During Ramadan, Zubair attempts to connect with his culture through food content on social media ... he ultimately ends up getting schooled by his grandmother on how to prepare a traditional dish.
The Complications of “Jihad Rehab”
In a time where only 1.6% of characters in film are Muslim, and 90.5% of films don’t feature a single Muslim speaking character, Muslims are ever more wary of how we are represented in film, and who has the power to shape that representation. This particular conversation has resurfaced after a documentary called “Jihad Rehab” was screened at Sundance Film Festival in January this year.
The film followed a group of former Guantanamo Bay prisoners who underwent rehabilitation in a center in Saudi Arabia, highlighting their stories of imprisonment and its impact on their lives beyond. The film drew a significant amount of backlash because of its title, for one, but also because of its stereotypical portrayal of Muslims as presumed guilty of terrorism. Critics online noted that the former detainees interviewed for the documentary were introduced alongside a list of crimes they were accused of, without clarifying that they never actually committed these crimes.
I have not seen the film because it has not had a wide release yet, but when I first heard of it, I groaned at the title itself. “Jihad Rehab”? Not a good start. My perception of the film worsened when I heard that the filmmaker was a white woman named Meg Smaker. My first encounter with the film was a New York Times article that framed Smaker as yet another victim of cancel culture, at the receiving end of hateful comments and scorn because she, as a white woman, dared to make a documentary film about former Guantanamo Bay prisoners, who most white women are not speaking about.
The New York Times would have you believe that the film drew all of this backlash because the filmmaker herself was a white woman, and the only problem that Muslim and MENA critics had was with her identity.
While my initial judgment had been made, I decided to look into the film a bit more. It is not currently publicly available to stream anywhere, but if you look a little deeper, beyond the Times article, then the problem with the film becomes abundantly clear: the very premise of the film of bringing a new perspective to light about the former detainees, who went through unspeakable torture and pain at the hands of the U.S. government, is colored by prejudice to begin with.
In an open letter to the filmmakers, CAGE, an organization dedicated to advocacy for those impacted by the injustices of the War on Terror, wrote, “As former Guantánamo Bay detainees never charged with crimes but detained arbitrarily and subjected to years of torture and inhumane treatment by the U.S. government, we write this letter to register our extreme discomfort with the content of the film and its method of production.”
They went on to detail that two of the interviewees who were featured in the film were in fact not aware that the film would be released publicly, and were concerned that its release would put their families at risk. They also pointed out that the documentary presumed the guilt of the interviewees, when in fact they were falsely accused.
Crucially, CAGE also points out that the title itself promotes an Islamophobic narrative, specifically the conflation of “jihad” with something that requires rehabilitation. Jihad, literally “struggle,” is actually a central concept to Islam, and can be applied to any kind of spiritual struggle.
The purpose of a documentary is to portray the truth. Evidently, Smaker only wanted to portray a perspective that was colored by her prejudice, and that didn’t even conduct enough research to learn that “Jihad Rehab” would be a problematic title.
This is why we as Muslims are so wary of those who want to tell our stories but are outside of the community. A group of MENA and Muslim American filmmakers also wrote an open letter to the Sundance Festival committee’s leadership bringing up their concerns about the Festival’s vetting process and their lack of accountability when it came to the film. While in an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter if a white woman was making a film about Muslim men, unfortunately, this is not an ideal world. This is a world where the War on Terror devastated these men’s lives, due to charges that were entirely unfounded. This is a world where these men went through extremely traumatic experiences, that should only be handled and discussed by someone who understands how deeply that trauma is tied to Islamophobia and xenophobia.
The New York Times failed to explore any of the above critiques of the film. It instead chose to fall back on the ever-present complaint of cancel culture, focusing on the idea that Smaker is being “canceled” simply for making a film about people who are different from her. This argument is reductive and dismisses substantive critiques of the film. While it is certainly true that people in the Muslim community are not inclined to trust someone outside of their community to tell a story as sensitive as this, the conversation around the film is focusing too much on the critiques of Smaker’s identity, as opposed to the critiques that focus on her making a documentary without the explicit and informed permission of the people whose stories she is claiming to represent truthfully.