Base Camp is where visitors go to relax, unwind, and get familiar with an anthology of earlier material.

The Power Of Allegory – Part 1

In a previous edition of Spin Doctor I analyzed Agora, a movie made about Hypatia, a Greek scientist living in 4th century Alexandria. Now let me summarize the implications of this story and tell you what I think about it, without one iota of political correctness. Agora raises caution against Islamic fundamentalism…

Let those who disagree step forth and tell you why they disagree. If they can’t support their arguments, and resort to violence – physical, psychological – to get their point across, they lose the moral high ground…

In a previous edition of Spin Doctor, Agora – A Cautionary Tale, I analyzed the 2009 historical film Agora. The film tells the story of Hypatia, a Greek scientist in 4th century Alexandria who taught in the city library, studied science, and researched the orbits of planets. Hypatia was persecuted and killed by radical Christians called the Parabalani for her work and personal beliefs, and I went over the story with the aim to pinpoint the dynamics of ignorance, authoritarianism, and bigotry.

Here are a few more implications, presented without an iota of political correctness.

Mirror Mirror On The Wall…

Hypatia was persecuted and destroyed by her oppressors (image from the movie Agora)

Alejandro Amenabar’s Agora is a superb cautionary tale on religious fanaticism. It warns how blind faith turns murderous, revealing how its advocates kill others on account of what they do or don’t believe, destroying whatever contradicts the words of their God and His scripture. It’s a scathing account of a particularly brutal and dark era of history.

The villains in this case were the Christians, who orchestrated their political rise via unscrupulous and self-righteous means, crushing those who stood in their way.

As expected, various Christian groups took offence at the film. Agora was biased, they claimed.

They had a point. The story was not entirely accurate. The production took creative license to weave an engrossing tale.

But, truth be told, it was not sensationalist. There was no gratuitous blood or violence, no cheap shots. Everything was done in a such a way so as to tell a touching and riveting human story of a persecuted scientist whose only crime was her renunciation of blind faith. Damning as Amenabar’s take is, it’s a solid historical film that exposes the brutality and vulgarity of a bygone era, involving the actions of Christians sixteen centuries ago, the attitude of whom Christianity has to a large degree – more or less – transcended.

So why did some Christians take offence?

…Who Is The Story About After All?

Christians should not have been offended by the film. The crux of the story did not fall on early Christians, nor did it affect Christianity in any lasting way. The focus was elsewhere. Agora was an allegory about present-day radical fundamentalist Islam.

A New York Times article confirmed this via the film’s lead, Rachel Weisz:

“The hot topic these days is Islamic fundamentalism,” Ms. Weisz said recently over tea at an East Village restaurant near her home. “But in ‘Agora,’ it’s the Christians who are the fundamentalists, whose zealotry leads them to destroy one of the libraries of Alexandria, perhaps the greatest center of learning in the ancient world.”

“Some of those scenes evoke the Taliban’s demolition of statues of Buddha in Afghanistan in 2001, and Ms. Weisz, British born and educated at Cambridge, said such parallels were deliberate …”

Indeed! Radical Islam is something to pay attention to, and condemn. Blind faith, rage against criticism, suppression of women, rejection of science, stoning of infidels and blasphemers, a  brotherhood that enforces the law of God – all of them themes associated with Islamic fundamentalism, which the producers addressed in an indirect manner, ingeniously, by association.

Kudos to them for taking the subtle route home. Had the connection been made explicitly, we may have had widespread rioting, looting and killing across the streets of dozens of countries. (I make the point in earnest.) Criticizing the Muslim faith and portraying some of its believers as backward fanatics who are prone to spontaneous and violent rioting, people willing to kill those who insult them, offends some of them so much that they riot and kill people in protest.

Isn’t it funny how things work?

Note: All religions have their nut jobs (as do all countries and organizations at large). The point is, what do the authorities do about it, the leaders of the groups involved? If they condemn the actions of said extremists, fine. But if they don’t, if they urge people to explode, or keep conveniently quiet about it (tacit condoning?), then something has to be said not just about the nut jobs, but also about the organization at large.

Strange how no one seems to be saying anything about this phenomenon. Doubly strange how very few people noticed that Agora was raising caution against Islamic fundamentalism, among other things.

Perhaps they did notice but were reluctant to voice their opinion for fear of … whatever reason.

Political And Religious Sensitivities

It’s an issue that has troubled many a critic, to each their own, no matter the topic of discussion. Political correctness and the expectation not to offend people is something we all have to deal with. It has shut down many an opinion, sometimes without reason, advocating intolerance in the name of tolerance, forcing people to abstain from voicing their thoughts, even if their argument is well articulated and supported by logic and facts.

One may no longer speak freely about crime and race, for example, or tackle gender differences, or talk about the drawbacks of multiculturalism, or speak about the merits of wealth, or argue against the perils of radical unions – without having to measure every word, for which he or she will be branded accordingly.

It was bad enough when it only involved the present. But now the policing lays claim to the past, too, scolding those who recount history in any way other than blandly. Look back on past behavior by certain groups and their ‘successors’ scream bloody insult (see Christians re Agora). Make an allusion using metaphor and allegory, subtle parallels, and you’re a hatemonger (and Islamophobic, at least in this case) and in big trouble.

Let me voice my indifference to those concerns. So long as something is argued reasonably and fairly, let’s hold nothing back.

His Story In The Unmaking

Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, used all means necessary to bring Christianity to power in Egypt (image from the movie Agora)

In Agora, Christians were painted in an unflattering light. This may have been done either because the producers were anti-Christian, or because they wanted to expose fanaticism in general. If their aim was the latter (exposing fanaticism in general) then all they did was add an extra hue of violence to the admittedly bloody actions of the group they exposed. (Note: History attests to the bloody legacy of Christianity.)

In other words, one can’t accuse the filmmakers of making things up to serve a nefarious agenda. True, their movie doesn’t address the vileness and atrocity of all religious and political groups in Alexandria at the time, thus scoring low on objectivity and spherical storytelling. But that was not the movie the producers of Agora were making. They were not exploring the course of religion in Egypt, or the intricate politics of the Roman Empire in 4th century AD. Their main character was Hypatia, whose brilliant scientific career was cut short by religious persecution. From the Christians.

Thus the anti-Christian angle of the film. It exposed fanaticism and violence superbly because it targeted, exposed and criticized early Christians, not for who they were, per se, but for the crimes they committed.

And the story became a general allegory, one that worked well when drawing parallels between yesterday’s and today’s religious fundamentalists.

The Malice Of Salafists

Agora was a far cry from The Innocence of Muslims (a nationalist propaganda film that targeted Muslims through hateful rhetoric) and can’t be compared to it – not that some haven’t tried to make the comparison. Unlike that piece of trash, Agora was informed, well scripted, and thought provoking.

Note: This is not to say that the violent reaction regarding The Innocence of Muslims was justified. It was appalling, indicative of precisely what Agora so eloquently warned against.

The same holds for the notorious Danish cartoons about Mohammed. Much like Agora, yet uncompromisingly open and direct, these cartoonists voiced legitimate and scathing criticism concerning the radicalized part of a religion that is driven by dubious theocracies round the world, from the Sudan to the Caucasus and from the Balkans to the Xinjiang province in China. The cartoonists had a comment to make on the phenomenon of political radicalism associated with Islam and the way it’s openly or tacitly supported by Islamic leadership across the board, and they made it eloquently, to the chagrin of self-righteous zealots, who riled up the Muslim masses in murderous protest.

In the name of respect (Image by John Cole)

There’s much to be asked and said about the topic. Why is an important part of Islam unable to get along with anyone who disagrees with it, resulting in widespread political and cultural friction? Why do so many Islamic leaders condone this ignorant stance? Trying to get to the bottom of things is not an Islamophobe agenda but an essential process.

Just as there’s much to be said about the encroaching nature of technology and entertainment, which, when left unchecked, present a threat to human health. Just like we criticize open society for the chaos it leads to when completely unregulated. Just like we scrutinize and lambast the police force when it abuses power, or the government when it oppresses someone, or the legislative bodies when they pass laws that go against the social contract – we do these things readily, holding people – and their causes – accountable. Why is Islam an exception?

Any doctrine that is based on absolute obedience to a deity/figure needs to be scrutinized. How else are we to make sure that its irrational aspects are kept in check?

Sadly, many think otherwise. Mentioning the subject of Islam makes them bristle. They point fingers, calling people Islamophobic, bigoted etc.

In short, make the points I made earlier and all hell breaks loose. You find yourself shunned, ostracized from your community, or on a death list, with a bounty on your head.

Common Sense Requires Courage

Let’s address the issue of radical, intolerant, fundamentalist and abrasive Islam, disturbing and dangerous as the topic may be

Many groups have tried to silence their critics and suppress reason through intimidation. They failed. However hard they try to curb the truth, it overwhelms them. Reason rises to the surface, washing the self-righteous away with the garbage.

In this case, let’s address the issue of radical, intolerant, fundamentalist and abrasive Islam, disturbing and dangerous as the topic may be. Let’s identify it, analyze it, separate it from moderate and reasonable Islam, challenge it, and neutralize its criminal effects.

Here are my two bits on the issue. The reason many Muslim communities round the world are involved in ongoing separatist ethnic conflict is that they’re agitated by clerics and politicians and their organizations in the name of an agenda that wants to make Muslims feel persecuted, thus, morally obligated to rise up in arms against incumbent authority.

Who these clerics and politicians and organizations are, I don’t know, but they’re linked to the theocracies mentioned earlier. They want to consolidate power, making sure their subjects don’t stray from the path.

A mob tries to scale the US embassy in Yemen after being incited to riot by agitators following the release of the movie The Innocence of Muslims (image:

In other words, many a devout Muslim are used as pawns. The nefarious games of political zealots are complex and deep, hijacking the words of sages, promoting ignorance, intolerance, and self-righteousness.

So it goes.

In Part 2 I will present the merits of allegory as well as the value of historical case studies and the need to make sound arguments when being critical…