In a shabby room sit two people dressed in black. One of them is leader of a terrorist organisation, considered by some authorities the most dangerous man alive. The other is a potential recruit. He is a well-educated middle-class man who is dissatisfied with his life. He feels that somehow he is not in control, and is being cheated in some way.
The terrorist leader confirms these doubts, and speaks in the style of a would-be prophet. What you know you cant explain, but you feel it. Youve felt it your entire life, that theres something wrong with the world. You dont know what it is, but its there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. He paints a vast conspiracy, one whose power is as ubiquitous as its reach is vast, and he tells the young man, the potential recruit: You are a slave... like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cant smell, or taste or touch... a prison for your mind. He promises truth and freedom. What he delivers is a life on the run; murder, mayhem, bombings and aircrafts smashing into buildings. All this is carried out in the service of people who are powerless in relation to this groups actions. Of course they do not ask permission of those on whose behalf such a crusade, such a violent jihad, is waged.
These scenes are from The Matrix, the surprise sci-fi box office hit directed by the Wachowski brothers. It was the most successful film to be released by the Warner Brothers studio after 1999, grossing more than $450 million worldwide. But what would Americans, or other westerners, have made of this movie had it been in Arabic?
An empire fights back
The Wall Street Journal lambasts the Saudi government: Thus far, the kingdoms ruling princes have found it more urgent to protect their own cushy status quo than to look too closely at what is preached in the countrys mosques and religious schools. It seems to be a very curious blindness that afflicts the editors if they cannot see that the violence and conspiracy theories prevalent on the Arab street are not too different from the type that the US itself churns out day after day, week after week, year after year.
Watching the constantly replayed video of men in black training at an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan is like watching a badly-staged rehearsal of Fight Club, a film of which the New York Times said: If watched sufficiently mindlessly, it might be mistaken for a dangerous endorsement of totalitarian tactics and super-violent nihilism in an all-out assault on society. And yes, the buildings blowing up at the end of the film have some resemblance to events of the recent past.
This is not to say that Hollywood inspired Osama bin Laden, or that he chose the name of his organisation al-Qaida (the base, or foundation) from the title of Isaac Asimovs books, Foundation and Foundation and Empire. It is just that certain ideas and stories are found in all societies. The story of suicide bombers that the Judeo-Christian world finds so repugnant and hard to understand is hardly different from the end of the Samson story, or even the cold wars Mutually Assured Destruction.
A best-selling series of books in the United States today is called Left Behind. It tells of the trials of those living after the rapture during which all true Christians are lifted to heaven and those left behind have to face the arrival of the Antichrist. The Antichrist is, of course, a UN secretary-general, and happens to operate from Iraq.
The co-author is Tim LaHaye, who is former co-chairman of Jack Kemps presidential campaign, a member of the original board of directors of the Moral Majority and an organizer of the Council for National Policy, which ABCNews.com has called the most powerful conservative organization in America youve never heard of and whose membership has included John Ashcroft [the current US Attorney General], Tommy Thompson and Oliver North.
Fighting the empire
We fight, kill and die for beliefs, whether they are beliefs in nationality or whether they are beliefs about religion, and we demonise our enemies as we do so. The US soldier stationed in Afghanistan, in Iraq, wherever, is serving his country, defending his brethren to whom he is bound by the belief in a mutually shared identity.
But nationalism is not far from religion in this regard. Yes, it is true that fewer people are killed on the basis of religion today than are killed on the basis of nationality or tribe, but does that make it any better or worse? A stranger killed on the basis of their identity is still a death, whether they are gunned down for their belief in an unseen God or their belief in a boundary on a map.
What really turns an average Joe from a bystander into a potential target? According to the character Morpheus it is simple: The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when youre inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.
How interesting. What is that system? The Baath party or its residue in Iraq? Al-Qaida? The global capitalist system? The United States and its clients? The Christian crusaders? The Islamic jihadis? The Zionist conspiracy? Take your pick.
There is a difference between those who consume such things as simply entertainment and those who actually believe them to be a clarion call to change the world. If every person who had seen a violent Hollywood film were to act out those ideas there would be little left of the world except bloodshed. This is because people filter what they hear and see and make up their minds themselves.
There are people across the world who find the ideas of resistance to an increasingly aggressive superpower very attractive. Most do it unthinkingly, the vast majority will do nothing except talk, as the vast majority of people do after watching a particularly interesting film. Caught up by the fiery words and images, after a while they wind down and go on with their normal lives.
There are others who do not wind down, who are no longer content to simply talk but feel compelled to act. Any message can be dangerous, and every sacred text is open to different interpretations. Nevertheless these things remain of academic concern until confronted by the power that erupts from squalor and desperation. You are much more likely to want to crack the world open when you see your brother die.
Be like us or face the consequences
Another hit movie, which like The Matrix has spawned a sequel, is X-Men. The most successful comic series to date, it was targeted specifically at the teenage crowd who had just come into their strength, felt different from others, and had no representation in the corridors of power.
The first movie starts off with a scene from the Holocaust, probably its most powerful visual image indicating starkly how mankind has handled different people. The movie revolves around the argument between two potential leaders of the mutants, Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr and their conflicting ideas on how to deal with the world. One favours coexistence, the other confrontation.
Speaking of the Holocaust in which Eric Lensherr lost his parents, Charles Xavier says: That was a long time ago, Eric. Humankind has evolved since then.
Yes. Into us, says his friend and adversary.
Many people who would echo the point. It is the central thesis of Francis Fukuyamas The End of History, after all. It is also the central tenet of the thinking of certain Islamic radicals, as well as the kernel in the Left Behind books. Ape us or be destroyed. It was not so long ago that the IMF and World Bank spoke with a similar arrogance.
Again, though, American popular culture finds itself unwittingly addressing Muslims more than anybody else. After all, which religion in the world has a disproportionately large number of teenagers who are different from the rest of their contemporaries and find themselves unrepresented, and often targeted, by those in power?
The second X-Men movie ends with Charles Xavier saying to the president of the United States, in effect: There are those who think a war between us is inevitable, and some who believe that the war has already begun. It does not have to be like this, Mr. President.
The success of movies such as The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, X-Men and X2: X-Men United is related to their power as convincing stories, shadow narratives of the real world of politics and power in which we are all encased. We tell them for our amusement and look to them for inspiration; we use them for instruction, as parables, for our children in order to make a meaning that can connect with these wider realities, and find its own echo there. After all, a constitution, a faith, a nationality, a history are in their own way also a series of stories told over and over again.
I will show you fear in a handful of dust, wrote T.S. Eliot. Fear can be seen in anything if we are sufficiently frightened, but one can also find hope with a bit of effort. Is it not an amusing, even a hopeful, sign that popular culture in todays superpower echoes many of the same concerns that are being touted as the reasons to resist that very superpower?
And is it not amusing that Egypt has banned the release of The Matrix Reloaded in the country on the grounds of it being too religious? Fear, apparently, in a handful of script.