Last night, while scrolling through my TV to find something watchable, I came upon Sony Max airing Neerja. I knew the film had been received well both by critics and the audience. It was an inspiring and emotional tale of a 23-year old airline purser who was shot trying to save three American children. Neerja Bhanot was a hero who had the chance to save her own skin. Instead, she chose to help the passengers.
But there’s something that caught my eye -- the fact that the hijackers were all bearded and one of them was wearing a tupi and panjabi-pyjama. They looked more Indo-Aryan than Arab. The organisation they belonged to seemed to be similar to al-Qaeda. It didn’t make sense.
In the 21st century, bearded alkhalla-wearing men storming a plane is somewhat believable; but the events shown in the film occurred in 1986. The Talibans were yet to take control of Afghanistan, 9/11 was 15 years away, and Osama bin Laden’s career was just getting started.
So who did these guys work for? I turned to Google and Wikipedia. I discovered that they were Palestinian Muslims employed by the Abu Nidal Organisation (ANO), created by the eponymous Abu Nidal, a Palestinian “patriot-turned-psychopath” who splintered away from Fatah and PLO in 1974 because he thought they were softening up on Israel. Far from being a Laden-influenced extremist with a warped sense of religiosity, Mr Nidal was an ultra-nationalist revolutionist who believed in violence.
He practically dedicated his whole life to it, having “ordered attacks in 20 countries, killing over 300 and injuring over 650” through his organisation.
None of his images depict him having a beard. There is more than one reference of his addiction to alcohol, and he was never in any way affiliated with any Islamist organisation. Abu Nidal believed in Arab nationalism and socialism, he was in the Iraqi Baath party for a while, and in various phases of his life, he was reported to have received patronage from countries such as Iraq, Libya, Kuwait, Egypt, and even USA.
Hollywood had its way with stereotyping Arabs and/or Muslims as terrorists. Why would Bollywood have the time to explain how the people who were originally accused of terrorism were ‘extremist left-wing revolutionaries and/or ultra-nationalists?’
Safe to say: With all their evil, Gaddafi, Saddam, or Hosni Mobarak wouldn’t have backed Mr Nidal. He was even imprisoned in (and eventually expelled from) Saudi Arabia for a short while and he didn’t seem to have any relations at all with the Pakistani ISI.
So, there’s simply no reason as to why members of his organisation look like your garden variety religious zealots. Abu Nidal was a killer, but his ideology was derived from nationalism and socialism, or even socialism mixed with Muslim nationalism. There is no evidence of him being influenced by dogmatic Islamism at all.
Even if we pursue the argument that the ANO did believe in religious fundamentalism and followers wanted to look accordingly, no statement by any survivors or any existing images of the hijackers who boarded the Pan Am flight indicate them having beards. There is also no explanation as to why Pakistani negotiators were addressing Palestinian hijackers in Urdu.
But we haven’t arrived yet at the last nail in the coffin. In the movie, there was a British individual, Rony Heston, who was singled out by the hijackers, tormented, threatened, and nearly killed. A little bit of research revealed this man to be Mike Thexton in real life, who wrote a book based on his traumatic experience, What Happened to the Hippy Man?, which far from being just a tension-filled account of a survivor, also contains a bit of humour.
The reason for that, as Mike revealed in an interview with the Telegraph, was because “there were so many parts of it (the hijacking) that were absurd,” though none of it felt funny to him at the time. He talked about the “absurdity of the piped music that provided the soundtrack to the hijacking,” the first message on the PA system sounding “surreal,” and a hijacker telling him (in English), “Oh, I am sorry for this. I do not like this fighting, this killing. I would like to go out dancing, go out drinking, go out with women.”
This is in sharp contrast to the movie, where the bearded terrorists just waved around guns, talked nervously amongst themselves in a foreign tongue and with the flight crew in Urdu (because even Palestinian terrorists know Urdu), spoke terrible English, tormented people mentally and physically, and killed mercilessly to prove their point. Yes, these terrorists were just as cruel in real life; they did kill 20 people, and to the blessing of the Almighty, were tried and convicted for it. But were they the one-dimensional terror the movie made them out to be?
The only “Islamic” feel to the events in real life would be the real-life terrorists uttering “cries of ‘Jihad!’” before “they began shooting and throwing hand grenades into the crowd” gathered “in the middle of the plane.”
Several colleagues of Neerja who were working alongside her during the hijacking commented saying that although Neerja was a wonderful person, it was actually the flight attendants “Astrid, Sherene, Sunshine, and Massey” who “in reality faced the ordeal,” and that the movie was pure fiction and portrayed the rest of the crew unfairly.
Nevertheless, Neerja didn’t do anything that hadn’t been done before. Hollywood had its way with stereotyping Arabs and/or Muslims as terrorists. Why would Bollywood have the time to explain to the audience about how the people who were originally accused of terrorism were extremist left-wing revolutionaries and/or ultra-nationalists?
It seems to be that almost everyone has forgotten about the history of left-wing violence in the Muslim world. We Bangladeshis had sorboharas, Palestine had its fringe groups such as ANO, Pakistan saw “an attempted Soviet-backed coup d’état against the government of Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister of Pakistan in 1951” (termed the Rawalpindi conspiracy), and the whole Middle East experienced a Baathist reckoning in the 60s.
In many ways, the Taliban/al-Qaeda/ISIS crowd simply borrowed the nationalistic narrative from their left-wing predecessors, infused it with puritanical takfirism, and amped up on the hypocritical self-righteousness.
I mean, why do these people sacrifice their lives for ideals that are completely insane to the sound mind? Why do they commit these atrocities that would appear clearly wrong to another human being? What really drives them? Is it just religious self-righteousness? A sadistic gratification off of killing the “infidels?”
We don’t fully know. We don’t know how these people think, how they process things, or how they see the world. It’s very easy to dehumanise what we can’t figure out; hence, in our movies, TV shows, and books, the terrorists are always so predictable. Whereas in real life, they are highly deceptive and complex characters.
In a recent interview with Al Jazeera’s AJ+, Amaryllis Fox, a writer, peace activist, and former CIA clandestine service officer, said the discussion going on about “ISIS and the United States overseas” is “oversimplified.”
She said that the entire argument on all the sides was manufactured by a small group of people who make money off the war. The real solution to terrorism would be “to listen to them,” to have some inner reflection about foreign policies, and to stop seeing the enemies as just “sub-human psychopaths” who will always be coming at us.
Her words were directed at the Western world, but we have something to learn from it as well. To understand why terrorists can sleep peacefully after shedding so much blood and killing so many innocent people, we need to understand their psychology, not just portray them as crazy gun-wielding bearded men. Otherwise, in Amaryllis Fox’s words, “this never ends.”
Fardin Hasin is a freelance contributor.