Decolonizing Dune: Reimagining MENA and the Muslim World

At first, I was excited to see the judiciously cited Washington Post article “The novel ‘Dune’ had deep Islamic influences. The movie erases them” by Haris Durrani. As a historian of MENA diasporas and cultures, I echo Durrani’s implicit call for greater opportunity, equity, sophistication and authenticity in Hollywood and am thoroughly sympathetic to his deeply felt analysis. I especially sympathize with the rare delight of “it takes one to know one” insider knowledge and subsequent letdown of not seeing oneself onscreen, especially for MENA and Muslim peoples who still barely make the cut for Aladdin.

As I read the article, however, I was disappointed to see the foregrounding of Islam at the expense of other MENA peoples – analysis echoed by numerous think pieces that rightfully criticized the film’s appropriation of “Arab,” “Islamic,” and “Middle Eastern” source material without employing MENA actors or creatives. However, Middle Eastern, MENA or SWANA are not synonyms for Muslim, and it’s a depressing logic – but a common and capitalist one – that to include one group necessitates excluding another. In calibrating a reading practice through Islamic singularity as a means to take a stance against White or Western imperialism, Durrani falls into the same kind of cultural appropriation and erasure he otherwise critiques. Conjuring the MENA and Central Asian regions as homogeneously Muslim participates in its own colonialism and Orientalism that ignore the myriad peoples similarly victimized by the cultural cuisinart of the film and novel’s appropriations.

It’s generally well and good when Durrani cites the novel/film’s Koranic, Moorish, and especially Shi’a elements. The MENA region frequently became knowable to the Western imagination through an essentialized, monolithic Muslim, “Mohammedan” or “Turk,” and Islam is the most stereotyped way to think about the MENA region. It’s not surprising Herbert drew from this obvious framing, especially since he drew on Orientalists like Lesley Blanch who similarly romanticized Islam. While Durrani takes the positive view that Herbert “put in the work” – albeit not wholly successfully ¬– of dismantling facile binarism and Orientalism, Durrani’s writing stunned me because it seems to endorse Herbert’s essentialisms about the region as Muslim, and thereby erases Islam’s “Others.” In doing so, Durrani neglects the MENA region and Silk Road’s complex, multiethnic and multivalent cultures – exactly what makes them so ripe for appropriation.

Indexing only “Islamic” elements in the film ignores the multiple non-Western cultures on display in the film, cultures that Western imperialism similarly racialized as backwards, exotic, mystical, and inferior. For example, the film includes not only spoken Mandarin and Japanese-inspired elements, but Hans Zimmer’s score promiscuously samples musical idioms from across the West and Central Asian littoral, including the Armenian duduk. In addition, Durrani insinuates that the score’s “distinctly Arab notes…are of Aladdin faire [sic],” without explaining exactly what this means. Peoples exchanged musical forms across the Silk Road, and within the Ottoman Empire, Armenians, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Greeks, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, and others produced syncretic music that shared tonal systems, notation, melodies, lyrics, instruments, and even performers. Similarly, Durrani’s characterization of crucified victims as Christian imagery, or Bene Gesserit headscarves as “European Christian…with the exception of beaded Orientalist veils” are equally unsupported assumptions. Headscarves predate all three of the Abrahamic religions, and even the Arabic language, while central to the Quran, similarly predates Islam. As such, the term “Mahdi” used to refer to the protagonist Paul Atreides draws on similar messianic traditions in Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism, and other religions – and is therefore not exclusive to Islamic eschatology. It’s equally problematic to gloss differences between Mongolian and Turkish (or ignore Armenian lettering in the film entirely) – or suggest these languages stand in for Islam – or matter if and only if they do.

Relatedly, as some web comments note, Durrani, like the filmmakers, rehearses a facile Binary of White/non-White, Imperialist/Anti-Imperialist, White/Muslim and even Christian West/Muslim East. This assertion that one cannot be White, Muslim, and native is a harmful stereotype that obscures not only Muslims in Europe and the MENA region who identify as White, but also the centrality of Whiteness to multiple MENA empires and nations, including Turkey and Iran. In a similar vein, Durrani’s citation of only Muslim resistance to Russian imperialism in the Caucasus is at best historically misleading, since it elides Russian (and then Soviet) antipathy for Armenian and Georgian nationalisms, and collusion with West Asian Muslims to suppress these troublesome Christian subjects. Most problematically, this erasure hews closely to exclusionary interpretations of pan-Islamism, pan-Turanism and ethno-nationalisms that imperiously “claim” the region through cultural imperialism, forced assimilation, political repression, and genocide. In effect, Durrani assumes that imperialism and settler colonialism are definitionally European, Christian, and White. They are not.

In fairness, ambiguities around ownership and authenticity, as well as the ability of language, race, or religion to unify religiously and ethnically diverse regions are core contradictions at the heart of pan-Islamism, Arab nationalisms (or nationalism in general), and frankly, Edward Said’s Orientalism. But lest it seem we’re splitting hairs and fighting over the scraps Hollywood throws at us, Durrani’s and my sympathetic but divergent readings of the film underscore a fundamentally divergent politics. We overburden the novels if we expect Herbert to demonstrate mastery of an authentic “Islam” or “Middle East” via Orientalist dilettantes, and in the same vein, overburden a sci-fi film if we expect it to faithfully reflect our lived experience through a mythical place tens of thousands of years in the future. However, it’s not just representation that matters; it’s how we read these representations and how we enact our politics.

We must demand far more sophisticated readings of the MENA region that acknowledge and embrace plurality and difference, rather than trample on them. At the same time, we need to build forms of analysis not structured through dichotomies that simultaneously soft pedal certain differences and absorb others. In a moment of enduring cultural imperialism and rise in ethnonationalism across the world, our orientation must always be outward rather than inward, our impulse to invite in rather than exclude. Recognizing (and celebrating) those different from us is the great challenge of modernity – and connecting peoples and places heretofore seen as distinct, the great challenge of Said’s humanism.

This orientation requires that we see beyond ourselves and even further, find joy in that vision. A more politically powerful, inclusive, and radical reading of the multiple Dunes would note that the film and Herbert’s freewheeling appropriations summon multiple “Others” extending far beyond “Arab” or “Islamic” cultures. In doing so, this critique could affirm not only Herbert’s anti-imperialism but also index the broad coalition of peoples wronged by Orientalist stereotypes and all forms of cultural appropriation and political domination. Here is how we best condemn appropriation and affirm difference, coalition, and solidarity. In doing so, we resist the temptations of uplifting Herbert as another kind of White Savior, repeating the navel-gazing that is the hill on which our collective liberation dies, or looking to any Mahdi to do the work we must ultimately do ourselves.

Thomas Simsarian Dolan received his PhD at the George Washington University in American Studies and is a Fulbright US Teaching Scholar at the American University in Cairo.

Further Reading