Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Mahdi and the Islamic State

I've been watching over the last couple of evenings the 1966 flick Khartoum about the Mahdi Rebellion in Sudan in the early 1880s. The film has some small interest in cinema history - famously Charlton Heston was supposed to have taken the role of General Gordon because Laurence Olivier was playing the Mahdi though they actually only share two scenes together. It also boasts a nice turn from Ralph Richardson as a hesitantly conniving Gladstone. It's not exactly cinema gold (although there is an intermission and 'entr'acte') and while there are moments where a blacked-up Olivier's performance as the Mahdi reminds you of his wonderfully stylized Othello, there are also quite a few when he seems more like Bernard Bresslaw out of Carry On Up The Khyber.

It's intriguing though how many similarities there are between the current crisis created by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria with what was going on in Sudan in the 1880s. Then, as now, the creation of such a radical Islamic State committed to sharia law took the West entirely off guard. The Mahdi crushed an Egyptian army of 10,000 men under Western leadership sent to quell his uprising and subsequently, armed with their abandoned weapons, proved unstoppable in his determination to take over the whole of Sudan, beheading all those, such as General Gordon himself, who stood in his way. Sound familiar? This was in a country where Britain felt it had already made some civilizing contribution with Gordon rooting out the slave trade when he had been governor in the 1870s.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is the pitting against each other of two extraordinary individuals: the fascinating General Gordon and the Mahdi. Gordon (pictured right)
too was a self-possessed religious zealot with an incredible life story already in place. As 'Chinese Gordon' he had been instrumental in putting down the Taiping Rebellion in 1860s China. In one intriguing, entirely fabricated scene in the film he even offers the Mahdi a sumptuous jacket presented to him by the Emperor of China only for it to be turned down by the Mahdi as the emperor is 'an infidel'.

The curious Western habit of sending out 'men of faith' to tackle religious fanaticism in the Near East seems to continue to this day. The modern equivalent of General Gordon is surely a man like Tony Blair, another self-possessed religious 'visionary', dispatched to the region and, blithely oblivious to the contradictions of his faith and those of the peoples around him, achieves nothing at all, though as the script of Khartoum acutely points out 'vanity was always mixed up with visions'.

Much as I might briefly enjoy the idea of a Blair of Baghdad being holed up with the armies of the Islamic State swirling around him, the grimmer reality is that these days the victims of such blood-thirsty rebellions are those deeply humane and humanistic souls attempting to alleviate, or report on, the distress of the local population. One of the saddest aspects of the horrifying images of the two American journalists killed was learning what profound lovers of Arabic culture they were.

In the 1880s, as now, the initial response to the Islamic State was to avoid military intervention or at least for military intervention to be surreptitious. It took the stranding of Gordon in Khartoum, and his inability to be saved from a grisly death, to galvanize public opinion.

What lessons can be drawn? In Khartoum, Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi grits his teeth and pronounces 'holy war' as if he is talking about some archaic concept from a long time ago destined never to return. The producers in 1966 surely never dreamed how big 'jihad' would be in 2014. 'Jihad' it seems is clearly not going to go away and is likely to periodically explode.

The best we can do I think is not, in the mould of Gordon and the Mahdi, to match intense faith with intense faith, but rather match frenzied religion against a dogged, open-minded secularism that refuses to be displaced.

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