Sharia law goes to the movies.
In 2009, halfway through my second deployment as an infantryman in Iraq, I was made company armorer. Instead of spending days in the field or going on patrols at odd hours, I had a set schedule repairing our company’s guns and night vision goggles—a normal nine-to-five, in many ways, except that I was stuck on a military compound in the Diyala Province and my office was a shipping container. As a newly ordained soldier of leisure, I decided to reconnect with American culture by watching a couple of new movies.
I chose The Wrestler and District 9 for arbitrary reasons: friends back home had mentioned them and they were for sale in stacks at my base’s knickknack shop, run by locals. The Wrestler, I discovered, is a Darren Aronofsky film starring Mickey Rourke as a washed-up professional wrestler haunted by his past fame, torn between focusing on building a new life outside of wrestling and rekindling some of his former glory. The film crackles with the dark intensity of the knowledge that Rourke’s character will have to make a choice—the violence of the wrestling ring or domestic tranquility. I thought The Wrestler triumphed in the end by leaving the character’s fate up in the air; the film culminates in a poignant hospital scene where the broken wrestler’s love interest pleads that he not agree to a reunion matchup with his old rival, the Ayatollah.
District 9, meanwhile, is a science-fiction film set in South Africa: a bit of an on-the-nose allegory in which a race of refugee aliens are forced into slum encampments and dealt with by a heavy-handed, militarized government. What redeemed the film in my eyes was that the aliens spoke in an un-subtitled language—and they spoke quite a bit. How bold, I thought, to make a blockbuster in which half the dialogue had to be guessed according to context. It expressed a faith in the curiosity and attention of the viewing public that seemed to transcend the film’s mundane aspirations.
Anyone who saw these movies when they were released in America knows that my descriptions are a bit off. The Wrestler doesn’t end in the hospital; it goes on to show the final match with the Ayatollah. The language of the aliens in District 9 is, in fact, subtitled, making them seem not so entirely alien but more like odd-looking humans. When I learned that I had been shown a heavily edited version of the film, I mourned the loss of what I thought I’d found—a movie willing to present characters with interiority so impenetrable that it couldn’t be decoded by translation. The creature in Alien is just that, a creature. Without language, it’s more like a really advanced tiger running amok. The aliens in movies like Star Wars, by contrast, are just people in alien costumes, aping variations on human culture. In this sense, I thought that District 9 was the first movie I’d seen that truly explored alien-ness as a state of (not) relating.
Later I learned that those DVDs—though there’s no way of telling where they originally came from or who made them—had been edited according to a variant of Sharia law, a vast and nebulous latticework of prophetic interpretation derived from the Quran, which varies between countries and regions. It shouldn’t be confused with jurisprudence, or Fiqh, which is more like the “laws of man”; Sharia has broader, more philosophical, religious, and mystical concerns. Of course, under such a law, it would be offensive to show a battle with a character named the Ayatollah. Of course it would be problematic to ascribe the God-given gift of human language to nonhuman creatures. I didn’t find these specific edits, or the fact the movies had been edited at all, particularly shocking. What bothered me was that I preferred the depth and ambiguity, however unintentional, of the Sharia-revised versions of the films: I liked familiar cultural products through a filter of strict religious values.
It wouldn’t be fair, or honest, to call the official American release of these films “uncensored”—or to forget that until quite recently Americans censored art ourselves. After all, until 1968, the Hays Code forbade depictions of “miscegenation,” homosexuality, and ridicule of the clergy in American films, and even now a kind of Grand Inquisitor exists in the form of the market, which acts as a self-censoring apparatus, rewarding middlebrow kitsch while keeping anything too challenging or subversive or upsetting from seeing the light of wide-scale distribution. A focus group is arguably an even more efficient way to remove thoughts from the consciousness of a population than the out-and-out censorship of a politburo or church.
We have a deep tradition of censorship in the West. If our current, relatively inconspicuous form of economic censorship seems sophisticated, remember that the antecedents of this social control date to ancient Greece; the most obvious forebear is in Plato, who famously banished artists from his ideal city in The Republic. Artists, he believed, fail to see the limits of their knowledge, even as they try to instruct us; since their rhetoric is seductive, their pronouncements carry more weight than they should. The suggestion could be ironic—large passages of the text might be—but even so, the idea of banning all mimetic arts from a heuristic utopia speaks to the power and terror of art, and to an instinct to control it.
Of course, this doesn’t explain why I enjoyed the religiously censored films more than their secular counterparts. Aristotle is more help here than Plato. As Nancy Sherman writes in her penetrating essay “Hamartia and Virtue”, any concern with censorship for moral reasons in Aristotle’s Poetics is almost coincidental to the main focus: creating the optimal conditions in which to experience the purgation of pity and fear. For Aristotle, achieving tragic catharsis is socially necessary; it’s the primary function of drama.
Before Poetics, Aristotle uses catharsis as a medical term: a literal purgation, the forcing out of katamenia, or menstrual fluid. But what makes the term useful in both senses, poetic and medical, is that the goal of the purgation is to achieve a balance. F. L. Lucas writes in Tragedy in Relation to Aristotle’s Poetics, “men are sometimes too much addicted to pity or fear, sometimes too little; tragedy brings them back to a virtuous and happy mean.”
My own balance was askew on two levels. First, there was the army and its war. Both were overly deterministic. In a world of uniforms, salutes, and rigid timetables, ambiguity was in short supply. I liked that Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler didn’t have a chance to decide his fate before the film ended. Instead, the freedom fell to me to decide what he chose and what that choice meant. There is a powerful moral autonomy in ambiguity, especially ambiguity in the playful, repercussion-free, context of cinema. No one actually died. I got to imagine how things ended. The films had purged the katamenia of oppressive inevitability, rebalancing my mind in the process.
In a larger sense, the movies were a counterweight to what I’d come to expect from American films—an overabundance of the literal, an overexplained plot, and a lack of faith in the audience to draw meaning from uncertainty. These tired flaws in our blockbusters express something fundamental about American popular culture itself. One of the reasons I’d joined the army in the first place was to escape submersion in the strip-mall cheapness of American culture for a few years. Of course, I’d come to learn that military culture is more Spartan, but not always less vacuous, than Jock Jams and power lunches. It is, after all, an American subculture. The movies I saw were a radically cathartic rebalancing of the strengths and weaknesses of our cultural values. That wasn’t because of Sharia, obviously—but I have to think it wasn’t in spite of it, either.
Scott Beauchamp is a writer who lives in Portland, Maine. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Bookforum, Al Jazeera, and The Baffler, among other places.