Paul Atreides says that at the start of the Dune trailer, and some fans (including myself) are in varying degrees concerned. Has Denis Villeneuve pulled a “Sum of all Fears”, and catered to woke culture by censoring the idea of jihad from Frank Herbert’s story? Add to this that no Arabs were cast for the Fremen characters (Stilgar played by Javiar Bardem is Hispanic, and Chani played by Zendaya is African American), and one might wonder if Villeneuve is trying to keep Dune‘s holy war free of any implied Muslim and/or Arab association. (Which would be ironic, since other fans have been complaining about the lack of Arab representation among the cast; you can’t win with the woke crowd.) After all, it’s perfectly PC to portray barbaric warfare and devastation as the result of crusades. But leave the jihad out of it, you bigot!
In Herbert’s novels, of course, the Fremen are close analogs to Muslim Arabs. They’re a patriarchal warrior culture of the desert; they have a monopoly on a prized commodity (spice instead of oil); and their religion derives from an amalgam of religions emerging out of old Earth, the most influential being Sunni Islam. Under Paul’s messianic leadership they rise against the oppressive Corrino empire (and the Harkonnen lackeys) to lead a jihad across the galaxy — slaughtering over 60 billion people and sterilizing all life on over 90 planets. It’s a monstrous holy war that Paul agonizes over, and then rationalizes as a necessary or lesser evil, but few readers seriously buy that. The jihad results in devastation and a uniformly oppressive way of life that is far worse than anything experienced under the previous 10,000 years of Corrino rule.
By turning Paul’s jihad into a crusade, and (perhaps) leaving Arabs completely out of the cast, it looks as if Villeneuve could be trying to make a Dune adaptation that will pass the PC litmus test. If this turns out to be the case — that he has removed all references to jihad in his film for fear of stereotyping Muslims — then I will join the chorus of condemnation. But I think this is probably not the case. In Herbert’s books the term “crusade” is actually used as a loose equivalent of the jihad on a couple of occasions. Maybe the trailer just happened to include Herbert’s rare phrase instead of his common one.
But before going any further with the Dune universe, let’s review the differences and similarities between the Christian crusades and the Islamic jihad in our real world, since in reality “crusade” and “jihad” are not interchangeable.
The Christian crusades vs. the Islamic jihad
Here are the differences:
- The crusades emerged (in the 11th century) as a response to the Islamic jihad and had no basis in the tenets of Christianity. It was a hijacking of the Christian religion. Reactively (defensively), the crusades were a long overdue counter to 300 years of jihadist warfare which had ripped away two-thirds of the Christian world, and was still pushing deeper into Christian lands. Proactively (offensively), the crusades introduced (what was for Christianity) a radical concept of sacred violence, effecting the remission of a knight’s sins for killing infidels. The profession of medieval knighthood didn’t allow for peace, and knights had been taught by monks that they led an inherently sinful life; now they were taught they could channel that sinful aggression into a sacred cause.
- The jihad, on the other hand, under Islamic law, is derived from the Qur’an and has always been mandatory on all able-bodied male members of the Muslim community. This remains true to this day, in all four schools of Sunni Islam (Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanafi) and Shi’ite schools as well. Unlike the crusades, the jihad takes two forms, the greater (al-jihad al-akbar) internal struggle to achieve personal purity, and the lesser (al-jihad al-asghar) military struggle to subjugate infidels (and eventually the whole world) under Islamic law. Both jihads are obligatory, the lesser as much as the greater. Unlike the Christian crusades of the medieval period, which were voluntary and non-essential to the faith, the Islamic jihad has always been a faith fundamental.
What the crusades and the jihad do have in common is the drive of religious zeal. For whatever strange reason, modern academics have difficulty accepting that people find holy war attractive on the strength of religiosity — that ideas about martyrdom and paradise can be in and of themselves psychologically rewarding, irrespective of social or economic factors. Rational people are capable of believing things which a lot of us consider crazy, especially when it comes to beliefs about the afterlife. Specifically:
- Claims that the crusaders were mostly disenfranchised second sons disaffected with their lot in life, or that crusaders in general were colonizers intent on acquiring land abroad, are the products of dated and uninformed scholarship. Many crusaders were wealthy first-born sons, and most crusaders expected to be bankrupt by the cost of crusading, and to return home to Europe immediately after. Simply put: one did not improve one’s lot in life by going on crusade; just the opposite. Crusaders believed in the virtues of sacred violence for its own sake (despite and against the long-standing tradition of their savior’s pacifism). Holy war was a penitential act offering the warrior a way to bypass purgatory on his way to heaven. Medieval Christians were anxious about suffering in purgatory, however silly that seems to us.
- Claims that jihadists are mostly poor and uneducated are PC fantasies. There is no correlation whatsoever between poverty and jihad. No evidence supports the idea that jihadists are unusually maladjusted, poor, or badly schooled. For jihadists, slaying infidels is a fundamental guarantee to paradise. To many Muslims — wealthy as much as poor — that is a psychologically appealing belief.
There hasn’t been a crusade in centuries. The Christian holy wars were foreordained to pass, never having a proper grounding to begin with. They had always cut against the pacifism of the New Testament, and the church knew it. Europe became more globalized and cosmopolitan, and it’s hard to do business with people while slaughtering them. (Capitalism has its faults, but religious war-mongering isn’t one of them; warfare is engaged rather for economic advantage.) In the secular state, crusading seemed archaic to secularists, religiously wrong-headed to religionists, and anti-Christian to Christians.
Jihadists, on the other hand, have remained routinely active since the 7th century, because of beliefs endemic to Islam. But no one likes to admit that for fear of stereotyping Muslims, and Islamic groups like CAIR have made a career of lobbying the movie industry to remove portrayals of jihad. Especially since The Sum of all Fears.
The Sum of all Woke Fears: Portraying Jihadists in Film
Hollywood bends over backwards for busybody groups like CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations. In 2002 the jihadist plot of Tom Clancy’s Sum of All Fears was, absurdly, turned into a neo-Nazi plot under pressure from CAIR. Obviously there are no neo-Nazis running around Europe blowing things up like Islamic jihadists are. The film was made acceptable to Hollywood sensibilities and the Arab lobby, but it was silly and unrealistic. Once you subordinate artistry to politics, you may as well quit your job as a filmmaker (Bob Kruger writes plenty about this). I never read The Sum of all Fears, but my father did, and I remember seeing the film with him, and he couldn’t believe how ridiculously the plot was changed for fears of prejudice. (And my father was a very liberal guy.)
Whether or not Villeneuve has pulled a “Sum of All Fears” in Dune is difficult to predict at this time. For now I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. For one, he has proven himself to be a damn good filmmaker, uninterested in genuflecting at the woke altar. His masterpiece Blade Runner 2049 pissed off the PC-police for supposedly objectifying women with “porno” images and the hologram character Joi. Commendably he never flinched. I suspect we’re going to get plenty of the jihad in Dune.
But the fact is, I’m just not sure. Even the best director can bend under too much pressure, and Villeneuve has already made one casting choice that I find bewildering: the character of Liet-Kynes, who has been turned into a female, which makes no sense at all (unless you’re just trying to score woke points). Liet-Kynes is the leader of the patriarchal Fremen; making a gender swap with this role is weird to say the least.
Even if Herbert used the term “crusade” as a rare equivalent with “jihad”, it was the latter term that so obviously summed up the spirit of his epic. That’s why he used it. From the desert planet comes the jihad, sweeping across the galaxy, waged by a people whose harsh culture and beliefs mirror those of Islamists. That doesn’t make Dune a signpost to bigotry anymore than a novel like Shogun is.
Update, 10/22/21: My fears were justified. The jihad was discarded and the generic “holy war” substituted instead. On top of that, the film is a lackluster affair and underwhelming to say the least.