'Arrow': An Islamic prayer and the issue of cultural prejudice

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In the recent "Arrow" episode, an assassin takes a moment to pray before drinking poison and dying. That moment was meant to deny information to heroes Oliver Queen and Sara Lance, while simultaneously showing commitment to the League of Assassins.

But did this moment mean more? Is "Arrow" guilty of cultural or religious prejudice because a Muslim prayer was spoken before the suicide? The answer is more complicated than you might expect.

What would Ra's al Ghul do?

It's probably safe to say that, whether or not the "Arrow" scene did give offense, this was not the intent. Members of the League have previously shown devotion to the point of death. Captured as he was, the unnamed henchman would have little choice but to commit suicide, according to the rules set out by his organization. And even a hardened killer might utter a short prayer before death.

Why was it a Muslim prayer then? Again, there's a straightforward, good-intentioned reason for this. The League of Assassins headquarters is said to be in a place called Nanga Parbat. I'm no expert on DC Universe geography, but the name and all descriptions of this place put it somewhere in Central Asia. Residents of this part of the world are most often either Buddhist or Muslim. With a name that seems to derive from a language in the Persian family, a predominantly Muslim region is a safe bet.

If the League recruited locally for their assassins, of course many of them would be Muslims. They wouldn't likely be devout Muslims, not with the killing and all, but cultural and religious roots still exist in the worst of humanity.

An additional reason why the writers and producers of "Arrow" might have chosen a Muslim prayer is the overtly Arabic name of the League's head assassin, Ra's al Ghul. The name has come to "Arrow" from DC Comics but has a long history even before that.

Traditionally, Ra's al Ghul is the name of a bright star in the constellation, Perseus. Depicted in Greek astronomy as a heroic figure clutching the severed head of Medusa, Arabic-speaking astronomers of the Muslim world substituted "the demon" for the snake-headed woman. The star representing that severed head in the constellation was named simply "the head of the demon" -- in Arabic, "ra's al ghul."

This famous star name traveled across time and translations, providing the origin of the current name of that star, Algol. Where did a comic-book writer pick up on the name? That may remain a mystery, but the fact remains that the villainous Ra's al Ghul has always had an Arabic-language name.

arrow-ras-al-ghul-perseus-sufi.jpgNone of this keeps it from being offensive

The origins of Ra's al Ghul and simple facts about geography don't take into account viewer responses and they definitely don't take into account cultural prejudices.

Thus, it's no wonder that some did take offense to the use of an Islamic prayer by an assassin committing suicide. A petition has even been started to ask for an apology for the scene: 

"On Wednesday 2/5/14's airing of Arrow, a member of the League of Assassins utters the saying 'La ilaha illa lah', Arabic for 'there is no God but God', just before killing himself, so that the heroic lead character Oliver Queen and his love interest, Black Canary can get any information from him. This phrase represents one of the greatest oaths any Muslim, a believer of Islam, can make in being a Muslim, and is known as the declaration of faith."

In the heading for the petition, it is also noted that suicide would not be acceptable for a devout Muslim.

Is the "Arrow" scene offensive or is it a reasonable scene in a prejudiced entertainment culture?

To me, this might be the question. While watching the episode, I noted that a Muslim prayer was used and mostly was just impressed that someone over at "Arrow" took the trouble to add verisimilitude to the show. The man could have, after all, just muttered some gibberish. He could have taken his poison silently. But by uttering a prayer, this nameless assassin gained a bit of humanity.

Why would this be offensive then? Beyond the basics of the affront to Islam exhibited by the evil killer, there is the fact that Western audiences -- particularly those in the United States -- are trained to expect a Muslim to be a killer. Countless television programs and feature films, especially in the past decade, have taken this characterization to an extreme, and you'd be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of "nice" Muslims in popular culture.

Because of this, it doesn't necessarily matter about the intent on "Arrow." When an audience is expecting the Muslim killer or terrorist, even a specific and logical instance of Islam being associated with violence contributes to the problem.

Should "Arrow" -- or any other piece of entertainment -- change because of this? That is another, much harder question to face.
Photo/Video credit: The CW