Screen Mujahideen, 20 years later

Culture draws inpiration from so many places. In 1984, a landmark American movie was released, a big-budget epic about a tribe of desert warriors rising to defeat an imperial power which is characterized as both hubristic and sexually depraved, and whose economy depends on a natural resource found in their desert. This small band of committed fighters defeats the decadent empire without armies or military power, by following the directives of their charismatic leader, a young prophet whose mother and sister dress in black robes that cover all but their faces. The young man teaches his followers techniques for making explosives that they use to “smash our enemies’ bones, and rip out their organs.” He speaks primarily a prophetic, allegorical language: “We will kill and kill again”; “A storm is coming; our storm.” Do you remember this film? As should be obvious, it trades in and romanticizes elements of Islamic resistance movements, particularly in Afghanistan, by reading their struggles as akin to those of American revolutionaries, in both cases the enemy a greedy colonial power. Yet such a production would be profoundly impossible to mount today, since no one would accept the possibility of an epic simile likening ‘them’ to ‘us.’ How populist sympathies shift in twenty years, at each moment representing momentary affiliations as both the certainty of tradition and the ahistorical truth.