemed," as his new mentor. Nasir now sees jihad differently than before, insisting that killing innocent civilians is forbidden. "His de-radicalization project is a model for others around the world," the film observes. When two of Nasir's former students are executed in Tengullun for their part in the Bali bombings, the film notes, their funeral becomes a "rallying point" for other members of Jemaah Islamiya.

This discouraging note is followed in the film by Ashraf's visit with a classroom full of boys. When heshows them video of a Bali bombing widow describing the effects of the mission on the children, parents, and spouses of victims: "Killing is not problem solving, it only causes miseries for many people." The students look briefly moved and then depart with smiles on their faces. The film is cut to leave open questions. It's unclear what has produced the boys' smiles, or whether they've absorbed Ashraf's lesson, even if it has been offered "in their own language."


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