By Tasbeeh Herwees
There’s a phrase that’s become common in the reviews and write-ups of “The Big Sick,” a romantic comedy that debuted in theaters in late-June: “culture clash.” The film, which was produced by Judd Apatow, stars Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani. It’s Nanjiani’s first lead acting role, and the movie — which is based on his real-life romance with white American screenwriter Emily V. Gordon — documents their courtship, and his efforts to reconcile their relationship with the expectations of his parents, who continuously try to set him up with “young, single Pakistani girls.” This is where the tension of the plot lies: between Nanjiani and his family, between a white girl and his Pakistani heritage. When Gordon suddenly falls sick and is hospitalized, Nanjiani is compelled to choose between the two.
Early on, the film sets up an obvious narrative conflict. On one side, we have Emily, played by a blonde Zoe Kazan, and her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). Nanjiani meets Gordon at a comedy club, on what is ostensibly a one-night stand that turns into something more. Her parents, who show up when Emily gets sick, are flawed but well-meaning; their shortcomings are eclipsed only by the obvious love and affection they have for their daughter.
On the other side, we have Nanjiani, son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants, Azmat and Sharmeen, played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff. The two characters embody every stereotype conceivable about brown Muslim parents: overbearing, disappointed in their American offspring, eager to get their hapless son married to the nearest single brown young woman. Nanjiani’s parents appear almost exclusively in scenes where they invite young women to family dinners in the hopes he might fall in love with them. These young women appear, too, with no backstory or very little dialogue, clinging hopelessly to an antiquated tradition. How silly these women are — not like Nanjiani, who is enlightened enough to pursue a white woman. In one critical scene in the film, as he’s arguing with Emily about the viability of their relationship, he yells, “I’m battling a 1,400-year-old culture!”
Perhaps it’s significant, then, that this film is being billed as a “culture clash” comedy. It’s a phrase that evokes another expression, used commonly in the field of international relations: “clash of civilizations,” coined by the famous political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. Huntington’s theory argued that contemporary conflicts were not ones driven by politics or economics but by identity and culture. He believed there existed an inherent antagonism between “the West and the rest.” The West, he said, had embraced modernism, and the rest of the world remained hindered by archaic ideologies (like Islam) and Old World traditions. Huntington focused much of his thesis on interactions between Islam and the West.
Notable scholars like the late Paul Berman and Edward Said have debunked Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory, arguing that its logic is not only flawed but ignorant.
“Huntington is an ideologist, someone who wants to make ‘civilizations’ and ‘identities’ into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history, and that over centuries have made it possible for that history not only to contain wars of religion and imperial conquest but also to be one of exchange, cross-fertilization and sharing,” wrote Said in The Nation in 2001. Still, Huntington’s work is used as the basis for much of the U.S.’s foreign policy prescriptions and his book remains the bible of foreign policy analysts whose focus is on the Middle East.
Huntington’s language has filtered down to annals of pop culture, from “Homeland” to “Tyrant” to “Zero Dark Thirty” — all of which, in different ways, propagate the myth of “the good Muslim” and the “bad Muslim.” The good ones, of course, are the ones who assimilate into American culture, adopting American cultures and traditions. The bad ones are the ones who pray. With “The Big Sick” Nanjiani, too, has unconsciously or consciously set up a similar paradigm in his work. In an interview with The New Yorker, he told reporter Andrew Marantz:
“Everyone knows what a secular Jew looks like. Everyone knows what a lapsed Catholic looks like. That’s all over pop culture. But there are very few Muslim characters who aren’t terrorists, who aren’t even going to a mosque, who are just people with complicated backstories who do normal things. Obviously, terrorism is an important subject to tackle. But we also need Muslim characters who, like, go to Six Flags and eat ice cream.”
On its surface, such a statement seems harmless and benevolent, carefully toeing the line of liberal logic. But ultimately, it pits Muslims “who aren’t terrorists, who aren’t even going to the mosque,” against the Muslims who do. The idea that religious practice precludes you from your humanity — from enjoying a day at Six Flags, from eating ice cream — is ludicrous and demonizes any person of faith living in the United States. Statements like this operate as justification for the surveillance and policing of Muslim communities.
In recent years, pop culture has had occasion to highlight many “secular Muslims.” In the latest season of “Master of None,” Aziz Ansari’s celebrated Netflix series, there’s an episode in which his character, Dev Shah, indulges extravagantly in the consumption of pork. The pork, of course, becomes a proxy for American culture; unlike his parents, who continue to abstain, he’s assimilated and left behind such outdated traditions. In Dan Harmon’s off-the-air NBC comedy, “Community,” actor Danny Pudi plays Abed Nadir, a Palestinian Muslim whose identity only becomes relevant when his father becomes involved in the plot. Abed is expected to take over the family’s falafel restaurant business once he finishes school, and his father becomes upset when Abed decides to take a film class, which would not benefit his falafel-making skills. In another episode, his father introduces Abed’s silent cousin, Abra, who wears a headscarf and face veil. But, other than that, we never witness Abed praying or fasting or being otherwise worshipful.
Abed is allowed to be as weird and wacky as he’d like to be. It’s characters like Abra who are not afforded, as Nanjiani says, “complicated backstories” — who are not given room to be layered in their humanity. Nanjiani does not extend this courtesy to the brown South Asian women in “The Big Sick.” Instead, he reduces them to caricatures. In “The Big Sick,” Muslim women become “shut-down, sealed-off entities.” When Zubeida — one of the “young, single, Pakistani” women his mother tries to set him up with — appears out of nowhere at his family dinner, her character is played for laughs, depicted as foolish and desperate.
In the New Yorker interview, Apatow said, “We never talked about it in terms of ‘What does it mean to represent a secular Muslim onscreen?’ We talked about telling Kumail’s story, and that led us, naturally, to questions about family and culture and religion.” But these questions are never answered for viewers. “The Big Sick” is a serviceable romantic comedy, certainly. But it betrays Nanjiani’s failure to fully understand his own community or even his own family. The thing is, some Muslims go to mosque and then the club. Some break fast and celebrate Eid with whiskey. Some pray five times a day and still enjoy an ice cream at the end of it. Some date white people. Some do all of that and then go to Six Flags.