Monday, May 21, 2007

King of Adventure and Our War on Terror

Have you ever seen Muslims pray on TV? No doubt you have seen Muslims lifting AK-47’s in the air next to a burning Humvee. You have seen Muslims burning an Israeli flag. You have seen Muslims howling and crying over the body of an Israeli tank shell-dead child. You have seen menacing Muslim preachers in mid-rant shaking their index fingers as if it were a mini scud missile. You have also seenan occasional Muslim commentator in a suit, soft voice and an American accent explaining why the Middle East is going to hell in a handbasket and how Massa Uncle Sam can save it.

You have probably seen Muslims in the act of praying, for a moment. But have you really seen them pray? Or have you just seen an overhead shot of thousands of heads bowing in unison, an ominous vision perfect for introducing news casts about the troubles of our “war on terror.” What we have all seen, years after the start of this so-called war, is the sight of an ominous, menacing, mass prayer. What we have seen is a dramatic visual device meant to create a scary atmosphere for the “report” to follow, or just to inject a note of foreboding into the “report” as it wraps up. These scenes of thousands praying are used as menacing prologue or coda for CNN “reports” on this or that Muslim problem. Such images sell, they grab viewers in the same way that images of perfectly ranked Soviet tanks or marching soldiers used to do. They were the only Russians we were allowed to see, besides heroic dissidents.

The aim of these reality show news programs is to create a cinematic atmosphere of a monolith, a homogeneous force, a “gathering danger” – which of course threatens our individual freedoms, our good people barbecuing steaks or cheering NASCAR races. There is no happiness in such regimented cultures! Muslims could not possibly pray as sincere individuals in worship – prayer for them looks like no more than an expression of a herd mentality, a political anger, even a hatred. Muslims could not possibly have fun. Just look at those black beards! Who ever heard of fun-loving people growing bushy black beards? Muslims could not possibly love dancing, could not possibly smoke pot, could not possibly love watching TV, could not possibly love singing, could not possibly cheer at sporting events, could not possibly be people like you or me. No: they exist only in stone-faced, all-male ranks bowing to the floor in frightening obeisance. Or anyhow, this is how our “free media, in merely coincidental unison, has decided we ought to see them.

Which is why I have not seen Muslims pray on TV until coming to Taiwan in April, 2004. I did not even realize I had not seen such a thing. I had not seen Muslim people praying on TV, as an act of individual worship rather than as a symbol of a mass terrorist culture – until I watched a Taiwanese travel show called “King of Adventure” in which a boyish host bounces about the world goofily interviewing people in modest English and explaining in Chinese to viewers. In one show he bounced about Java, Indonesia, drinking virility tonics in marketplaces, attending rural weddings, throwing flower offerings into a volcano’s mouth, and talking to the young stone sculptors at the ancient Buddhist monument of Borobodur. The king of adventure asked a shy young sculptor chiselling away at a 4 foot Buddha whether he wanted a girlfriend, in coached Indonesian.

“Ingin!” replied the young man. He had chiselled since the age of ten.

“I’ll find him a girlfriend,” says the king of adventure, arm around the man’s thin shoulders.

The next scene shows the two workers praying. It is not a panoramic shot, from a hotel’s tenth floor, not the helicopter’s eye view of an occupation force, not a shot of thousands of heads dipping in unison, not a 2 second clip from AP, not a spectacle. For a full half a minute we see two humble working men bowing, kneeling, sitting, and ritually wiping their faces clean of sin. They are not seething, not burning, not angry, not a mass. It is a radical sight, simple as it is. I am surprised: only now do I realize that CNN, in all these months and weeks of “war” on “Islamic terrorism,” has never actually showed its viewers an individual act of Muslim worship. Only now is it clear how CNN frames Muslim people just as Soviet people were framed before: not as people but as cogs in a cruel system, as opposed to we free people, seated obediently before our TV. Only here in Taiwan, from the sidelines of the “War on Terror,” does the media self-censorship relax enough to allow scenes of Muslims as regular people. For this sight, and for this little insight into the glorious freedom of my country’s media, totally free of state influence, I have Taiwan’s King of Adventure to thank.

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