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Public reaction to 'Borat!' raise controversial questions

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Posted: Friday, November 17, 2006 10:00 pm

In the past three weeks, "Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" has become one of the most unexpectedly successful independently produced films in years. And judging by the reader responses I've been receiving since my review was published, I think it's safe to say it is also one of the most controversial films we've seen in quite a while.

One point of contention is: Besides the United States, exactly what culture is "Borat" satirizing? Although the nation of Kazakhstan is located in Central Asia, the weight of evidence suggests that the real target of the film's comedy is the more extreme facets of Middle Eastern culture that have permeated into other regions - what people like Bill O'Reilly refer to as "Islamic fascism" or "radical Islam," which is characterized in part by the oppression of women and an intense hatred of Jews. These are two traits that the movie continuously uses for comedic fodder.

But is Borat Sagdiyev a Muslim? Possibly, as Kazakhstan is half-and-half Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox Christian, and Borat does not convert to Christianity until the film's end. In any case, I don't think his personal religion matters; Borat is a product of his environment, and his environment as portrayed in the film is demonstrably more influenced by Islamic fundamentalism than any kind of Russian culture.

I've been lambasted by a handful of readers for my defense of the film and the manner in which it lampoons certain aspects of radical Islamic culture - aspects which I said are even more worthy of satirical criticism than the negative facets of mainstream western culture "Borat" also tackles. I guess I'm naïve, but I really wasn't expecting such a statement to be the least bit controversial.

Nevertheless, apparently some people are pretty touchy when it comes to criticizing radical Islam; funny how you don't hear these same people complaining when Christian fundamentalism is also (rightfully) criticized. There's even an acclaimed television show called "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" whose sole purpose seems to be to attack Christian fundamentalists. Yet when "Borat" gives the same treatment to another culture, you hear cries of racism and bigotry. How does this make any sense at all?

I can only hope that my critics are misinterpreting my comments as applying to Muslim and Middle Eastern cultures as a whole. If that's the case, then I sincerely apologize for the confusion; I thought my meaning was clear, but perhaps I could have chosen my words more carefully than I did. (In retrospect, referring to Islamic fundamentalist values in some Mideast nations as "commonplace" instead of simply "pervasive" was unwise.)

However, if that's not the case and there are indeed people who fail to recognize the necessity to undermine extremists who are attempting to hijack a legitimate religion and pervert it beyond recognition, then perhaps "Borat" is an even more important film than I initially thought.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jwallis@runbox.com.

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