​Blaming Islam for terrorism stems from Western Muslim phobia - Oscar-winning Iranian director

Islam in today’s Western world is often connected with violence and terror. Jihad is being waged in Iraq and Syria, extremists execute thousands – and claim they do it in the name of Allah. But does this religion deserve such a reputation, given its inherently peaceful nature? How do the events in the Middle East impact on attitudes towards Muslims living in Europe and the US? We posed these questions to Iranian film director, screen-writer and Oscar nominee, Majid Majidi.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Your latest film project, “Prophet Mohammed” is the biggest and the most ambitious project in Iran’s cinematic history. Why did you decide to take on a subject this important?

Majid Majidi: In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.

I would like to say that the issues pertaining to Islam are very important not only in the Muslim world, but in the West as well. I have been trying to do my very best to spread the proper understanding of Islam. It is most unfortunate that the true spirit of Islam has been distorted, to a great extent because of politics.

This is the reason why I wanted to make this film for the entire world rather than only for the Muslim world. I wanted to share and spread the right understanding of this religion, the right understanding of Islam through this film. Of course it is impossible to reveal the greatness of this religion in its entirety in just one film. But I did it to the very best of my ability.

SS:If I may – before we get to the larger picture, I want to ask you a few questions about the technicalities of this filmmaking. Now, the fact that this is the most expensive project in Iran’s cinematic history… does it add more responsibility on your shoulders, in times when Iran is burdened by sanctions?

MM: I am sure you know all too well that making a film is an expensive enterprise. Given the fact that there are 1 billion and 650 million Muslims in the world, and in view of all the developments connected to Islam which have taken place over the past decades, I believe that this kind of cost for this kind of project is completely justified and it will pay back. Both the Muslim world and the West will finally see the true face of Islam.

This film is a step forward for Muslim cinema. This is why we pulled some impressive resources right from the start. We built a large set, a whole town, we built a full-scale Mecca with every single detail, and this set can be used for another 30 years. Thus, our project also counts as an investment in the development of Muslim cinema.

SS:Well, you’re also saying that this film is an addition to Islamic cinema, but I’ve read there are some contradictions because it’s being filmed in a cradle of Shia faith, it’s being filmed in Iran – do you run into contradictions regarding that? Are you consulting Sunni scholars on that as well?

MM: Before I started shooting, I studied all of the existing Shia and Sunni source material. I talked to prominent scholars. I tried hard to find common points, everything that would be free of controversy. I deliberately chose that part of Prophet Muhammad’s life where Islam was still evolving as a religion: his childhood and adolescence, although the film starts with his adolescence, and the childhood is introduced through flashbacks. We chose the period before Muhammad became a prophet. I can say with all confidence that this film contains no controversies and no disagreements between the Shia and the Sunni points of view.

SS:But I also know that you cannot depict the Prophet’s face in the film – how will you get around that?

MM: Both Shia and Sunni scholars told me that showing the Prophet’s face would not constitute a sin, though it’s important that what is shown does not offend the holiness of the Prophet’s image. I make it a point to respect all people’s opinions and therefore I do not show the Prophet’s face in the film. On the other hand, I use this as a dramatic device, that is, by hiding the Prophet’s face I make it more intriguing for the viewer.

SS:So do you think those rare moments when we will actually see the Prophet’s face will be controversial for some? Do you think you will run into controversy because there is a depiction of Holy Prophet Mohammed?

MM: It’s a little complicated in Islam. Since there are no sources that would describe the Prophet’s face, people have a hard time picturing the way he looked. So I decided to respect the opinion of the public on this question. Even though Muslim theology doesn’t specifically prohibit showing the Prophet’s face, it’s better not to do it. There are radical people who are 100 percent against showing the Prophet’s face, they consider it a great sin. I didn’t want this issue to influence the film’s message. The main question for me is the question of Islam. That’s why I decided to avoid all these troubles that would only distract from the film’s main purpose.

SS:Mr Majidi, you have reiterated many times that Islam is a peaceful religion – but we see mass executions in Iraq, carried by the ISIS militants, Boko Haram terror in Nigeria, the bloody mall attack in Kenya – in your opinion, who is responsible for all of this violence?

MM: The past few decades saw a spread of forces that disseminate a false perception of Islam. It is what we know today as Islamophobia. It tends to attribute every terrorist act and every violent crime to Islam. And it is inseparable from the political discourse in today's world. I believe this perception of Islam is dictated and politically motivated by the West.

I also believe that the current worldwide spread of violence and the daily emergence of new radical groups are the result of Western efforts, especially those of the United States. We study the life of the Holy Prophet Mohammed and we see that he did not once start a war in the ten years he led the Muslim community. Even the rules of war the he preached to his followers strike you as highly ethical. The Prophet taught that trees, plants and animals should not be harmed during war, and old people, children and women must be provided safety. Those are rules that may be applied anywhere in the world. The Prophet only allowed waging war if you have to repel an invasion. So how can they pin things like terrorist acts and suicide bombers on Islam? The real terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. It all comes from radical groups.

SS:If I may, since you brought up suicide bombers – and every religion in the past or now has its own force of extremism and violence, but like you’ve said, suicide bombers are usually associated with Islam – you said it’s not in the Quran. Where does it come from? Why is it so closely tied with the name of Islam?

MM: Where does the Quran say that we may kill other people, or threaten the lives of innocent human beings? The Quran as the true and holy book for all Muslims does not allow such action. I think that kind of aggression originated among the oppressed people, who saw Islam as their weapon against their oppressors. I am not a politician, but we see that it is Arab countries that sit on the world's greatest oil reserves, and the West just cannot stay away from such tremendous wealth. So in order to get their hands on that oil, the West employs what I would call "cultural terrorism," aiming to undermine the image of Islam and impose their narrative of protecting the world from it. That is the only way for them to pursue their interests in some places. Just look at Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years - do you think American presence in those countries has brought about anything like safety or stability? People are dying there. Yes, they overthrew the dictator Saddam Hussein, but what about all the people that have died from terrorist attacks since then? I believe it mainly comes from the West pursuing its interest in the region.

SS:Every time there is a conflict in the Middle East, it’s mostly Muslims versus Muslims, it’s really never America versus one region or another. But then, there are Taliban-involved conflicts, Al-Qaeda, ISIS in Iraq-involved conflicts, in Syria – and then the Americans get involved, but some believe that the US is the only power that can deal with these conflicts. Do you disagree, do you think that Muslims should deal with Muslims, with their own problems, with no other people interfering?

MM: People are increasingly well informed today, and everyone is already aware that it is all about US interests. The United States was behind it all - who do you think created the Taliban? Ask yourself, when and where exactly this movement emerged, and how did it evolve? The United States deliberately create an environment for such groups by breeding chaos in a certain place, and then they invade to "resolve" the conflict they helped ignite. In my opinion, if the West, and the US in particular, stops interfering in other countries’ affairs, all the issues will be easily resolved. Any independent analyst would agree to that. Who supports the militants in Syria? I am not trying to take sides or judge who’s right or wrong in this conflict. The question is very simple. Who supports the militants in their fight against the government? Who supplies them with arms and equipment? It’s quite clear that it’s being done with the help of the United States. Again, who supports different extremist groups? On the one hand, the United States convenes conferences and meetings on a possible settlement solution; on the other hand, they supply the militants with weapons, gear, money and so on. How can we trust them?

SS:But if we talk about Western Islamophobia on the more local, European level, for instance, it does appear that it stems from domestic experience with detached, sometimes radical, Muslim communities – you know, for instance, Sharia laws in London. Shouldn’t Muslims living in the non-Islamic nations respect local customs just as a foreign visitor to a Muslim land is certainly expected to follow a certain code?

MM: I don’t want to justify the actions of terrorists. I oppose violence in any form. Islam makes it clear that you should not do harm, Islam paves the way for dialogue, for cooperation. But I must admit we are under the pressure of other cultures. I am a cultural figure, but sometimes when I feel an insulting look, when people look down at me as if I am inferior to them, I may respond very angrily. But I repeat that by nature I am against violence in any form. Those who take part in extremist groups do that in part in response to the pressure by the West. When people start to treat each other as equals, problems will go away. So it happens that these extremists violently respond to the violence that they are threatened with. I am against it. But as a Muslim I think the emergence of these radical movements has nothing to do with Islam. Islam is a religion that promotes dialogue.

SS:My question was a little different, I was asking about, if the West is all so bad, why there’s such a huge migration of Muslims to the West in the first place, and if they do go there and choose to live there, why do they refuse to integrate into the community?

MM: It’s natural that people move abroad where life is good when their homeland is going through turbulent times. If you look at countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, people who have the opportunity move elsewhere. But that’s my personal view. Sometimes people leave their homeland because of certain principles and sometimes they are forced to flee because of poor quality of life. Naturally, this leads to dissatisfaction and spiritual confusion. I don’t want to say this is an excuse for the crimes that are committed. If the Western countries start welcoming these people and showing a warm attitude to them, then maybe they would eagerly integrate into their societies. If they are rejected, if they are denied full civil rights, they might develop a negative attitude. I don’t want to come up with an excuse for these people. But in a way this aggressive behavior is inevitable because when people find themselves in a new environment, they find many things unusual and strange to them. Still, all of these problems should not be applied to Islam in general. If a person is displaced and has to find a new place to live, he could despair. Here’s an example of my own country. According to the United Nations, about 1.4-1.5 million people have moved from Afghanistan to Iran due to the hard times that their country has been going through. But in reality, the figures are much higher, it’s about 5 to 6 million people, which means Iran hosts the largest number of refugees from Afghanistan. They flee their homeland because of the difficult situation there. They trek along the paths in the mountains and cross the Iranian border illegally. If our nation and our government fail to provide for them, what would then happen to them? They are humans and have the right to live. In this case, they would start to behave improperly. In this kind of situation, the international community must offer its help. We must help them to find a place and a role for themselves in a new society and live in normal conditions. I must admit that these issues were not duly addressed. The influx of migrants is accompanied with certain problems.

SS:Now, as far as your country, Iran, is concerned, many in the West believe that it is a very closed country. Do you feel it needs to open up?

MM: It depends. What is your definition of ‘closed’ and ‘open’? This is merely how the West sees Iran. I don’t want to say that Iran is a perfect country and that everything is ideal there. Like many other countries, Iran has its own problems. But what you referred to is simply a one-sided view of Iran. We’ve been a headache for the West, especially in the past three or four decades following the revolution. They’ve always tried to present Iran as a country that poses some threats – these have been the terrorist threat, the nuclear energy threat, the war between Iran and Iraq. The United States had supported Saddam Hussein who had bombed Iran and had been killing our people for eight years. He used chemical weapons in the town of Halabja. Saddam Hussein had been backed by the West, by all the Western countries. And when they decided his time has passed, they destroyed him. Throughout all these years they have treated Iran unfairly. Of course, as a citizen of Iran I must defend my country, but my judgment is based on reality. The attitude towards Iran was very much shaped by the West. Once the interests of the West are under threat, it immediately challenges Tehran.

SS:I remember talking to Iranian politicians who actually said that “Western sanctions had unified the nation, they’ve brought Iranian people together” – now, my question is: if Western sanctions are lifted, do you worry about more influence from the West on Iran.

MM: No, I don’t think that the Iranian nation will fall under the influence of Western society if the sanctions are lifted. On the contrary, I think that there are many things we can share with the West, and there are many areas where we can influence them. We have kind words to each and every country. Once we are given the opportunity, we can help to open your eyes on what Islam is really all about. But for that we need the opportunity to speak out. We have a lot of positive things to share with the world, provided that the West is ready for such a dialogue. I think that Iran can have a strong say in the world through its art and culture.

SS:Thank you so much for this interesting insight into the world of Islam. We’re waiting impatiently for the release of your new film about Prophet Mohammed.