Deconstructing Obsession

Israel week culminated last Thursday in a screening of Obsession, a controversial film—I hesitate to call it a documentary—about violent Islamic extremism and the apparent conflict of ideals between the Islamic and Christian traditions. Don’t let this fool you into thinking the film has its feet in a solid debate about a clash of civilizations. Despite endorsements from mainstream news outlets like CNN and Fox, the film has generated controversy and public protests for its clips from Arab television showing scenes of suicide bombers being recruited, as well as for its allegedly pro-Israel distribution network.

Many of the film’s screenings have encountered dissent. When the film was screened recently at the University of California in Los Angeles, it attracted an audience of over 300 alongside dozens of protesters. A Jewish organization at Pace University in New York was pressured by the school’s administration to cancel a showing last November, fearing it would spur hate crimes against the university’s Muslim students. The University of New York at Stony Brook also canceled a showing last year
and a recent showing at McGill saw some of the heaviest opposition the film has yet received.

It’s easy to see how the film has generated opposition. It features montages of terrorist bombings and speeches by radical Muslim leaders waving swords, shouting anti-western rhetoric. An Octopus complete with the Star of David—tentacles strangling the world—makes an appearance in a comparison between modern
‘persuasive art’ and Nazi
propaganda of the ’40s. There is even a ‘terrorist reggae’ music video clip—imagine Osama Bin Laden meets Shaggy in a performance of “Death to America.” It’s worth noting that the film makes a very careful distinction: The violent and religious rhetoric represents the view of only a scattered few among millions, and it should be as much of an affront to Muslims as
anyone else.

The event’s organizers chose to screen the film despite threats that on-campus Muslim groups would stage a protest. Instead of backing down, they presented the event as an opportunity for discussion—to critique the film and ideally our own preconceptions about what it means to live alongside other religions. Although that’s as potentially naïve as it sounds, it wasn’t far
from the truth.

What was most surprising was that without warning, the debate ceased to be a mundane discussion of why a film perpetuating negative stereotypes was allowed and why an entire group of people would be portrayed so unfavourably. People instead began to ask why Islamic people are threatened by inflammatory documentaries such as this one, what makes it so difficult to discuss the film without feeling attacked and why we insist on talking in terms of our injuries. It was a rare moment—those present collectively said “woah” and
reached beyond the boundaries imposed upon them by cultural, linguistic and bureaucratic norms.

Maybe I’m romanticizing a slightly-above-average discussion fueled by torrents of midterms and beer, but it’s hard not to find inspiration when a crowd of opposed parties reaches the conclusion that the nature of a debate—and little else—has been fueling a divide between them. Whether it was luck, thoughtful planning or courage and insight in a random handful of students, it was nonetheless a moment I won’t soon forget.

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