General Sherman, who burned Atlanta to the ground, rather famously and pithily said, “War is hell.” Stephen Marshall’s new documentary about religious fanaticism, Holy Wars, turns Sherman’s quote on its head with the clever tagline, “War is Heaven.” With its Orwellian panache, this is the perfect slogan for holy warriors who dream with relish of nothing better than jihad or apocalypse, a fateful clash of civilizations that will end the world as we know it.
Marshall has found two globetrotting protagonists propagating holy war. Khalid Kelly is an Irishman who has converted to Islam and, as the doc opens, fans the flames of extremism in Britain. His Christian counterpart, Aaron Taylor, hails from Missouri, and filled with the so-called Holy Spirit, this evangelist gallivants around the world, including to Muslim Pakistan, to spread the gospel according to American-style fundamentalists.
Marshall follows the duo as they preach far and wide, his voice heard interviewing them, although the director is rarely if ever actually seen onscreen. (No hammy Michael Moore is he.) Through Marshall’s eyes and ears we witness the characters’ twin zealotry, intolerance, faith-based tirades and illusions. Khalid names his son “Osama.” (Can you imagine what this poor child will have to contend with growing up in the West? If Johnny Cash was still alive he might compose a new song called “A Boy Name O-Sue-Ma.”) Ever the provocateur, Khalid casually, callously denounces Christianity to passersby on British streets while leafleting. One couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to non-Muslims who tried dissing and publicly organizing against Allah and his faith in an Islamic nation…
Finally, in a segment that could be called “when worlds collide,” the documentary brings the two protagonists together for a philosophical face off. At first Taylor had declined meeting his Islamic doppelganger, but after an epiphany while out converting the “heathen” in Brazil, Aaron agrees to the confrontation and flies to the U.K. for the religious tete-a-tete. For some odd reason the two holy warriors meet in what seems to be an abandoned warehouse for the encounter. In any case, what proceeds to unfold is illuminating.
The fast talking Khalid, who has one of the 7th Century’s finest minds, is also fast thinking, and he clearly bests Aaron during the debate. The Islamic extremist stumps the American with allegations of Western crimes against humanity in Muslim nations, including the accusation that the Clinton era sanctions against Iraq led to the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children and babies. (The none-too-bright Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, called this “a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.” So much for winning hearts and minds.) Khalid rather reasonably also tells Aaron that, in terms of warfare, if the West stays out of Muslim lands, Islam will stay out of Western lands.
The exchange and logic of Khalid’s argument have an unexpected result. Aaron, who’d expected to convert his Islamic adversary, is troubled by Khalid’s claims and steps out of the fundamentalist mind set, where doctrine and dogma rule one’s thought processes. Instead, Aaron actually investigates the evidence, and using his critical analytical qualities discovers that, lo and behold, Khalid has valid points. Aaron’s new insights inform his ministry, although he can’t sway members of his family and other diehard zealots, who cling to their apocalyptic visions of the rapture, end times, etc. (To Muslim and Christian extremists, I say, a plaque upon both your over-zealous houses. They put the “mental” into fundamentalists.)
Khalid, on the other hand, continues on his inexorable path towards Islamic militancy. Following terrorist bombings in England the British government cracks down on domestic Muslim activists, and as his comrades are rounded up rabblerousing Khalid flees to Pakistan. He encounters disillusionment there, and appears to go on to join the Taliban in tribal territories.
Like those domestic U.S. terrorists the Weathermen before him, the violence of the Western powers compels Khalid to become violent. As Brian Flanagan said in Sam Green’s 2002 The Weather Underground documentary, the Vietnam War drove some American anti-war activists “a little crazy.” Similarly, the mass murder and misery inflicted on Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine appears to drive Khalid mad. Indeed, after being rejected at Pakistan, Khalid refers to himself as “a wreck” on the verge of “a nervous breakdown.” The Irishman embraces an alien Islamist ideology based on the one hand on legitimate grievances, but on the other, on pure delusion and fantasy, believing in something that simply does not exist – except in the minds of its followers.
At one point Khalid rants on about how he despises England. As someone who has himself lived abroad, I look askance at people who scorn the countries they voluntarily move to. Khalid the Irishman announces he’ll never live in Britain again – adios amigo, vaya con dios, and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out. Hating the Tony Blair government and its despicable invasion of Iraq is one thing, but holding the people of your adopted homeland in contempt is quite another.
There are other ways to resist illegal, immoral wars other than resorting to religious fanaticism, and by the way, Khalid, did you forget the up to 15 million people around the world – many of them Brits — who marched against the invasion of Iraq? It was only the biggest demonstration in the Earth’s history. (And by the way, indiscriminate acts of terror against civilians in the West are as likely to murder peace advocates as they are to kill pro-war reactionaries – not to say that Khalid himself advocates this.)
If Khalid ever sees Holy Wars, perhaps he’ll consider it more Western media deception and agitprop, as the director is a Canadian. However, when Marshall began making his film five years ago, he had no way of knowing then that Aaron would end up seeming reasonable, while Khalid would appear unfavorably, if not as a raving lunatic. There was no Marshall plan.
In fact, quite the opposite. During the five years it took to shoot and make Holy Wars it underwent numerous permutations. An earlier version contained extensive footage of Rev. Ted Haggard, who went on to self-destruct in the face of a gay prostitute and drug scandal, throwing the film and filmmaker for a loop. The prominent atheist Sam Harris makes an all too brief appearance onscreen; I would have liked to seen more of a secular perspective, as well as the insights of a psychoanalyst. And a female member of the audience lamented the near total absence of women in Holy Wars, which during a post-screening Q&A Marshall explained was basically at the request of the two protagonists wives.
Marshall is a gifted filmmaker whose work includes the 2004 Iraq War doc BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge, which aired on Showtime, and the 2005 feature This Revolution , starring Rosario Dawson as a Black Bloc type anarchist. A homage to Haskell Wexler’s 1969 Medium Cool, This Revolution was shot against the backdrop of the actual 2004 Republican National Convention and the protests against it in Manhattan.
This Revolution’s best moment takes place during a real demo, when NYPD actually arrested Dawson, which Marshall captured on film and is in the picture’s final cut. Marshall also co-founded the Guerrilla News Network. Lisa Kawamoto Hsu is a producer of Holy Wars, which is playing at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema (323-464-4426) through Aug. 5, as part of the International Documentary Association’s 14th annual Docu Weeks, which runs at the ArcLight through Aug. 19 (see: www.documentary.org). Holy Wars is also playing Aug. 6-12 at the IFC Theater in Manhattan (212-924-7771). For more info on Holy Wars see: holywars.tv/.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”