'Dune' May Be Fascist, but Its Focus on Islam Is Groundbreaking

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Actors Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in the new film version of Frank Herbert’s literary glorification of feudalism.
Actors Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in the new film version of Frank Herbert’s literary glorification of feudalism. Credit: Chia Bella James / AP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

The film debut of “Dune” last month was hailed on extreme right-wing American websites. It may sound strange for a science-fiction film set some thousands of years in the future to attract such great interest among the ranks of neo-Nazis seeking to restore white supremacy, but anyone following the development of the alt-right would not be surprised.

Since the middle of the last decade, the extreme right has been partially geeky, with a prominent representation of young, white, fantasy enthusiasts. Richard Spencer, who is considered the ideological leader of white-supremacist circles, is an ardent fan of “Dune” and has devoted portions of his radio show to detailed discussions of the books by Frank Herbert on which the film is based.

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So what does the radical right like about “Dune”? The answer is clear. It may depict a futuristic world, but it’s one governed according to a feudal order, with houses of nobility battling one another. At the same time, the world portrayed in the film is also capitalist: Its economy is based entirely on the production and manufacture of “spice,” a kind of psychedelic version of petroleum, produced in distant desert realms.

In addition, the mythology created by Herbert has racial foundations: The imperial Bene Gesserit sisterhood seeks to produce the Messiah through planned racial crossbreeding of rival dynasties. All that is enough to turn Paul Atreides, “Dune’s” leading character, played in the new film by Timothee Chalamet, into a hero of the real-life fascist right wing.

An article in the extreme right-wing Daily Stormer describes Atreides as “the leader of the religious and nationalist rebellion against an intergalactic empire.” It even compared him to Hungarian President Viktor Orban in his battle against the European Union.

So is “Dune,” the book and the film, really a fascist or reactionary work? There are those who would argue that the question itself is irrelevant. Since it’s a blockbuster and a product of mass consumption, a movie like this purportedly belongs to the field of entertainment, and there’s no point in looking for deep political meaning in it.

As a result, the vast majority of moviegoers will be satisfied watching the space battles and marvel at the sandworms bursting forth from the dunes. But even if relating to a film as entertainment and nothing more is appropriate when it comes to “Star Wars” – “Dune” is something else.

This epic of huge dimensions is based on one of the most serious and complex science-fiction works ever written. It’s not a superficial story about spaceships and swords, but rather a rich, multilayered work in which Herbert developed the theology, ecology, technology and economy of the universe that he created. And even more than that, in the 21st century, we cannot discount the political importance of science fiction.

To a great extent, the post-modern mythologies of fantasy and science fiction currently play the role that national epics played in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Works such as “Lord of the Rings” and “Dune” can be considered the contemporary counterparts of the German national epic “Song of the Nibelungs,” which inspired Richard Wagner’s eponymous opera cycle.

From that standpoint, one can view production of the new film version of “Dune” as another expression of the conservative fantasies of our time, which go well beyond right-wing American extremist circles. People of all ages are easily swept up in works depicting kings and barons and royal dynasties, or in celebrating the racial differences among elves, dwarfs and humans.

But Herbert’s work contains a fundamental element that sets it apart from most other fantasy and science-fiction works: Islam. Anyone unfamiliar with Herbert’s books will be surprised to come across Arabic, Persian, Turkish and even Hebrew words in the movie. The protagonist Paul Atreides may not be fundamentally different from King Arthur, or from fantasy heroes like Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins (the protagonist of “Lord of the Rings”), but unlike them he bears the title “Mahdi.” This is a concept that originated in the Koran, as a name for the Messiah, especially in Shi’ite Islam. Artreides is also referred to as “Muad’dib,” “Usal” or “Lisan al-Gaib” – titles given here to someone destined to lead a galactic jihad. And if that is not enough - he is also called “Kwisatz Haderech” (the Hebrew term for “the leap forward’), a concept with origins in the Babylonian Talmud.

Herbert cast the future world of “Dune” in the form of a kind of Middle Eastern, Islamic mythology. With the mass-culture reception of this latest rendering of the work, it is conceivable that “Dune” fans will begin to learn Arabic and Persian in order to trace the theological roots of the work. But this space jihadist fantasy also has limitations. The Arab and Islamic characteristics in the work are mostly associated with the Fremen, the desert dwellers on Dune, who are characterized as a kind of rather ignorant and primitive Bedouin.

In his book “Orientalism,” the Palestinian-born intellectual Edward Said criticized the stereotypical representations of the Middle East that are accepted in European and American culture. Indeed, “Dune” is perhaps the most “Orientalist” work in the science-fiction genre. The way in which Arab and Islamic culture are represented is saturated with clichés. The transliteration of Arabic-language words is incorrect. Moreover: As is common in the realm of “white” fantasy, the Fremen Bedouin expect a white savior to lead them to jihad. Herbert seems to have been influenced in this regard by the figure of T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), the British Orientalist military officer who led some of the battles of the Arab Revolt during World War I.

Muslim futurism

But even if Herbert represented Islam stereotypically, he deserves credit for at least representing it. Would it have been better for the story of “Dune” – like so many other fictional works – to be set in a Nordic world, with gleaming blond heroes? Dune’s techno-orientalism expresses at least curiosity and fascination with the Islamic world, which is far from self-evident. This curiosity has a context: The books were written in the 1960s, before the era of the “war on terror.” Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the rise of Al-Qaida, and the Islamic State, it is hard to imagine that a popular work would be centered around what is referred to as a galactic jihad.

In an article published online in Al-Jazeera last year, Islamic scholar Ali Karjoo-Ravary noted that “Dune” granted Islam a central place in its futuristic world, in an extraordinary way. This future world does not resemble a California-based IT company transplanted to a different world, but a different, non-Western culture with Islamic characteristics.

In recent years, an interesting movement of Muslim futurism has emerged – works of science fiction written by Muslims from around the world, imagining a futuristic Muslim world. It is easier to imagine such a world in the present era, where Middle Eastern urban centers like Dubai and Doha are among the most futuristic cities in the world; moreover, the UAE has sent a probe to Mars. The distant future will not necessarily look like a Facebook board meeting, nor like a gathering of the Knights of the Round Table – but rather like an Islamic caliphate. Only Muslims will save civilization.

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