I just got out of the IFC Center where I saw Stephen Marshall’s documentary Holy Wars. The movie follows two religious fundamentalist men, Aaron D. Taylor and Khalid Kelly. Aaron is a Christian living in Missouri. Khalid is an Irishman living in London, a convert to Islam in 2000. Marshall establishes the differences between the two men early on through simple imagery. He shows Khalid driving his car in London, the steering wheel on the right side, then cuts to Aaron driving in the US, his wheel positioned on the left. These men see each other as opposites, in a war of faith, and each believes he is right.
As the story unfolds, Marshall jumps between the two men. He attends church with Aaron and goes to the mosque with Khalid, he follows both men on trips to the Middle East, and Marshall enters the homes of both men, though Khalid did not allow him in for the first year that they met. What struck me most about these men and their families was that the women in their lives remained, for the most part, silent. Marshall never mentions speaking with Khalid’s wife, and her name is not mentioned. No explanation is given. While Aaron’s mom speaks briefly at the family dinner table, expressing her and her husband’s devotion to raising their children as Christians, she remains silent while Aaron and his father discuss whether or not Muslims should be heard rather than solely preached at. Aaron’s wife Rhiannon also remains silent throughout the film. The only woman whose voice is heard is Aaron’s mentor. She speaks with Aaron and offers him advice after his meeting with Khalid.
Yes, Marshall asked the two men to meet and after an initial no from Aaron, they agreed. Aaron had what he called a divine intervention and decided he would meet with Khalid. Aaron approached the meeting as a chance to discuss their individual beliefs and with the hope of showing Khalid the truth, but ultimately he said he hoped they could at least connect through their humanity. Khalid approached the meeting as, what he called, a debate. In my experience debates are never the way to talk about anything. The assumption in a debate is that things are binary and that there is right and wrong.
The two men met in an abandoned building. Perhaps the idea was to meet on neutral ground, though why such a desolate and unfriendly place, is unclear. The room appeared to be a set out of a James Bond movie. I waited for CIA agents to drop down and arrest both men. Perhaps a little torture first, for good measure.
Khalid dominated what cannot be called a conversation. He interrupted Aaron several times and his passion poured out. Aaron was clearly flustered. Interestingly, Khalid’s repeated insistence that the US and the West are corrupt and invading the Muslim world really struck Aaron. Aaron returned home to do research on the Iraqi sanctions Khalid mentioned and Khalid’s anger and passion forced Aaron to rethink his approach.
Aaron changed his view and attitude from straight preaching to the idea that in order to convert Muslims and spread the word of Jesus and Christianity he and all Christians should listen to Muslims. He took to heart the truth Khalid shared that the US is currently and has been invading Muslim countries.
Khalid, on the other hand, having not allowed Aaron to really speak, did not really walk away with much from the encounter.
I could not help but wonder if Marshall had followed someone who was raised Muslim would they be perhaps a little less severe? Or had he interviewed a Christian convert would they be less open to listening than Aaron seemed to be? Aaron still walked away with the intention of conversion and that ultimately Christianity is right, but he listened to what was said. That alone forced me to confront my own stereotypes around fundamentalist Christians.
One of Khalid’s primary concerns as a Muslim, an issue that continuously arose for him, was the crusade by the West against all Muslims. He saw Muslims and Muslim land as subject to the violence of the West. And after almost being arrested in London Khalid went to Pakistan to try and relocate his family. While in Pakistan, Khalid’s views, particularly his vocal support for the Taliban, got him in trouble. What I found ironic was that here is a man preaching against Westerners invading Muslim countries, yet he himself is a white man who presumes he, due to his conversion, is one with all Muslims, and has every right to preach his beliefs and assume he is wanted and needed. He was an invader himself and did not heed the warnings of any locals. I found his arrogance difficult to stomach. And then I wondered how he, an Irishmen, a man from a group of people still under colonial rule, could then turn around and be so forceful himself.
I wanted Marshall to address the fact that he followed two men and only interviewed men. Not only was there no real acknowledgment of the silence of women, but I think it is important that these are men Marshall is following. Men are responsible for violence, not just these two men, but also men in the societies they live and the religions they claim to practice. Khalid had the audacity to claim that Muslim societies are free of violence, rape, pornography, and other apparently only Western ailments.
I also took note immediately, having been raised Muslim and subject to plenty of racial profiling, that one of the main differences between these two men is that Khalid, as a Muslim, is viewed as threatening. Despite the fact that I found Khalid’s views to be mostly irrational and arrogant and without any critical thinking, I also could not help but being bothered by the knowledge that as a Muslim, he is a target. Aaron, on the other hand, is merely a fundamentalist Christian, viewed as someone to mock or avoid, but never as suspect for dangerous acts. Not in this country anyway. Khalid forced Aaron to realize that he is viewed as a threat by Muslims, but really, what are the chances of fundamentalist Christians being arrested for their beliefs? Aaron’s own father frightened me with his coded language surrounding the end of times and his views on Muslims. He said that Christians were tolerating too much.
Both the fathers of Aaron and Rhiannon spoke candidly about their belief that Christianity, democracy, and capitalism are all the same. That they are good forces in the world. And Aaron’s father stated that all Christian countries are prosperous while Muslim ones are not. Because, he said, Muslims do not believe in the right god. Marshall was quick, in his narration, and in an interview with M. Shahid Alam, a professor of economics at Northeastern, to point out that Muslim civilization was at one point ahead of other cultures in regards to science and medicine. Colonization from the West quickly destroyed much of these countries and cultures. I guess ignoring history is a really good way to keep believing you are right.
While I found the two men fascinating to a degree and enjoyed what Marshall had to say, I do think that he did not delve deep enough into not only who these men are, but all that was left out. A serious commentary can be made on sex and gender, race and racism, class, and even the simplest thing: cultural background. I wanted to learn a little more about each man. Aaron appeared to be middle or even upper middle class. He lived in a rather large house and runs his own congregation with his wife. Khalid briefly mentioned that no one grew up to be doctors where he was from – himself a practicing doctor – otherwise, that was it. For having spent three years with these men I think the film could have been longer and the commentary more in depth.
One thing I did appreciate was Marshall’s acknowledgment that Aaron appears to emerge the hero in the end, but had it not been for his meeting with Khalid and Khalid’s own beliefs and words, Aaron would not have had even the slight shift that he did.