muslims – they’re just like us!: representations of islam in traitor

by Special Correspondent Thea Lim

traitor

(spoilers inside) *

Contrary to the buzz, (and much to my dismay) Traitor is not a Bourne-esque spy thriller. My movie-watching companion (MWC) and I realised we’d been tricked into the theatre by some loose Bourne comparisons as soon as the opening credits came up. The camera pulled back to reveal a Zellige-like design and the strains of dramatic Middle Eastern music.

Generally my MWC and I avoid films that deal in war, terrorism or the suggestion that all brown people are inhuman fanatics. It looked like we were in for all three.

But the positive (and surprising) thing about Traitor – which begins with arms dealer Samir (Don Cheadle) meeting terrorist group al-Nathir in a Yemeni prison and joining their ranks – is that it goes out of its way to present Muslims as a massive, ethnically, culturally, nationally and linguistically complex group. To a lesser degree it does the same for Black folks in America.

We get to see a lot of different kinds of Muslims: Samir, who is Sudanese but effectively Americanised down to the hoodie and Don Cheadle accent; dreamy Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui) who was educated in Switzerland and longs for another thinker – not just a soldier – to join his ranks; evil Fareed (Aly Khan) who is South Asian and wears fancy scarves.

And then we meet even more Muslims across America [and Canada: Samir visits Toronto (wut wut!), Port Hope and Halifax**] when al-Nathir enlists Samir to distribute bombs to Muslim suicide bombers living on student visas, and leading ho-hum lives until they are activated.*** We meet Muslim terrorists who are living as students, business people, honest-to-goodness rural dads – and get this: they look just like regular Americans (gasp!).

Maybe you see the problem here. What is positive about Traitor is also what is negative: while the film possibly intended to show how complex the global Muslim community is, out of the dozens of Muslims portrayed in the film, you only meet three who are not terrorists. The message you take away from the movie is this: Muslim terrorists can come in any shape or form, so…

WATCH OUT! That mild-mannered Muslim executive who lives next door to you is probably…hiding a bomb in his juice box!! Come to think of it, my roommate is Muslim. And one of her best friends just moved to Toronto from Palestine…on a student visa!!!!!!!!!! Quick, I have to go ransack their belongings for semtex!!!!

Sigh.

But the most irritating thing about Traitor is its Western saviour complex [personified by FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce)]; its anxious attempts to rescue those poor Muslims from movie stereotypes.

Just as Traitor tries to draw a line between itself and those other ignorant, racist movies, Clayton spends most of the movie drawing a line between himself and those other ignorant, racist white people. He talks about how his family used to go around putting out flaming KKK crosses. He scolds his partner for being violent with Samir. He has a PhD in Arabic Studies.

Clayton’s sensitive guy act asks us to believe that it’s only some FBI agents who are racist. But be that as it may, the movie avoids the fact that the War on Terror involves a heck of a lot of racism – a fact which effectively negates a few “good” guys here and there.

In the same way, throwing in a few lines about how Muslims are diverse doesn’t change the fact that Traitor’s essentially a movie that equates Islam with terrorism (within a film industry and government culture that does the same) – a fact which effectively negates a few good intentions here and there.

At one point, referring to Clayton’s (allegedly) racist partner, Samir says to Clayton: “The only difference between you and him is that he knows he’s an asshole.” With its fake worldliness, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say the same thing about Traitor, and say Iron Man. At least Iron Man doesn’t have any delusions that it’s a piece of progressive cinema.

By the by, it’s not just that all the Muslims in Traitor are terrorists. They’re also gullible, sloppy terrorists:

Omar, al-Nathir’s second-in-command, is fooled into believing that Samir is an earnest recruit (rather than a double agent for the American government) in the space of about 5 minutes.

al-Nathir allows Samir – a complete outsider – to rise quickly in the ranks in a matter of a few months.

Omar (again, al-Nathir’s 2nd-in-command) doesn’t know the most basic things about bombs – for eg that a bomb without a detonator is completely harmless.

Except for a brief meanwhile montage, no attempt is made to explain what motivates the terrorists characters to do what they do. Isn’t character motivation a basic element of plot writing? I suppose we should take this up with Steve Martin – that whacky guy co-wrote the script!

The only non-terrorist Muslim characters are all American or English Muslims.

This made me laugh out loud: when Samir makes contact with the terrorists-in-waiting, he identifies himself as a member of al-Nathir by saying…wait for it…As-Salaam-Alaikum. For serious.

Omar is the only terrorist character who appears to have depth and complexity (And he’s really the only compelling part of the movie. Or maybe that’s just because Saïd Taghmaoui is so swoonsome…) but despite that his death is completely glossed over.

Traitor has drawn many (undeserved) comparisons to The Bourne films, but it really has much more in common with John Le Carré’s 1983 novel Little Drummer Girl, which was later made into a film starring Diane Keaton.

Little Drummer Girl also deals with a spy under deep cover and the ethics of infiltration, and also tells the story from the point of view of both a Western anti-terrorist unit and Islamic terrorist group. But it does so with much more historical context and intelligence. If anybody wants to share their thoughts on Little Drummer Girl, I’d love to hear them.

Try again, Traitor.

* thanks gatamala!

** Ahem! Contrary to the movie’s dialogue is not the “ass-end of Canada” but rather the cultural centre of Eastern Canada and the home of Africville.

*** This story line perturbed me in particular because it reminded me of Project Thread, an anti-terrorism sting operation that led to the 2003 arrests of 24 South Asian Muslim men living on student visas in Toronto. The 24 were held in maximum-security prisons without access to lawyers.

They were arrested on charges of terrorism and widely reported in the media as terrorists – but no hard evidence that any of them were involved in terrorism was found. Nonetheless their names were never cleared and many of them were forced to return to their countries of origin.

Why were they suspected of terrorism in the first place? It appears the fact that they were South Asian Muslim men living on student visas was enough to rouse serious suspicion.

For more info you can access Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s article on Project Threadbare, the Toronto group that formed to try to protect the 24 men. Project Threadbare’s website is here.