The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence

By Andrew R. Murphy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Mediating Religious Violence

Jolyon Mitchell


Introduction

The film United 93 begins with a totally black screen. On the soundtrack a softly spoken male voice intones Arabic verses. The focal point of the first shot is a closeup of a thumb and fingers holding open a small Qur’an. This is followed by a shot of a Middle Eastern man, simply dressed, wearing a white T-shirt. He sits cross-legged and sways forward as he prays. We hear an airplane fly by overhead. His prayers are interrupted by another clean-cut young man, who declares in Arabic that: “It’s time.” Cut to the opening titles, which are followed by aerial shots looking down upon yellow taxis made tiny by the distance, then shots tracking through skyscrapers and across an early morning urban cityscape. These are juxtaposed with glimpses into a bathroom where the man who has spoken now shaves off his abdominal body hair. In a different room two bare-footed men perform another ritual, kneeling and prostrating themselves in prayer. They embrace. One of them brings a Qur’an to his forehead and kisses it. Another tucks a small knife inside his trousers. Back in the first room the young man closes the Qur’an with a brief sigh. The camera lingers on him momentarily as he is lost in thought. A soundtrack of prayers in Arabic combines with John Powell’s haunting music to hold this three-minute sequence of images together. The music intensifies as they depart. From the dim closed space of motel rooms the film takes the viewer onto the interstate highway to Newark Airport, where the first shot is of a container park with a large painted American flag and the words “God Bless America.” The camera reveals, in the distance, the World Trade Center.

For viewers with memories of hijacked planes flown into the Twin Towers, collapsing skyscrapers and a dust-enveloped Manhattan these images are full of dramatic irony. Post-9/11 viewers know the consequences of these preparatory actions, rituals and prayers. Throughout the film the hijackers of United 93, the plane that crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, are depicted reciting verses from the Qur’an or

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