Last week’s Paris terror attacks, and then the renewed controversy over the Syrian refugee crisis and resistance to accepting Muslim refugees into the United States, reflects ongoing concerns about terrorism among Americans. But it also reflects, in some circles, animosity and suspicion toward Muslims in general, or even toward Islam itself.
There are two popular caricatures of Islam in Western imagination. The first is the glib affirmation of Islam as “a religion of peace” that has only been “hijacked” by jihadists and terrorists, popularized by the Bush administration to help sell the so-called War on Terror to the international community, including Muslim nations. The other is its mirror image: the indictment of true Islam as inherently ferocious and warlike, with the “moderate” Muslim of fond Western imagination reduced to a product of the pluralistic West.
The reality is more complicated than either of these pictures. There is no one true Islam, but several, with a range of schools or traditions privileging different themes in the mixed bag that is the Quran, hadith, and Islamic tradition.
“Of Gods and Men” (2010), the most extraordinary cinematic depiction of the Christian ideal in at least the last quarter century, also depicts something of the variety of expressions in the Islamic world.
The film is based on the true story of the assassination of seven Trappist monks of Tibhirine in northern Algeria, in the Province of Medea, in 1996, during the Algerian Civil War. The monks’ home was Our Lady of Atlas monastery (Notre-Dame de l’Atlas), founded in 1938 and named for the Atlas Mountains, which run through Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.
During the mid-20th century Algerian War of Independence, Sunni Muslim villagers gravitated toward the abbey, forming the village of Tibhirine. They did so for protection, understanding the abbey to be a holy place dedicated to Mary, revered by Muslims as well as Christians as the virgin mother of Jesus. (Muslims believe in the Virgin Birth and honor Jesus as a great prophet, though not, of course, as the Son of God.)
Reflecting the facts, “Of Gods and Men” depicts the relationship between the monks of Atlas monastery and the Sunni villagers of Tibhirine as cordial and harmonious. In an early scene, a young man comes to the monastery to invite the monks to a Khatna (circumcision) party at the village. The villagers come to the monastery for help with anything from medical treatment to filling out paperwork; in a tender scene, a teenage girl asks one of the monks about being in love, and he gently talks to her about love both human and divine.
In another scene, elders from the village sit down with Dom Christian (Lambert Wilson), the prior, to share their fears about local extremists (Sunni ultra-orthodox called Salafists) who murdered a woman on a bus for not wearing the hijab, or veil. They have also murdered an imam.
“What’s the problem with these people?” one protests. “Is that normal? God says in the Quran, ‘You kill your brother, you go to hell.’ They say they’re religious. They’ve never read the Quran.”
After this, we see Salafist militants attack a construction site where Muslim men from the village work side by side with Croatian Christian friends. They murder the Christians. The killers belong to the Groupe Islamique Armé (Armed Islamic Group), or GIA, a terrorist organization intent on purging Algeria of all ungodly foreign influence.
The idea that the extremists aren’t really religious and that they don’t know the Quran may be comforting, but it isn’t true. On Christmas Eve, in one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, the monastery is invaded by the same band of militants that attacked the construction site, and their leader, Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi). The attackers demand that the monastery’s monk-physician, Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale), accompany them and treat their wounded.
Dom Christian boldly refuses, explaining that Brother Luc is too old, and they have no medicine to spare, since Luc needs what they have to care for the villagers. “Ask your brothers in the village,” he says. “We live modestly.” And then he dares to cite the Prophet: “Do you know the Quran? ‘Those nearest in love to the believers [Muslims] are those who say, ‘We are Christians.’ Among them are priests and monks…”
And Ali, struck, finishes the quote: “…priests and monks, and they wax not proud.” Finally, when Ali learns that he has invaded the monastery on the very day that the monks celebrate the birth of “the Prince of peace,” Jesus, the terrorist leader apologizes and holds out his hand to the prior — who hesitates before shaking it. (This event really happened, much as the movie depicts it; for the full story, see “The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria” by John Kiser.)
From that point on, the monastery is semi-protected from the GIA by Ali Fayattia — until Ali himself is killed and a more ruthless leader takes his place. Despite the danger to themselves, the monks stay at Our Lady of Atlas until the night their monastery is invaded a second time, and seven out of nine are kidnapped. They were later beheaded under somewhat murky circumstances. (The two survivors, the Rev. Noto Amédée and the Rev. Jean-Pierre Schumacher, moved to Morocco.)
“Of Gods and Men” is a tribute to the Christian ideal at its most attractive and moving: life in community; service to others; love transcending barriers of hostility; a routine of liturgical, sacramental, and spiritual life; honest, humble work (the monks raised and sold fruit and vegetables as well as jams and honey); willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friends and for God.
The film is also a tribute to Dom Christian’s appreciation of all that is best in Islam. The film doesn’t tell the story about how he came to be a Trappist monk, but Christian owed his vocation in a real way to a Muslim named Mohammed. (Yes, Mohammed and Christian. It’s practically an allegory.)
More than 30 years earlier, in 1959, as a lieutenant in the French army, Christian de Chergé, who would later become the prior of the besieged community, was an SAS (Section Administrative Spécialisée) officer assigned to maintain a French presence in Algeria, establish relations with the Muslim population, and counter extremist influence.
In this capacity Christian was befriended by a Muslim policeman named Mohammed, and the two men took regular walks together, a liberating experience for Christian, who found that he could discuss religion with this Muslim more easily than with his own secular countrymen. “You Christians don’t know how to pray,” Mohammed once needled him. “We never see French soldiers praying. You say you believe in God. How can you not pray if you believe in God?”
One day, as the two men were lost in discussion, they were beset by armed fellaghas, or rebels. Mohammed immediately stood between Christian and the rifles of the fells, telling the rebels that the French officer was a godly man and a friend to Muslims. The fells let them pass — but the next day Mohammed was found near his home murdered, his throat slit. He left behind a widow and ten children.
Christian was deeply affected by Mohammed’s heroism and sacrifice, and his sense of vocation was shaped by this experience. Later is his life, as the prior at Our Lady of Atlas, it is easy to attribute his willingness to die for his Algerian Muslim neighbors as a reflection of the Algerian Muslim’s willingness to die for him. (Perhaps, too, Christian’s boldness in standing up to Ali Fayattia was influenced by Mohammed’s courage before the fells.)
“I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on Algerians indiscriminately,” Christian wrote in a spiritual testament, a meditation reflecting on the possibility of his eventual murder, excerpted at the end of the film. “I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages…For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: they are a body and a soul.”
He goes on to forgive, and even to thank, his future killer, expressing a hope that they might “find each other, happy good thieves, in paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us all. Amen. In sha ’Allah.”
This is daring, provocative language for a follower of Christ (see my essay “How Catholic is ‘Of Gods and Men?’” for more on this).
“Of Gods and Men” offers a challenge to practically every viewer, Christian or Muslim, religious or nonreligious. Perhaps the question “Can Christians and Muslims coexist?” cannot be answered simply yes or no. “Of Gods and Men” bears witness, though, that there are Christians and Muslims who are willing to try.