Monday, April 27, 2015

On Holy Terror

Years ago in graduate school, I wrote a paper about Frank Miller's 300, arguing that the film version was a deliberate and brash manifestation of post-9/11 paranoia and xenophobia. I was only just venturing into my studies of late medieval crusades literature, but I already noticed startling similarities between the narrative mechanics of the film and of the romances that fascinated me. I remember sitting in the theater watching the film, amazed by its beauty and appalled by its blatant homophobia and racism. I had expected, however, that Frank Miller (for all intents and purposes the godfather on set) and Zach Snyder (the director) would at least try to offer some sort of defense of the film. In interiews, Miller waxed downright belligerent whenever questions about the film's depiction of the Persians and its implied critique of the contemporary Middle-East came up. Take, for instance, his statements during NPR's State of the Union broadcast (the irony of his segment following Kwame Anthony Appiah's was not lost on me):
FM: When you think about what Americans accomplished, building these amazing cities, and all the good it’s done in the world, it’s kind of disheartening to hear so much hatred of America, not just from abroad, but internally.  
NPR: A lot of people would say what America has done abroad has led to the doubts and even the hatred of its own citizens.  
FM: Well, okay, then let’s finally talk about the enemy. For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw people’s heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.
It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that Miller would go on to create Holy Terror. The comic was originally intended to be a Batman story that pitted the caped crusader against Bin Laden and other extremists. Somewhere along the way, and perhaps to the relief of most franchise lovers, Miller decided that this was not, in fact, a Batman story. Batman was replaced by a hero known as The Fixer, and his accomplice/lover is a catburgler rather than Catwoman.

I remember hearing about Miller's Holy Terror a few years ago, but it fell off my radar rather quickly amid the maelstrom of dissertating and a cross country move. It came to mind a couple of weeks ago, however, after I got into a lively conversation on Twitter about modern iterations of militant Christianity, and I realized -- especially since I plan to talk about this topic at length in the conclusion to my book -- that I needed to read it. I bought a copy (used, since I couldn't in good conscience buy a new one) and have spent the past couple of weeks figuring out what to say about it.

Its xenophobic portrait of Middle Easterners is so appalling that -- at first -- it's hard to know where even to start. I'll describe a few of the most crucial moments in the comic, however, in part to give readers a sense of what takes place in the comic, and in part to help me sort out my thoughts on it.

You don't need to look any further than the cover or the comic's epigraph to gather that this comic is is a reactionary post-9/11 revenge fantasy (that it was released close to the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is, perhaps, evidence enough). The cover (pictured left), gives us the first glimpse of the The Fixer and one of many nameless assailants. I couldn't help but notice the difference in the features: consider the clearly defined white/Anglocentric face of our hero with the faceless (and black) void, human only insofar as it has eyes and, at least in the recent past, teeth. From its inception, then, the comic perpetuates the horrendous notion that dark skin connotes threat. And we need only look at any number of tragic narratives in our own country's very recent history to get a sense of why the perpetuation of that kind of imagery is both grotesque and downright dangerous.

Things escalate quickly just a few pages into the comic, where we encounter this epigraph:
"If you meet the Infidel, kill the infidel" -- Mohammed
This is not, in fact, a direct quotation from the Q'uran. At best, it's a heavily paraphrased (and wildly decontextualized) version of 9:5: "Slay the pagans wherever you may come upon them, and take the captive, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at ever conceivable space . . . ." It's unclear whether Miller is aware of the original version and its context, but the point of this epigraph is nevertheless crystal clear: to ensure that readers of the comic are encouraged from the start to perceive Muslims as inherently threatening. Again, wildly problematic, but hardly unsurprising.

The first sequence in the comic introduces both The Fixer and the Catburgler, the former chasing the latter on account of a stolen bracelet. The chase takes an erotic turn, but a nail bomb interrupts their rooftop tryst. The comic then flashes back to the events leading up to that bomb going off, and it is here that we are introduced to the first of many caricatured Middle-Eastern villains:

The fact that Amina is both an exchange student and a humanities major should give us pause. In this one panel, Miller implies that both exchange programs and the humanities are in some way in direct/indirect collusion with al Qaeda. And as we recently saw with UMass's decision to deny Iranian students entry, or this study on the likely effects of post 9/11 policies on Muslim exchange students, Middle-Eastern students seeking an education in the U.S. face a plethora of difficulties and are discriminated against in a variety of overt and covert ways. The roots of this discrimination are found in post 9/11 fears of al Qaeda and other forms of militant Islam gaining traction in the U.S., and Holy Terror directly capitalizes on those fears in its depiction of Amina.

Several reviewers have mocked the fact that she's a "humanities major" since no such major actually exists, but I think Miller knew exactly what he wanted to do here as well. All of the characters, both heroic and villanous, in Holy Terror are generalized caricatures created for the sake of the jingoism Miller wished to promulgate. Amina, as a humanities major, then, embodies dangers Miller sees in academia writ large, as he apparently views the scholars within it as left-leaning cultural relativists who inadvertently support the causes of those who would see the end to freedom of thought or expression. His inability to envision academia (or, let's be honest, any corner of the globe) as a space occupied by an array of complex and dynamic persons would be hilarious if it its effects weren't so awful. The representation the Amina as the femme-fatale-suicide bomber-humanities-majoring-exchange-student is deeply problematic, then, because -- like the epigraph that begins the comic -- it relies on a host of oversights that, when played out in the actual world, have direct and downright catastrophic consequences. It perpetuates a cancerous and self-contradictory mythology that condemns freedom of expression while trying to protect it, while also pointing an accusing finger at any exchange student who happens to come from the Middle-East and/or be Muslim (Miller regularly fails to distinguish between the two).

He also deliberately conflates al-Qaeda/Islam (the two are, regrettably, one and the same to him) with "the Dark Ages," implying that the insurgents in his story will usher in second Dark Age if they are allowed to succeed (see left). As many have argued (myself included), to associate anything we perceive as Other or as aberrant with "the Medieval" betrays both ignorance and an unwillingness to grapple with the very real and modern problems of the contemporary world. Al Qaeda is not medieval. It is the result of a complex series of modern events, pressure points, and entanglements. To refuse to see that, is to refuse to take ownership of our contemporary world. An interpretive and an imaginative failure to say the least.

To make matters worse, the comic insists on genocide and torture as the only way to confront and defeat the Other, resorting every step of the way to one-dimensional and caricatured portraits of both hero and villain. Consider, for instance, the implications of this portrait of an insurgent (below right), or the crude and offensive scenes of mass-killing and torture (below left).

The comic reaches its zenith of anti-Muslim rhetoric in its depiction and description of a mosque in Empire City:
The Saudis spent a fortune on this place. It's the oldest mosque in Empire city. People come from miles around -- but only a very few are let inside. It's as close to an inner-city sovereign nation as you'll find, this side of Rome. It's as silent as a tomb. It keeps secrets.
It goes without saying that this evokes and plays upon the the xenophobia that surrounded (and in some ways dominated) discussion of The Ground Zero mosque back in 2010. Consider the following quotation from this regrettable and inflammatory op-ed about the proposed mosque, for example:
Not only that, but Rauf [the Imam behind the proposed project] has called America compatible with sharia law. Indeed, America, he says helped deepen his identification with Islam; talking to The New York Times, he stated, "in that sense, you could say I found my faith in this country. For me, Islam and America are organically bound together. This is not my story alone. The American way of life has helped many Muslims make a conscious decision to embrace their faith." And his partner, el-Gamal? He turned to Islam after the attacks of 9/11. (He also has a history of violent crime, with attacks coming as recently as 2005.)
This, of course, raises the question of whether Cordoba [the name of the proposed mosque] can or will become a seat of a jihadist movement. And the truth is, the more we know about Feisal Abdul Rauf and his cohorts, the more I tend to wonder. Rauf has already skillfully turned American Muslims and non-Muslims into enemies of one another -- something even Osama bin Laden failed to do. His disingenuousness, dishonesty, and disrespect make me wonder what else he and his mosque might be capable of achieving in the name of what he calls 'peace.'" 
The author's cognitive dissonance and weak arguments in this quotation (and in the article as a whole) are obvious, but the paranoia seeping from the op-ed is worth considering alongside Miller's Holy Terror. Both respond to perceived threats of Islam by assuming that we're embroiled in a religious war. Both strongly suggest that a mosque -- ANY mosque -- can and will harbor terrorists. Both insinuate -- if not state outright -- that all Muslims are to be feared and are, to greater or lesser degrees, complicit in acts of terror waged by Muslims extremists. Both authors, in other words, caricaturize twenty three percent of the world's population in order to promote a deeply xenophobic jingoism.

It's no surprise then, that the mosque in Holy Terror affirms and validates such a worldview. The Catburgler enters it -- grudgingly disguised in a burka -- with our narrator describing "the night wind blow[ing] away seven centuries." Yet another attempt to distance the heroes in the text from the insurgents (and, more broadly, America from the Middle East), by insinuating that the latter is somehow still "stuck" in the Middle Ages.

The description of the mosque's interior only builds on that assumption. The Catburgler is almost immediately apprehended by the mosque's inhabitants, and she is led down below sea level into what she describes as "The Old City -- built by long-forgotten ancients . . . a race of madmen." As you can see in the image below, this underground space is adorned with grotesque sculptures and -- oddly -- what appear to be ancient Greek helmets. She encounters both a traitorous drunk Irishman who has teamed up with al-Qaeda and a leader of sorts -- a diminutive figure so covered in jewelry that only his misshapen mouth is visible. This leader ridicules Westerners for their
obliviousness and states the following:
"We come right out and call ourselves al-Qaeda -- the cell -- and you don't stop to consider what that means. We're scarcely a microbe, a speck, a tiny part of an organism so vast as to be beyond belief. Were I utterly at your mercy . . . even I could only provide the vaguest hint of the organization's size -- or its true purpose. Even Sheik Osama -- may peace be upon him -- was merely a slave beneath a slave beneath a slave."
In sum, we're given a vision of a vast and impossibly organized network of insurgents, and we're told that The West (America specifically) has been too blind and oblivious to its vastness. And, as a aside, Miller appears to completely misinterpret and mistranslate the meaning of the name al Qaeda. Again though, here we have an instance where the paranoia and xenophobia characteristic of Miller's worldview loudly proclaim themselves. The insurgents, as we soon discover, are about to launch a weapon of mass destruction on Empire City. They are halted (read: massacred) by the Fixer in the nick of time, the weapon described in ways that clearly attempt to justify the indiscriminate killing. The comic doesn't end there though. Instead, we're introduced one final time to Dan Donegal -- the tough-talking cop in league with The Fixer. We see him "shivering in his sheets like a scared little boy," traumatized by the terrorist attacks at the outset of the story. We are made to bear witness to his trauma, again, as a means of justifying the brutality and xenophobia that precede it.

In sum, this raw, wildly problematic, and downright incoherent story is even more virulent and extreme than the post-9/11 film version of 300. I kept thinking about that film, and about Miller's incendiary comments about Islam and the Middle East at the time of the film's release, as I read this comic, because Holy Terror strikes me as simply a more ossified (I can't really bring myself to call it "refined") reflection of his fear and hatred of Islam and his inability to distinguish between the majority of its adherents and the extremists who warp it.

It struck me as curious (and, if I'm being honest, more than a little hopeful), then, that this comic garnered nowhere near as much attention as either the graphic novel or the film version of 300, and that few -- if any -- could formulate any sort of defense or dismissal for the obvious anti-Muslim sentiment. Supporters and defenders of 300 often resorted to the argument that it's "just an action flick" and that people who objected to the vilification of the Persians (and, to be fair, any non-white person in the film) were just "thinking too hard." The film was frequently praised for its cinematic prowess and was relatively popular at the box office. To be sure, it garnered a reasonable degree of criticism, but there seemed to be a somewhat even number of critics who overlooked or weren't concerned enough to comment upon the racist/xenophobic undertones of the narrative. With Holy Terror, however, you're hard pressed to find a review that doesn't comment on the awfulness of the worldview it espouses, and it garnered nowhere near the cultural traction as 300, even though the two works proffer similar kinds of cultural fantasies.

I wonder, as a result, what role temporal distance has to play in these reactions. Is it easier to tell a story laced with xenophobia when you place the events in the distant past and bury your message in a swords and sandals epic? When, in other words, you appropriate and elide ancient historical particulars as opposed to recent ones? That certainly seems to be the case when you compare the two stories and their reception. And it has made me wonder about the similar "problems" I see in Richard Coer de Lion. As I write in one of my book chapters, relatively few versions of the medieval story include the more fantastical episodes that we often associate with it (the repeat cannibalism, the demonic horses, the lion-heart-eating, the demon mother), and I argue that these omissions in the RCL tradition have to do with the problems inherent in presenting a fantasy version of events in the relatively recent past.

Perhaps, then, we could consider Holy Terror as a very modern sort of "recovery romance" -- a type of romance that, as I describe in my book project, proffers fantasies of Christian/Western triumph over perceived Muslim enemies. Like Isumbras or RCL, Holy Terror (and 300) are symptomatic of cultural desires, appetites and impulses -- specifically of desires for stability and superiority at a time where neither seemed or were possible. It's very easy to dismiss Miller's Holy Terror for its awfulness, its incoherence, even its artlessness, but I think it's important to avoid Othering him over much. To do so would be to risk making the same moves that he deploys by repeatedly arguing that Islam is "medieval." I see Miller, then, as an alarming harbinger of sorts -- as a representative, however, hyperbolic, of a worldview that needs to be paid careful attention to so that we can find ways of pushing back against it. We need -- especially in light of the persistent tendency to code anything that we don't want to acknowledge as modern as "medieval" -- to remind ourselves of the fact that his work is symptomatic of a worldview hardly unique to him and him alone.

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