The Jihad for Virtue

Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014

“I am the cracks! Cracks everywhere from my head to my feet!… Me and Gonaives both, filled with cracks.”

One Arabic word that has perhaps seen more newspaper column inches than any other over recent years is “jihad”. It has become a watch-word for extremism, holy war, and governments that restrict civil liberties. In Abderrahmane Sissako’s Oscar nominated film Timbuktu, it takes on an entirely different meaning.

More directly translated, “jihad” means “struggle”. This sometimes means the struggle against western, anti-Islamic ideals, but, as highlighted by the character of a local Imam in the film, the struggle is more often an inward one. It is a struggle against the voice inside our heads that tempts us away from virtue.

The film takes place in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, recently after the city has been occupied by Islamic extremists. The inhabitants of the city have their lives and customs upturned by the harsh laws and structures of the extremists, ruthlessly imposed by their leader (played by Salem Dendou).

The leader sees himself as a man of great virtue, who sees an obligation to rescue the people of Timbuktu from their amorality into a life more in accord with Qur’anic teaching. He takes a football away from some children playing a match, and publically flogs people who create music (even songs sung in praise of Allah). All of his ethical decisions are inspired by a desire to fulfil his perceived duty to God.

Public flogging of a singer (Fatoumata Diawara) on a football pitch.

Public flogging of a singer (Fatoumata Diawara) on a football pitch.

Many ethicists, in attempting to ascertain what actions we ought to take, appeal to this notion of duty. They argue that to allow moral relativism in would cause chaos and anarchy, and there are certain things that are objectively moral / immoral. One of the most pronounced of these deontological thinkers is German heavyweight Immanuel Kant.

Kant saw that there are two kinds of imperatives that motivate us. Hypothetical imperatives (things we must obey in order to fulfil our desires – such as the obligation to brush our teeth leading to good health) and categorical imperatives. The categorical imperative is that which is objectively right, and we must always follow it in order to be an ethical person.

To Kant this can be formulated in a variety of ways. Firstly, universalizability, that is the idea that an action is right if we would be happy for it to be a universal law. One of the extremists, Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), seems similarly motivated.

Abdelkerim (and others), the face of virtue.

Abdelkerim (and others), the face of virtue.

At first glance it seems that Abdelkerim wishes for the world to follow Islamic teaching universally, so he imposes the law with a dedicated fervour. However it soon appears the Abdelkerim himself, like all of the citizens of Timbuktu, struggles to follow these teachings. He chastises people for smoking, then quietly withdraws into the desert dunes to smoke himself.

Another of Kant’s maxims is to see humanity as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end. Kant believed we have a duty to show respect to people and see that their lives are valued. This seems directly at odds with the ideas of the extremists in the film.

In one particularly memorable scene, a woman is arrested then flogged for refusing to wear gloves. She protests that she cannot wear gloves to do her job (selling fish at the market), but the extremists ignore her protestations, preferring to stick to the letter of the law over respect for the individual.

Throughout the film, people are forced to make difficult moral decisions, all of them attempting to retain some form of virtue in the face of hardship. But as the ancient Malian cultures clash with Islamic fundamentalism from the Arabian peninsula, the path to finding this virtue becomes obscured.

One character that stands out from all of those around her is that of the local mad woman, Zabou (Kettly Noël), whose strange ramblings and refusal to cover her head are, perhaps inexplicably, ignored by the extremists. It is pertinent, perhaps, that she herself claims to have come from another culture entirely, having disappeared during an earthquake in Haiti and reappeared immediately in Timbuktu, with the cracks from the earthquake still running through her.

Zabou (Ketty Noel)

Zabou, played by Kettly Noël

The cracks in her own mind are the same as the cracks in everyone else’s. The dark recesses of vice hidden below the surface, waiting to erupt. Regardless of culture, we all have a propensity towards being immoral, yet perhaps the only way we can supress these is through cultural norms.

Perhaps we should not be trying to impose our own cultural morality on those of others, and allowing people to find their own morality that suits their place and time. Kant wants us to see morality independent of culture. Certain things are just wrong, no matter who or where you are. But maybe this will create more disharmony than allowing moral relativism to reign.

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