Thursday, March 3, 2011

Fritz Lang's M: A Message for Islam

By now it is a familiar nightmare: a child-murderer is on the loose in a modern city. He writes to the press, taunting the police. There are nightly raids on known criminal establishments, but day by day every lead goes nowhere. A fifth victim has been found and the populace follow the press reports with nervous anticipation. In the city streets, men showing the slightest interest in children are accosted by angry mobs.

Finally the criminal syndicates organize for a meeting. Their dilemma is clear, as their leader expounds: "The police seek the murderer in our fold. Gentlemen, when I run head-on into an officer from the squad, he knows the potential risks, and so do I. If either dies in the line of duty, fine. Occupational hazard. But we must draw a firm line between ourselves and this man they're looking for. We conduct our business in order to survive, but this monster has no right to survive! He must be killed, eliminated, exterminated! Without mercy or compassion!

"We have our connections. What if we put an article in the papers that our syndicates - I mean, our organization - doesn't wish to be lumped in together with this pig, and that the cops should look for this guy somewhere else. He's not even a real crook! We have to catch him . . . ourselves."

In 1931, Berlin's Vereinigte Star-Film released Fritz Lang's first sound film, and one of the most brilliant and disturbing films about crime and society, called M - Eine Stadt sucht einen M├Ârder (a city is looking for a murderer), known simply as M everywhere else. Based loosely on an actual case, the plot concerns a German city (unnamed, but maps shown in the film are of Berlin) terrorized by the crimes of a child murderer. The police, conscientious but incompetent, have to resort to extraordinary tactics to catch him, like putting extreme pressure on organized crime activities. This leads to such a disruption of underworld business that crime bosses decide to find the child murderer. They send out an army of beggars to watch out for any potential suspect. When one of them, a blind balloon seller, recognizes the murderer's compulsive whistling of a sinister tune from Grieg's Peer Gynt, he alerts another man who sees him and manages to put a big letter M on his back with chalk without the murderer noticing until it is too late. When they catch him, the criminals put the murderer on trial as his judge, jury, and, eventually, his executioner. The police arrive in the nick of time (Lang could not get away with pulling the trigger), and the murderer is arrested "in the name of the law." The film closes on a group of tearful women, dressed in black, awaiting the verdict. One of them, addressing the camera directly, says, "One has to keep closer watch over the children. All of you."

They will probably resent the analogy that they are criminals, but it would not be too great a stretch if I were to seek a metaphor in M for Islamist terrorism in the world, from which all Muslim countries might learn. The police in M stand for the erstwhile but bungling U.S. military, making life difficult for ordinary Muslims in their hunt for terrorists. The murderer is, of course, Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, or the latest radical Islamist sect.

Rather than wait for an end to this manhunt, which will probably never come, Muslims could do themselves and their religion an enormous service by cleaning their own houses. Of course, one of the reasons they do not is because they want to avoid becoming targets of terrorism themselves. They are, in fact, so careful that this should not happen that they are terrorizing their own fundamentalists.

Now that there appears to be a surge in political activism on what is glibly known as the "Arab street," from Tunisia to Iran (even if Iranians aren't Arabs), it seems to me as good a time as any for Muslims to face up to the problem of Islamic extremism - which is affecting non-Muslim countries as well.

The choice before the Muslim world is clear: are they to persist in tolerating the existence of a small number of extremists, so extreme that they will commit acts in the name of their faith that rival the worst medieval barbarities, or will they do as they should have done from the beginning and tell their mullahs to turn down their rhetoric and preach the true message of human brotherhood that Islam once stood for?

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