Gordon Campbell on Dune 2, and images of Islam

dunethumbDepictions of Islam in Western popular culture have rarely been positive, even before 9/11. Five years on from the mosque shootings, this is one of the cultural headwinds that the Muslim community has to battle against. Whatever messages of tolerance and inclusion are offered in daylight, much of our culture tends to be hostile to Islam when we’re sitting in the dark, with popcorn.

Any number of movie examples come to mind, beginning with Rudolf Valentino’s role (over a century ago) as the romantic Arab hero in The Sheik. The big reveal that finally enables the white heroine Lady Diana Mayo to marry her imperious Prince of the Desert is that he isn’t actually an Arab/Muslim at all, but an orphan of Spanish and British heritage, raised by Bedouin. Phew. Just in time, that genealogy made their liaison acceptable.

Moving along…. As the Nazi menace became imminent, Gary Cooper was off fighting Muslim terrorism in the Philippines in the 1939 film The Real Glory. In Black Sunday, Palestinian terrorists fail to bomb the crowd attending the Superbowl game, largely thanks to the heroic efforts of an Israeli agent working for Mossad. In 1998’s The Siege, FBI agent Denzel Washington took out a group of Muslim terrorists planting bombs all around New York City. Et cetera, et cetera.

In fact, Muslim terrorists have become a useful post-Cold War plot device, now that Nazi and Russian villains have all but run their course. In the 1968 origin story for Marvel’s Iron Man, the villains were Vietnamese, but by the time the film got made in 2008, they had been updated to be Muslim terrorists hiding in the caves of Afghanistan.

Oh, there have been a few exceptions to the Bad Muslims rule. In a Rambo 3 that was set in pre-Taliban times, John Rambo was totally onside with the noble mujahideen who were just trying to defend their villages against the evil Soviet Army. In the Ridley Scott film Kingdom of Heaven, the Saracens were portrayed as honourable foes, and quite unlike the Crusaders, who were portrayed as a seedy, treacherous bunch of Christian mercenaries.

But that’s about it. Onscreen, Muslims have tended to be portrayed as morally one-dimensional. They have been either terrorists, rascals (e.g. Disney’s Aladdin) or rich oil sheiks out to purchase white women from sex traffickers – a sub-theme peddled, for example, in the 1951 Humphrey Bogart film Sirocco, and in the first Taken action movie in 2008. In Taken, the avenging father played by Liam Neeson has to race to rescue his abducted daughter before she loses her virginity to Sheik Raman, who has just purchased her from some Albanian sex traffickers, and carried her off to his yacht.

Dune 2 and Islam

So…. What are we to make of where Dune 2 fits – if at all- within Hollywood’s gallery of stereotypes of Muslims in general, and Arabs in particular? (Iranians – who are Muslims but not Arabs – have suffered much the same fate, onscreen.)

The Dune films directed by the French Canadian film-maker Denis Villeneuve are generally faithful to Frank Herbert’s series of Dune novels that began emerging in 1965. Disastrous attempts had been made to film Dune before, notably by David Lynch in 1984. In a sublime piece of mis-casting, Lynch featured perennial nice guy Sting in the role of the psychopathic arch-villain, Feyd-Rautha.

Among the known influences in the creation of Dune – they range from Zen Buddhism to Nietzsche – Frank Herbert drew on two main literary sources of inspiration. The story of T.E. Lawrence as told in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom memoir was immortalised as Lawrence of Arabia by David Lean in his 1961 film. Reportedly, both the book and the film were much admired by Herbert.

Lawrence had been a minor British security officer who eventually came to strive messianically- and for a while, successfully – to unite Arab tribal resistance against the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Subsequently, Lawrence lived to see his Arab allies betrayed by the British. Many reviewers have treated Dune as the Lawrence of Arabia story transposed into space.

The less celebrated literary source for Dune appears to have been the 1960 book Sabres of Paradise by Lesley Branch. This was a popular re-telling of the 19th century resistance movement led for 25 years by the charismatic Imam Shamyl, against Russia’s imperial forces in the Caucasus.

Building the Imperium

For late-comers, the events recounted in the Dune series are set in motion on the desert-covered planet of Arrakis. A precious fungal “spice” called melange is found in the northern regions of Arrakis, and this crop is derived from the secretions of deadly giant sandworms that live beneath the sands.

Spice, while highly addictive, conveys enhanced vitality and self awareness. In certain sensitive individuals who take large doses, it can also convey the power of prophetic foresight. More practically, “spice” is also an essential stimulant for the pilots travelling between the planetary system to which Arrakis belongs. On each planet, trading rights have been assigned to the various baronial “Houses” that collectively comprise an imperium ruled by an Emperor called Padishah Shaddam IV, played in Dune 2 by Christopher Walken.

As the Dune story begins, the trading rights to “spice” are held by the House of Atreides. However, a battle for control of the lucrative spice production market is won by the evil Baron of the rival House of Harkonnen, a takeover secretly assisted by the Emperor and his elite troops. In the process, the Atreides clan is virtually eliminated.

Only a young duke, Paul Atreides, and his mother Jessica (who belongs to a powerful women-only religious order called the Bene Gesserit) escape into the desert, where they are grudgingly accepted by desert dwellers called the Fremen. The Fremen have long been waging guerrilla warfare against the imperial forces who are exploiting their natural resources.

At this point, anyone searching for metaphors won’t have far to look. Hmm. A seemingly barren desert actually contains a crucial commodity (marketed via regulated annual production quotas that dictate its price) essential for travel and for trade, and fought over by rival imperial forces to the detriment of the impoverished indigenous people. What real world commodity, still controlled today by a neo-feudal ruling House, could Herbert possibly have had in mind? (The environmental themes become even more prominent in the later Dune books, as the story evolves. )

Crucially, Paul Atreides eventually encourages himself to be seen as the Fremen’s long awaited holy warrior, who will lead them to deliverance.

Fremen v hobbits

Frank Herbert did not make language as crucial to his world-building exercise as J.R. R. Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings. Herbert’s linguistic borrowings were simple and direct. For example: Lansraad, the High Council of the imperium nobles, takes its name from the Scandinavian Lansrad, a council of landowners. Not surprisingly, most of Herbert’s other linguistic borrowings in Dune come directly from Arabic.

As the Middle East expert Juan Cole has written – in an essay to which this article is indebted – the word “Padishah” is Persian for Emperor. The Siridar (or governor of each planet on behalf of its ruling House) is derived, Cole says, from the Persian sardar or governor.

Similarly, once Paul has passed certain perilous tests in accord with the prophecy of his coming, the Fremen call him “Usul” which Cole says, is Arabic for “principles, or “foundations.” He is also called by the honorific Muad’Dhib (which, Google Translate tells me, is derived from the Arabic mu’addib, meaning “a teacher”.) More prosaically, the Fremen also use the term Mu’addib to describe the kangaroo mouse that, like them, displays superb skills of survival in the desert. Crucially, Paul also comes to be called the Mahdi, a long awaited Messiah figure in Fremen religious lore, and also in some Islamic belief systems.

That said, an interesting scene early on in Dune 2 is one that shows that even among the merely 200 strong band of Fremen to which Paul has attached himself, the religious belief in the Mahdi is not shared by everyone. With derisive laughter, a Fremen woman attributes such beliefs to only some of her more credulous colleagues and also (primarily) to the religious “fundamentalists” who, she says, inhabit the southern region of the planet.

In Islam, the Mahdi is not a universal figure. He is not mentioned in the Koran, or in either of the two main hadiths. Instead, the Mahdi is more like a popular folk belief about the deliverer who will come back to unite the faithful in the End Times. Among the Twelver branch of Shia Islam, the Mahdi is believed to be in repose, and is to re-awaken only when the End Times are nigh. To some of his Sunni believers, the Mahdi has yet to be born.

Given the prevalence of oppression and the fact that the hope of divine deliverance springs eternal, it is not surprising that there have been many claimants to the role of the Mahdi down the centuries. All in all, that early Fremen scepticism about the whole idea therefore seems both historically and emotionally accurate. Better instead perhaps, to place the hope of deliverance in one’s own abilities and actions.

Paul himself is sceptical, and he takes on the mantle of the Mahdi only after gaining foresight that it will be a necessary motivating element if the Fremen are to achieve an unlikely victory over the Harkonnens and beyond, against the imperium. As in the book, Dune 2 sees Paul taking the same transactional approach to his love life, in a doomed attempt to prevent the interplanetary war that he has foreseen will cost the lives of billions. Even Messiahs can be the captives of history.

Among a myriad of other differences. This nihilistic view of power and the related cynicism about the role of religion mark key differences between the worlds of Dune and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s saga is profoundly optimistic about the ultimate triumph of good over evil, and about the transition to a sublime afterlife. Tolkien was, after all, a Christian survivor of trench warfare on the Somme in WWI, and he created a world that is threatened by great evil, but where bravery and goodness triumph over the temptations of power, and the forces of darkness.

Tolkien never explained his distaste for Dune, but simply said in a letter in March 1966 that he “disliked the book with some intensity.” One can guess why. In his great essay On Fairy Stories (available here) Tolkien had set out his views on “secondary” world building – in which amusingly, he included the sense of enchantment that can be woven by a game of cricket – and on the role of story, per se.

Far less didactically than C. S. Lewis. Tolkien believed that the transportive magic of story springs from the glimpse it affords of eternal truths – or, at least, from the temporary entry that it provides into realms like the land of faerie, that contains a form of otherworldly enchantment. (The story of Thomas the Rhymer is a prime example.) For Tolkien, at the ultimate core of story was a concept he called “eucatastrophe” – and which can be conveyed by the story’s heart-stopping moment of resolution:

Far more powerful and poignant is the effect in a serious tale of Faërie. In such stories when the sudden “turn” comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.

“Seven long years I served for thee, The glassy hill I clamb for thee, The bluidy shirt I wrang for thee, And wilt thou not wauken and turn to me?”

He heard and turned to her.

In Dune by stark contrast, any truths that are glimpsed – and realised – tend to be ones of an unceasing cycle of violence, and the ultimate death of naïve hopes of liberation. In both book and film, there is an almost pornographic dwelling upon the evils committed by the Harkonnens. To explain why Paul Atreides eventually ends up in much the same place, the film forges a plausible link between Paul and the House of Harkonnen that is not mentioned in the novel. 

All that aside, I’m inclined to think that Dune holds the more accurate mirror up to the times in which we live. In Dune 2 there is a scene in which Feyd-Rautha tries to crush the Fremen resistance by directing sustained, lethal firepower against the entire environment in which the Fremen live – partly as a punishment for a recent raid they have carried out and partly with genocidal intent. “Artillery”, Baron Harkonnen says, looking on in admiration.

As Cole says, anyone watching that scene can hardly avoid seeing in it the news images of Gaza, even though Villeneuve could not have foreseen the events of October 7 and its aftermath while he was engaged in shooting his film.

Footnote One: Tolkien’s less talented contemporary C.S. Lewis was more than happy to turn his Narnia books into crude allegories of Christianity – e.g. the ritual sacrifice of the lion Aslan as Narnia’s Christ figure – and to celebrate Christianity’s final victory over the alleged evils of Islam. To Lewis, Moslems – in later life he called them “Mohammedans” – were followers of a bogus religion that he considered to be a Christian heresy.

In The Horse and His Boy episode in the Narnia series, the villains are the Calormen, whose capital is called Tashbaan, who use scimitars as weapons and who worship a savage idol called Tash. In The Last Battle, the Calormen/Moslems have morphed into the army of the Anti-Christ. Narnia is a land that is explicitly hostile to Islam. 

Footnote Two: Ironically, while Dune 2 uses the term “fundamentalists” to describe the religious Fremen extremists of southern Arrakis, the term actually originated within Christianity. It was first applied to the Pentecostal sects that began appearing in the US, from 1910 onwards. Again ironically, those evangelical Christians tend to be the first to apply the same term today to their Moslem counterparts.

Footnote Three: Oddly perhaps for a series that’s devoted to shoring up the image of Britain’s faded imperial power, the James Bond movies haven’t trafficked in anti-Moslem sentiments. The Bond films have featured terrorist villains from Britain, Germany, Russia, France, Sweden, North Korea and China. But in the 2021 No Time to Die film, Rami Malek reportedly refused to portray his villain as an Islamic religious extremist. He is rewarded – spoiler alert – by being the one Bond villain in the entire franchise to succeed in killing James Bond.

Footnote Four: Significantly, at the close of Dune 2, the script uses the term “holy war” to refer to the looming conflict with the imperium, not the word “jihad”. As Juan Cole explains:

….The films do not use the term “jihad,” translating it inaccurately as “crusade” (ironic!) or “holy war,” in contrast to the Herbert novels. Jihad is a sacred word for Muslims, meaning to exert oneself or struggle for the faith in all sorts of ways– ethically, by donations to charities, by speaking out. It can also refer to taking up arms at the order of legitimate political authority to defend the country. Americans might call it “patriotism.”

That’s the final irony. As Cole says, the United States came into being via a popular uprising against British tyranny. Yet today, America instinctively identifies with the oppressor, not with the oppressed. As Cole concludes, only when it goes to the movies – to films like Avatar and (with deep ambivalence ) in the Dune series – can the West allow itself to identify with political uprisings.