Captain Phillips: Compassion vs. Nationalism

Badly needing a relaxing night out, my husband and I decided to see the movie Captain Philips…with one stipulation: I didn’t want to have the “Look what America has done to destroy others’ countries” conversation afterwards. It’s not that I shy away from analytical conversations about the United States and its involvement in foreign affairs, but for one evening, I wanted to enjoy an evening of blissful ignorance at the movies.

Two and a half hours later, I was the one to renege on our pact and begin the conversation I had been so determined to avoid.

The film itself, based on true events that unfolded in 2009, takes care to present the agonizing humanity of both the Americans’ and Somalis’ stories. The four gaunt young pirates, between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, who kidnap Captain Rich Philips come from destitution and are chained to a complicated war lord system. This system grew prominent in the early 1990’s when a military coup left the country in a downward spiral, rife with military leaders fighting to gain more territory and control. By serving a war lord, a young man stood to improve his and his community’s condition. At the same time, a failure did not go unpunished and it is imperative to remember that the men in the film are dealing with their own fear of retribution for an unsuccessful mission. Meanwhile, the American crew whose ship they seize is carrying unarmed sailors who have nothing to do with the U.S. government and are delivering cargo, including U.N. food packages for African countries. Both groups are seeking stable lives for their families, but a victory for one will undoubtedly mean the defeat of the other.

I felt satisfied with the balanced treatment of the two sides—their motives, their circumstances, the larger political and social systems to which they belong. I also appreciated that the creators of the film did not shoot the final scene, in which three of the four Somali men die in one last attempt to at least make enough money to pay off their war lord, with carnal excitement, but rather gave the moment a sense of dread and sadness.

When the bloody scene flashed on the screen, I imagined the men’s lives before the warlord system swallowed them up. I imagined the youngest playing soccer in his village. As a mother, I envisioned the Somali mothers and their hopes for their sons. The crew leader, Abduwalki Muse, even tells Captain Phillips that he dreams of travelling to New York. His eyes betray his voice; he speaks stoically as if his dreams are long forgotten, but there is still a youthful, adventurous boy to be seen in his eyes. In a situation that seems so foreign to many Americans, Muse reminds us that we all have dreams. We all imagine our lives full of happiness. One might wonder if his fate was choice or if, given a different place and time, he would be another tourist snapping photos in Time Square.

The large, muscled Navy personnel fire shots. The Somalis’ blood splatters. And then, to my shock, most of the audience in the theater erupted into laughter. When the Navy informs the single remaining Somali that his friends are dead and arrests the defeated, broken man, the audience cheered. The strange, vulgar reaction made my stomach turn. I gripped my husband’s hand and we both knew it was time to leave.

It seems I had been naive in assuming that the audience would appreciate the humanity of both the Somalis and the Americans. Their compassionless response made clear that many Americans remain convinced that the world is colored in black and white. We are good. The other is bad. Period.

Perhaps my willingness to look at the Somali pirates and the American crew in shades of grey comes from my being both a Muslim and an American. Then again, a duel identity can lead to confusion. Militaries are necessary; wars are often not, and recently, most American wars have been against nations with majority Muslim populations. My sense of nationalism tells me to support Captain Phillips, yet my loyalty to my faith moves me to feel for the Somali men. I am sure the truth lies somewhere in between.

A Qur’anic verse commands: “Fight them until there is no [more] chaos/discord and [until] worship is [acknowledged to be] for Allah. But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors” (2:92). So we are to fight for justice for those who are opressed. But the question that follows is who is the opressor and who is the opressed? We fail when we assign guilt too swiftly and completely. The American crew portrayed in this film did nothing to deserve retribution, but the young pirates never asked to be trapped in a country with no leadership or stable means of livelihood.

My husband and I decided to salvage the evening by getting dinner after the movie. Our server came over and my husband, as is his habit, asked her what city she was from. She was from Bombay and was now earning her M.A. in Computer Science. I couldn’t help but wonder how different her life would have been given different circumstances. One of the key tenets of Islam is mercy, and to have true mercy, we must never forget that everyone at some point in his life had a dream.

Photo Credit: bangdoll
Anna Wittman converted to Islam after both a spiritual and academic journey. She focuses on cultural issues unique to American Muslim converts.

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