By Murray M. Lee
When “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” took movie theaters by storm, there were a number of reactions. Among them was an opinion piece, “Please Make a Muslim Hero Character J.J. Abrams,” by Haroon Moghul, a columnist at Religion Dispatches, an “online magazine covering religion, politics, and culture from a progressive or liberal interfaith perspective.” As “a Pakistani kid growing up on the margins,” he developed a love for “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.” “I adored Star Trek because it portrayed a future where imagination, discovery, and courage were all that mattered. Who cared about races or religion when there was an entire universe out there to explore and discover.” He saw “Star Wars” in much the same way.
“This should be a joyous time for me,” Moghul wrote of the recent trailer for the upcoming “Star Trek Beyond” and the new “Star Wars” movie. But recent events in the news, the Islamist terrorist attacks on Paris and San Bernardino and the response by politicians such as Donald Trump against Muslims in general, “the national climate for Muslims is uglier than I can recall.”
What he thought could help was bringing a Muslim character to one of these two science-fiction franchises, “A crew of Asians and Caucasians, Vulcans, and Muslims seeing what’s just around the corner, facing down danger together. Star Trek against the clash of civilizations, a movie that inspires generations, that takes hold of our imagination, that forces us to wonder whether the things that divide us today might not tomorrow. Make it so, please.”
The response to his commentary in the Washington Post was overwhelmingly negative. The majority were simple knee-jerk responses. My own reaction was to think on the question for a while. Could a Muslim science-fiction hero character be done?
In my opinion, yes, but …
With “Star Wars” being the science-fiction franchise in the spotlight due to the recent movie, one complication is obvious. While there are humans, there is no planet Earth, the story taking place, “in a galaxy far, far away.” So therefore Earth’s religions are nowhere to be found, including Islam. Also, the subject of religion doesn’t come up very much in the novels, and not at all in the movies, the spiritual side of the Jedi beliefs excepted. So in a sense a double strike.
In “Star Trek,” you have a depiction of a future Earth that has long been unified and becoming part of an interstellar community. And it’s not just Americans who are “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Uhura was from Africa, Chekov from Russia. And their cultures did not vanish, as one Original Series episode in which the crew received a telepathic message, they heard it in the languages of their homelands. With this in mind, an Arab or south-Asian character with a Muslim-sounding name could fit right in.
But there is a complication that might irritate some Muslims. While Star Trek did touch on religion occasionally, after the Original Series it was always about those of alien societies. It seemed Earthers had largely abandoned it. Had a character with a Muslim-sounding name been introduced, there would be no hint of whether he was religious at all, or simply an atheist or agnostic, his name now part of his heritage rather than a religion.
So what are the chances of a future Trek series showing a Muslim character showing some aspects of a religious life? It’s my opinion close to zero, at least for the next generation. It’s not just “Star Trek” that tends to not show people from Earth as being religious, but science-fiction in general. I’ve heard people wonder if this is part of a reluctance among the “Hollywood Elite” to touch on religious matters.
It’s not that there’s no Trek Muslim characters at all, but they’re limited to fan fiction and roleplays. In one AOL chatroom Star Trek online roleplay, one player whom was a Muslim in real life made his character one as well. In one session, a female Vulcan character was going through pon-farr (mating season to non-Trekers) and the Doctor suggested to the Muslim character as she was his close friend, they could make out and relieve her discomfort. The Muslim responded that he couldn’t do it, as they were not married this would be a violation of his beliefs.
But fan-fiction doesn’t have the same kind of, legitimacy, for the lack of a better word, as do the novels endorsed by the franchise, let alone the movies. It’s appeal is limited.
But science-fiction isn’t just Star Wars and Star Trek. There are thousands of other writers making their own tales. On occasion, one story becomes a franchise that can complete with the big two for a time, such as “Babylon Five,” Battlestar Galactica,” and “Firefly.” Independent writers are free to write on whatever they like. The question is, how to write something that can get the attention of sci-fi fans?
In a story not involving Earth, one could write about a society similar in some ways to Muslim Arabs, or close to another culture with Islam as it’s religion such as Indonesia’s. A society that achieved space flight, or perhaps made contact with one, but without the aspects Western readers would consider backward, such as the segregated status of women. Indeed one could have not just a hero or heroes from such a society in a sci-fi story, but also heroines.
Depicting a future in which Muslims have gone on to space has it’s own challenges. Since the Muslim religion currently requires it’s followers to pray towards Mecca, how would they handle the requirement in space? Another requirement of the religion is that all followers must make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetimes. Would this mean that all of it’s followers be effectively barred from interstellar travel if it took many decades to reach another solar system? If so, suppose a number of Muslims were exiled from Earth to a prison colony (think early Australia) with no hope of getting back in their lifetimes. How would they cope with this requirement of their religion no longer attainable?
Another challenge Muslims would face is how would it handle nonhumans? As robots become more and more advanced, there may come a day in which fully intelligent ones with consciousness arise. How would it treat them? Suppose some of them express an interest in learning, and practicing, the religion? Even if Humanity decides to stop the development of intelligent machines before they arise, it may have less qualms about creating another biological intelligent race. How might Islam’s followers handle people, whom did not come about before recorded history but whose first members were created in a laboratory?
Suppose such beings were not of Earth at all, but actual aliens that either made contact with us, we made contact with them, or we both came across one another? And suppose such beings expressed an interest in the religion? Muslims have sometimes respected cats, one story about the Prophet Muhammad saying he once cut the sleeve of his clothing rather than disturb one who was sleeping on it. But how would they handle a race of intelligent felines? And if some expressed interest in adopting the religion, would mainstream Muslims accept them? If so, how would they react if such new followers adapted their new religion with their old customs?
So yes, there is a place for Muslims in science-fiction. But for the kind that makes it to Hollywood, it’s not going to be much more than a superficial one. If one wants a detailed look at how members of this religion handle high technology and space travel, writers and readers will have to go smaller scale and bypass the silver screen and television set and head to paperback and kindle.
Image from npr.org
Murray M. Lee