Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Whitewashing of Soraya M.

While Iranian-American protesters packed streetcorners in Westwood last Saturday afternoon in support of the revolution currently playing out in the streets of Tehran, an historical drama about stoning in Iran got underway at the Los Angeles Film Festival mere blocks away.

For the few who don’t know by now, The Stoning of Soraya M. is based on French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam’s bestselling book, which relates the true story of a woman in a remote Iranian village, in the years after the 1979 Khomeini revolution, who is falsely accused of adultery and stoned to death by a mob desperate to cleanse themselves of this affront to their collective honor and to their religion. It’s not only a gripping story in its own right, but it shines a harsh spotlight on the almost unimaginable reality that the barbaric punishment of stoning still exists in the Iranian law code, despite a largely nominal 2002 moratorium, the result of pressure from Western human rights groups.

(Full disclosure, even though I’m not reviewing the film here: I’m close friends with the filmmakers Cyrus and Betsy Nowrasteh, I provided Mpower Pictures with a bit of research on the project, I’m friends with other cast and crew and producers associated with the film, and I think stoning is bad. So don’t take my word for it when I say Soraya will be the most important, affecting film you’ll see all year. Instead seek out the multitude of reviewers who recommend the film, including Big Hollywood’s John Nolte and then see it for yourself.)

Following Saturday’s screening was a panel discussion, not so much moderated as simply hosted by Iranian novelist Khaled Hosseini, author of the bestselling The Kite Runner, who personally selected the film for the L.A. Film Festival. The panel also included Soraya’s writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh, starring actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Dr. Reza Aslan, billed as an Islamic scholar.

Heading off any concerns about possible Islam-bashing in the movie, Mr. Nowrasteh noted at the discussion’s outset that Soraya is actually a pro-Muslim film, because it shows how a few hypocrites can hijack a religion for personal reasons, not to mention that the story’s victim is herself Muslim. He went on to discuss his personal attraction to the story and the process of bringing it to the big screen. Ms. Aghdashloo eloquently responded to a couple of questions about her personal passion for the role and for addressing the real-world issue of stoning.

The Q & A was shorter-lived than many including myself would have liked, or at least less focused; one question, for example, was directed to Mr. Hosseini about his novels rather than the movie. But the focus really got blurry when Reza Aslan took the mic.

“Well,” he started, “I guess it’s up to me to put this into some sort of historical context.” If only he had, then people might better understand why the outrage of stoning still exists, and why it exists today only in territories in the grip of Sharia, or Islamic law. Instead Aslan proceeded to so dilute any context at all that people told me at the reception later, which he did not attend, that they either had no idea what he was talking about or simply tuned him out. What he did do, in several obfuscating turns at bat, was utterly whitewash Islam, its prophet Mohammed, and Iranian lawmakers past and present of any responsibility whatsoever for the practice of stoning.

He began by asserting that “many cultures” struggled with the issue of stoning. I nearly interrupted him right there to ask, “Really? Which cultures besides those under the thrall of Sharia law? Do Laplanders stone adulterers? Peruvian Indians? The Watusi? Minnesotans?” Aslan clouded any potential for understanding by claiming that culture, not religion, is responsible.

Dr. Aslan, an assistant professor of creative writing at UC Riverside with degrees in religion, is such a professorial rock star that he has a MySpace fan page (“Even though he’s the greatest smartie-pants ever he’s a living doll and exceedingly cool,” the site gushes). Not unusually for professors, he seemed to revel in regaling his captive audience with rambling answers devoid of much actual meaning. At one point the answer meandered so tortuously that when Aslan was done I turned to friend and fellow Big Hollywood contributor Charles Winecoff and said, “What was the question again?” “Question?” Charles replied. “What was the answer?”

The gist of his message was this: not only is religion inseparable from culture, but the words of, say, the Bible or Quran are utterly devoid of meaning in and of themselves, blank slates upon which we impose our own biased interpretations. Thus, to use one of Aslan’s own examples, if you’re a “misogynistic prick,” you’re going to view the Quran through that woman-hating lens and impose your own meaning upon it, regardless of what Mohammed, supposedly transcribing directly from Allah, actually wrote. Hence, Islam and Mohammed are not responsible for their followers’ misinterpretations, their patriarchal culture is.

No one would deny that religion and culture aren’t closely intertwined (though I would argue that religion influences culture more than the other way around), but puh-leeze – it’s beyond absurd to say that there is no substantive difference between Mohammed’s message and Jesus’, that there is no meaning inherent in their words, or that the massive edifices of their religions have not been built, shakily or not, upon the foundations of those words. It’s also disingenuous to suggest that present-day stoning has nothing to do with a seventh-century religious directive. It’s true that stoning is a pre-Islamic practice not mentioned in the Quran; but the tenets of Islam are based not solely on the Quran, but derive also from the hadith, or the tales of Mohammed’s life, and Dr. Aslan neglected to mention that Mohammed does command stoning as a punishment for adultery in the hadith.

Nonie Darwish, the Egyptian-American author of, most recently, Cruel and Usual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law, and someone who knows a thing of two about women under Islam, stood in the audience and challenged Aslan at length about Mohammed and misogyny. He acknowledged one minor, innocuous point, but then dismissed her flatly with “Everything else you said is wrong” and handed the mic back to Mr. Hosseini. Not “That’s a common misconception,” or “Let me quote chapter and verse of the Quran to clarify things.” Just “Wrong.” End of discussion.

(Yet more disclosure: I personally know Ms. Darwish and can attest that she is an affecting, enlightening speaker precisely because she speaks truth plainly and without the kind of empty circumlocutions Dr. Aslan relies on to befuddle the uninformed and to absolve religion of any responsibility for the actions of its believers.)

After implying that Islam has simply been distorted by lots of misogynistic pricks, Dr. Aslan cheerily reassured us that Islamic scholars through the ages got around their discomfort with the whole stoning embarrassment by making it “impossible” to convict anyone of adultery, thanks to a legal formula of required witnesses that stacks the deck in favor of the alleged adulterer. Sounds good, except that people get convicted of it and stoned anyway, and he doesn’t explain why, if Mohammed/Allah never sanctioned it, Islamic scholars ever had to wrestle with the practice in the first place or why they don’t simply ban it as un-Islamic.

To be fair, Dr. Aslan did cut through the fog with a couple of straightforward declarations, but even these raised more questions than they answered. One such jaw-dropping assertion – “There is no such thing as Sharia” – will come as thrilling news to those awaiting lashings, amputations, beheadings, and stonings in communities from Somalia to Nigeria to Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, etc. where Sharia is in full effect. Another Aslan stunner: “Mohammed was a seventh century feminist.” Surely, I thought, this outrageous soundbite would elicit guffaws from the audience!

But the audience sat guffaw-less. Instead, applause greeted almost every one of Aslan’s opaque, vaporous commentaries. I’d like to believe that this was because he had finally finished talking, but the disappointing reality is that he was simply affirming things that many in the audience, Iranian and otherwise, desperately wanted to believe: that there is no connection between Islam and the Sharia-sanctioned brutality we’d just seen dramatized onscreen, and that Iranian authorities actually disapprove of it.

A much-comforted Iranian woman next to me stood up and, after insisting on being called upon by Mr. Hosseini, gushed “Reza, I love you!” She neglected to express such love for Cyrus Nowrasteh, the director of this extraordinary film; maybe Mr. Nowrasteh needs to rev up his own MySpace fan page.

Overall, Dr. Aslan breezily downplayed stonings in general - Hey, they almost never happen and only in outlying areas out of reach of the rule of big city law, so what’s the big deal? Irrepressible radio host and documentary filmmaker John Ziegler, sitting behind me at the screening, let out a sardonic “Besides, it’s not like it’s as bad as waterboarding, right?” But that wasn’t any solace to a 13-year-old girl sentenced by a Sharia court and stoned to death for adultery in Somalia just last October (after going to the authorities herself and reporting she was gang-raped).

Admittedly, that wasn’t in Iran. Okay, so let’s look at the recent record there: an Iranian woman’s conviction of adultery was upheld just last November and her sentence of stoning confirmed. In January of this year, two men were stoned to death in Iran for adultery, and in May of this year, yet another man was stoned to death (the woman involved repented and presumably got her lashings instead). At least ten more men and women await death by stoning around the country.

The Stoning of Soraya M. is too important a film, and the issue of stoning under Sharia law (oops, I forgot – Sharia doesn’t exist) is too critical to allow an apologist like Dr. Aslan to whitewash Sharia with vague deflections and rude dismissal of debate. Lives are still at stake; men and women are still facing death in this grotesque manner (did I mention that it is specified in Iranian law that the stones to be hurled must not be too small to inflict significant damage nor too big to kill the victim immediately?). If we do not debate honestly the medieval ideology that lies behind this cruel practice, it will never end, and there will be more Sorayas.

This just in, even as I write: The Iranian judiciary is claiming they’ve decided to eliminate stoning. Call me skeptical, but I’ll believe it when it’s officially enshrined in law, when those awaiting death by stoning have their sentences commuted (to lashings, which will certainly result in very muted cellblock celebration), and when no more stonings happen, even in remote villages. In any case, considering that The Stoning of Soraya M. was on a list released in March of Western films that Iran finds objectionable and insulting, and considering the widespread international media focus on Soraya and its relevance to the current unrest in Iran, there’s no doubt that the growing awareness of the film has pressured the Iranian authorities to at least look like they’re doing the right thing.

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