Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Indonesian Islamic Love Story

The Associated Press recently released a news piece titled by my local paper “Love story bolsters Islam’s image.” From the title alone, you’d think that Islam has never had a love story. The story implies that the film it covers is the first to portray Islam positively. We here at MMW tend to cover negative portrayals of Muslim women more often than positive ones, but we don’t go as far as to think that positive portrayals don’t exist. But from reading this article it’d be easy to think that there has only been one film featuring positive Muslim characters.

AP reporter Zakki Hakim looks at Ayat-Ayat Cinta (Verses of Love), a recent box-office hit in Indonesia (poster pictured right). The film tells the story of Fahri Adbullah Shiddiq, who goes to Egypt to study the Qur’an at Al-Azhar University. It has been praised for showing Islam positively, “based on love, patience and sacrifice,” in the words of the director, Hanung Bramantyo. It’s a notable and important goal.

According to the article, the film is “one of the first here to intertwine religion and popular culture on the big screen.” From the edits my local paper made to the AP full version, this alone became the focus of the article. What a depressing message — positive portrayals of Islam are noteworthy just for being positive.

Fans are quoted as hoping the film teaches viewers about Islam, Muslims — and the treatment of women. This is where it’s potentially troublesome.

All that’s clear about the women in the film is that Fahri has a lot of them. Fahri “struggles to choose a wife among four beautiful and distinctly different women.” He marries one, and then finds it necessary to marry another. Polygamy is “controversial” in Indonesia, according to the article, and Fahri again “struggles” to treat his wives equally, but the article doesn’t dwell further on the issue. I don’t know how the film deals with the topic. It’s possible it investigates the issue of polygamy with the complexity and maturity it deserves. And it’s noted that Fahri passes on “gentle issues about tolerance, corruption, women’s rights, and interfaith relations.”

But without watching the film — only available in Indonesia — we can’t know how it ends up. Instead, it sounds like the message imparted about women is that Muslim men don’t just marry one. That isn’t a reflection of the majority of Muslims’ marriages, and it’d be nice to hear about Muslim women who are more than just “beautiful and distinctly different.”

But despite its flaws, the article reflects Muslims who believe in a peaceful, tolerant Islam. That’s never something to complain about.