"The Kingdom" Breaks Through the (Smoke) Screen
by Stephen Schwartz
The Kingdom, still playing in major movie houses, may be the most important recent contribution to the public discussion of U.S.-Saudi relations. Surprisingly and even hearteningly for those who follow developments in the desert monarchy, the film begins with the "W" word – Wahhabi – referring to the ultrafundamentalist Sunni Muslim sect that provides ideological support for the Riyadh regime.
American media, guided by academic Middle East Studies experts, have assiduously evaded discussion of Wahhabism, its murderous career over the past 250 years of Islamic history, and its complicity in incitement, recruitment, and financing of terrorism in Iraq today. Western journalists, academics, and politicians have even chimed in with Saudi claims that Wahhabism does not exist – only Islam, or "Salafism," an abuse of the Islamic vocabulary. Wahhabis call themselves "Salafis" for the same reason Stalinists called themselves "progressives;" because when they are open about their affiliations and goals, they are repudiated.
The Kingdom is directed by Peter Berg, better known as an actor, with co-production by cinema genius Michael Mann (my favorite of Mann's earlier films is the 1995 classic Heat, with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, followed by Collateral in 2004.) Jamie Foxx, who costarred in Collateral, is the lead in The Kingdom, as an FBI agent who, by means best described as "direct action," takes over investigation of a terrorist bombing at a compound for Westerners on Saudi territory.
The picture has flaws – some of its Arabic translations are inaccurate. It is more than a bit difficult to imagine an American investigative team charging through Wahhabiland in such an energetic fashion. But The Kingdom has all the basic facts about the Saudi environment right, beginning with its references to Wahhabism. It correctly identifies the Saudi website alsaha.com as a major jihadist communications outlet that uses up-to-date technology to support the terrorist offensive. And most important, it includes an oleaginous American diplomat (Jeremy Piven) as reluctant to offend the Saudi authorities, and the armed bodies of men protecting the Saudi order as mainly ambivalent about extremism, when not sympathetic to it.
The Kingdom is a classic action epic, about which it is superfluous to analyze plot and characterization. Bombs blast away and guns go off, blood splashes in all directions, Foxx is tough and resourceful, a female FBI special agent played by Jennifer Garner is almost as tough, and an apparently Jewish special agent (Jason Bateman), is briefly kidnapped and threatened with beheading in front of a jihadist videocam.
But even with its improbabilities and other shortcomings, right now The Kingdom has almost the character of a documentary reportage rather than a dramatic film. Last week, a few days after seeing it, I attended a Capitol Hill press conference on the Saudi state held by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) – and had the sense I was walking into a scene left out of the movie.
On Monday, October 22, a new anti-Wahhabi coalition of American Muslims (www.al-baqee.org) will hold a demonstration at the Royal Saudi Embassy in Washington, protesting against Wahhabi terrorism in Iraq, and condemning the support for such atrocities originating south of the Iraqi-Saudi border. I am scheduled to speak at the rally, and plan to end my remarks by exhorting all present to see The Kingdom and urge others to do the same. Non-Muslims can hardly imagine the liberating effect of the seeing the truth about Wahhabism on the big screen.
I would close with my only caveat about the film: its ending proposes, Hollywood-style, moral equivalence between the combatants on both sides of the terror war. But no parallel, much less an attitude of neutrality in the conflict with the Wahhabis, is acceptable.
America seeks to protect innocent people and has become a powerful ally of those who advocate pluralism in Islam; Wahhabis murder and lie without restraint. The main Wahhabi lie is the claim that Riyadh, the Wahhabi capital, and the rest of Saudi territory, aside from the Hejaz region of west Arabia including the cities of Mecca and Medina, are holy Islamic territory. Riyadh and the Wahhabi hinterland of Najd are not and never were sacred to Muslims; Najd was cursed by the Prophet Muhammad himself as a source of "earthquakes, conflicts, and the horns of Satan."
For non-Muslims who will not easily contend with the learning curve required to understand the much-evoked "battle for the soul of Islam," as well as for Muslims thirsty for truth about the crisis in the global umma, The Kingdom is a welcome relief from polite dissimulation about Saudi Arabia.