Category Archives: Islam

Zero Dark Thirty: My Shalom Rav Review


Finally saw Zero Dark Thirty yesterday. Here’s my review:

From an artistic point of view, I can say without hesitation that I was riveted by ZDT from beginning to end. Kathryn Bigelow is clearly one of our most talented American directors, particularly in her ability to construct a film with a palpable sense of documentary realism. In so many ways she, along with screenwriter Mark Boal, and her entire filmmaking team had me in the palm of their collective hand.

Which is why I also found ZDT to be a morally reprehensible piece of cinematic propaganda.

My experience of this film, among other things, was a profound reminder that movies have immense power to manipulate emotions and shape attitudes. I will readily admit that I found myself thoroughly caught up in the intensity of the CIA’s quest (embodied by character of the passionately driven agent “Maya”) to find and kill Usama Bin Laden. What can I say? For two and half hours, the film worked its magic on me. But when it was over, all I felt was dirty and ashamed. Sickened, actually, that I allowed myself to be seduced by what amounted to an insidious, if deeply sophisticated, revenge fantasy.

I use the word insidious very consciously here – particularly since the film purports to be a facts-driven portrayal of the CIA hunt for Bin Laden. In the very first frame, in fact, a title that tells us we are about to watch a film “based on firsthand accounts of actual events”. The next title we see are the words “September 11, 2001”. Then for at least a minute we listen to audio tapes of terrified 9/11 victims calling for help. One woman in the World Trade Center tells a 911 dispatcher that she is “burning up,” then says, crying, “I’m going to die aren’t I?” The dispatcher tells her to “stay calm” but there is no further answer. The last thing we hear is the dispatcher’s voice saying, “Oh my God…”

This is how the movie is framed from the outset: we are told we are watching a movie based on actual events, constructed from information gained from those who were there. We hear the very real voices of American citizens as they are being burned alive.  Then we watch the “real-life” account of how the man responsible for their deaths was hunted down and killed by the CIA.

Listening to those terrified voices unsettled me to my core – but it was only after the movie was over that I realized how obscene their usage actually was.  Why did the filmmakers choose to play these recordings? After all, aren’t the tragic events of 9/11 well-known to everyone in the world? If the filmmakers were really interested in making a dispassionate, non-fiction account of the hunt for Bin Laden, wouldn’t it have made more sense to start with the beginning of the hunt itself?

Indeed, Bigelow has been quoted as saying she used “a journalistic approach” to making this film and that “it doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” This, of course, is hogwash.  If Bigelow and Boal were interested in presenting a “values-free” docudrama, they certainly wouldn’t have manipulated viewers with the voices of civilians being burned alive. After hearing the terrified voices of actual victims, how could we not cheer the CIA on as it uses any means necessary to find and kill Bin Laden?

Much has been written about the infamous scene in which one tortured Al-Qaeda operative gives up the name of Bin Laden’s courier after having been beaten, waterboarded, sexually humiliated and stuffed into a tiny wooden box. The inclusion of this scene – along with numerous references to information gained from tortured detainees – has been rightly condemned by many who point out it has already been conclusively determined that the information that ultimately led to Bin Laden’s execution was not gained through the use of torture. By including these scenes, ZDT conveys the incorrect – and dangerous – impression that torture “works.”  It’s a critical point to which I have nothing to add except to refer you to Glenn Greenwald’s excellent pieces on the subject.

Beyond this issue, ZDT is dangerous for an even more essential reason. As Peter Haas pointed out in a recent piece for the Atlantic, it represents a new genre of “entertainment” he calls “embedded filmmaking”:

The fundamental problem is that our government has again gotten away with offering privileged access to carefully selected individuals and getting a flattering story in return. Embeds, officially begun during the invasion of Iraq, are deeply troubling because not every journalist or filmmaker can get these coveted invitations (Seymour Hersh and Matt Taibbi are probably not on the CIA press office’s speed dial), and once you get one, you face the quandary of keeping a critical distance from sympathetic people whom you get to know and who are probably quite convincing. That’s the reason the embed or special invitation exists; the government does its best to keep journalists, even friendly ones, away from disgruntled officials who have unflattering stories to tell…

(The) new and odd rub in the case of Zero Dark Thirty is that the product of this privileged access is not just-the-facts journalism but a feature film that merges fact and fiction. An already problematic practice—giving special access to vetted journalists—is now deployed for the larger goal of creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA). If the access that Boal and Bigelow received was in addition to access that nonfiction writers and documentarians received, I would be a bit less troubled, because at least the quotes in history’s first draft would be reliable, and that means a lot. But as it stands, we’re getting the myth of history before getting the actual history.

In other words, no matter how unsavory the protagonists behavior might be, no matter how “gritty” and “journalistic” the style, this is the CIA’s movie through and through.

In a more recent article, Greenwald pointed out the essential simplicity of ZDT’s world view:

All agents of the US government – especially in its intelligence and military agencies – are heroic, noble, self-sacrificing crusaders devoted to stopping The Terrorists; their only sin is all-consuming, sometimes excessive devotion to this task. Almost every Muslim and Arab in the film is a villainous, one-dimensional cartoon figure: dark, seedy, violent, shadowy, menacing, and part of a Terrorist network…

Other than the last scene in which the bin Laden house is raided, all of the hard-core, bloody violence is carried out by Muslims, with Americans as the victims. The CIA heroine dines at the Islamabad Marriott when it is suddenly blown up; she is shot at outside of a US embassy in Pakistan; she sits on the floor, devastated, after hearing that seven CIA agents, including one of her friends, a “mother of three”, has been killed by an Al Qaeda double-agent suicide-bomber at a CIA base in Afghanistan … Nobody is ever heard talking about the civilian-destroying violence brought to the world by the US.

The CIA and the US government are the Good Guys, the innocent targets of terrorist violence, the courageous warriors seeking justice for the 9/11 victims. Muslims and Arabs are the dastardly villains, attacking and killing without motive (other than the one provided by Bloomberg) and without scruples. Almost all Hollywood action films end with the good guys vanquishing the big, bad villain – so that the audience can leave feeling good about the world and themselves – and this is exactly the script to which this film adheres.

And in the end, that is what makes the technical and narrative brilliance of this film all the more pernicious. It creates the illusion of authenticity and truth when what we’re really watching is the CIA’s truth. One in which Bin Laden was never, once upon a time, an ally of the United States government. One in which “heroes” commit war crimes in secret locations in the furtherance of extra-judicial assassination. One that utterly ignores the realities of what the CIA’s civilian-destroying violence has wrought.

More than anything else, this is why I felt so very dirty after allowing myself to be entertained – and at times even moved – by Zero Dark Thirty.

Standing Down Rep. Joe Walsh’s Islamophobic Bigotry

Shortly after a gunman killed six worshipers in a Wisconsin Sikh temple and a Joplin Missouri mosque was burned to the ground, Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh felt perfectly comfortable uttering incendiary anti-Muslim comments at a town hall meeting last Wednesday, warning that “there is a radical strain of Islam in this country…trying to kill Americans every week.”  Offering no evidence or backup for his allegations, he continued: “It’s here. It’s in Elk Grove, it’s in Addison, it’s in Elgin. It’s here.”

Then he poured it on:

I’m looking for some godly men and women in the Senate, in the Congress, who will stand in the face of the danger of Islam in America without political correctness.  Islam is not the peaceful, loving religion we hear about.

Shortly after Walsh’s town meeting remarks, pellet rifle shots were fired at a mosque in Morton Grove, IL.

I don’t know about a domestic “radical Islamic plot” but by now it should be abundantly clear that there is a deadly strain of Islamophobia in our country. In such a climate, I’d say it is the height of irresponsibility for public servants to issue remarks such as these.

It was my honor to stand, together with interfaith colleagues, with my good friends at CAIR – Chicago to express our outrage at Walsh’s sick bigotry (clip above). If you stand with us, please, please let Rep. Walsh know how you feel.

The Sacred Handiwork of Poetry Pals

This past week I had the pleasure of visiting the Muslim Community Center school (MCC) in Morton Grove, IL to witness an inspiring session of Poetry Pals in action.

PP is a non-profit that brings children together from diverse and interfaith communities for partnership, expression and friendship through poetry, spoken word, music and art. At this particular workshop, fourth graders from MCC, Solomon Schecter Jewish Day School and Sacred Heart Catholic School gathered together in the MCC gym. After a brief learning session and tour from the principal, they came back together to get to know one another by engaging in a variety of creative poetry writing exercises.

So simple and yet so very powerful.  With news about religious intolerance blaring at us from every corner, I wish I could start every day this way: watching children wearing hijabs, kippot and Catholic school uniforms talking, playing, laughing and writing poetry together.  I am so grateful to PP founder (and JRC member) Donna Yates for inviting me to witness their sacred handiwork.

Local efforts such as Poetry Pals are eminently worthy of our support. Click here to do so.

Massacre in Norway: “The Answer to Violence is Even More Democracy”

So much to say about Friday’s tragic massacre in Norway. Chief among them: the death (I hope) of our misguided assumptions that terrorism must necessarily = Islamism.

Much has been written about the immediate media speculation – most notably by the New York Times – that this attack was carried out by an Islamist terror group. As journalist Ahmed Moor correctly points out, these assumption reveal just how deeply this meme is ingrained in the American consciousness – one that cuts across right-left political lines.

I’m also in full agreement with Moor when he says the real “Clash of Civilizations” is not between the West and Islam, but between “normal, sane people of the world and the right-wing zealots who see doom, destruction, hellfire and God’s Will at every turn:”

Anders Behring Breivik, Mohammed Atta and Baruch Goldstein are all cut from the same rotten cloth. Anwar Al-Awlaki and Glenn Beck – the peddlers of the faith – all share the same core afflictions.

These men are insecure, violently inclined, and illiberal. The outside world scares them. They hate homosexuals and strong women. For them, difference is a source of insecurity. Their values are militarism, conformism, chauvinism and jingoism. Worst of all they seek to pressure us into compliance while they work frantically to destroy themselves – and the rest of us with them.

All indications are that the hate-mongers – who are on the same side of this war, irrespective of religion – are winning in America. The unreflective, superficial, wan editors of the NYT are an indication of just how successful the right wing has been at eviscerating the left.

Terror expert Robert Lambert actually warns that ultra-nationalists pose an even greater threat than al-Qaeda, citing a disturbing litany of European plots that were foiled before they were able to be carried out. (Of course, as the example of Timothy McVeigh tragically reminds us, we Americans should not be so blase as to assume ultra-nationalist terror is only a European problem.)

What should be our response?  I can think of none better than that of Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg. (Oh, would that we had heard these kinds of words from President Bush following 9/11):

This is a message from all of Norway: You will not destroy us. You will not destroy our democracy or our quest for a better world. ..This night we will comfort each other, talk with each other and stand together. Tomorrow we will show the world that Norway’s democracy grows stronger when it is challenged…

We must never cease to stand up for our values. We have to show that our open society can pass this test too, and that the answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity, but never naivete.  This is what we owe to the victims and to those they hold dear.

May the memory of the victims be for a blessing.

Mark Stroman Executed: The “Mission of Reconciliation” Lives On…

Postscript to my July 11 post, “Rais Bhuiyan and the Power of Forgiveness:”

A federal district judge in Austin rejected Bhuiyan’s request for a stay of execution on Wednesday afternoon. His lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, where Justice Antonin Scalia turned it down.  Mark Stroman was executed this past Wednesday.

Columnist Tony Norman, writing today in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Sometimes the best Christians are the ones who pray to Allah.

Deep in the heart of the Christian republic of Texas, a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh named Rais Bhuiyan waged a futile legal battle to spare the life of the man who tried to kill him a decade ago…

Though his partner in forgiveness is dead, Mr. Bhuiyan continues to take the mission of reconciliation seriously. Maybe one day he’ll find a Christian or two in Texas who take it seriously, too.

I would only add that we all struggle to realize the sacred mission of reconciliation seriously, whether we are Christian, Muslim or Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or Jain – and whether we live in Texas, California, New York or Illinois.

Thank you, Rais Bhuiyan. You are a true spiritual teacher for us all.

Rais Bhuiyan and the Power of Forgiveness


Click above to see the story of Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi Muslim man who was shot and grievously wounded during a post-9/11 shooting spree.

You may remember that immediately following the attacks on September 11, a white supremacist named Mark Stroman shot and killed two men: Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani on September 15 and Vasudev Patel, an immigrant from India, on October 4. Bhuiyan was the only one to survive this rampage – he was shot and wounded on September 21. All of the attacks took place in Dallas gas stations and convenience stores.

The powerful twist to this story: Bhuiyan has forgiven Stroman, and is now pleading for a stay of his execution, which is scheduled to take place on July 20.

From Bhuiyan’s website, “World Without Hate:”

There are three reasons I feel this way. The first is because of what I learned from my parents. They raised me with the religious principle that he is best who can forgive easily. The second reason is because of what I believe as a Muslim, which is that human lives are precious and that no one has the right to take another human’s life. In my faith, forgiveness is the best policy and Islam doesn’t allow for hate and killing. And, finally, I seek solace for the wives and children of Mr. Hasan and Mr. Patel, who are also victims in this tragedy. Executing Stroman is not what they want, either. They have already suffered so much; it will only cause more suffering if he is executed.

In another extraordinary twist to this story, Mark Stroman himself has become the subject of a documentary that Israeli filmmaker Ilan Ziv has been working on for the past seven years.


Following a confessed killer and a self-described racist seemed like an odd choice for a film, let alone for a film that would take years to make. But there was something in Mark that caught my attention. There was something beyond the facade of tattoos and the “red neck” talk. Even seven years ago I could detect certain vulnerabilities, warmth and intelligence that did not fit the image of a serial killer, “a monster” as the prosecutor tried to portray him.

Over the years I interviewed Mark’s relatives, friends and his victims but most of all I kept in touch with Mark. I helped him out when I could, corresponded with him. and visited him a few times with a camera but many more times without.

I created a website, Execution Chronicles, where Mark began to post weekly blogs. In the past 3 years, Mark posted over 151 blogs, which are a testimony to his growth and development. In retrospect, what seemed odd at the time has paid off. Mark as changed considerably and has become quite thoughtful and insightful about his own past and racist views.

I’ve been fairly open about my faith in the healing power of forgiveness – as well as my moral views on the death penalty. I urge you to join me in signing Rais Bhuiyan’s petition to Texas governor Rick Perry to grant a stay of execution to Mark Stroman. I do believe that ending yet another life will only magnify further the hate and violence that has marked this tragic story. Bhiuyan and Ziv are showing us a different way – we’d do well to follow their moral example.

(h/t: Anya Cordell)

Fighting for Religious Inclusion in New Jersey

So proud of my friend and colleague Rabbi Elliott Tepperman for helping lead the charge toward religious inclusion in New Jersey!

From the New Jersey Jewish News:

Motivated by what he called “the Jewish obligation to welcome the stranger,” Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Montclair is leading a drive to support the building of an Islamic cultural center in Bridgewater, a plan that has met with strong opposition from some of its neighbors…

In a Feb. 18 e-mail letter cowritten by Tepperman and cosigned by 20 other rabbis, one cantor, and five rabbinical students, the religious leader of the Reconstructionist Bnai Keshet synagogue called on the people of Bridgewater “to affirm their commitment to religious freedom and to seriously consider options that would allow for the building of this mosque within its borders.”

…To Tepperman, land-use issues pose “a reasonable question. I know one has to be careful with that because often potentially legitimate concerns are pushed up against much less legitimate concerns. In one breath, people say things very much deserving of consideration, like parking. Then, in the next breath, they say, ‘And we’re concerned if it might be a terrorist organization.’ When I hear those things side-by-side it makes me very suspicious that parking is not the main concern and the concerns are primarily being fueled by prejudiced assumptions about Muslims.”