Zero Dark Thirty: Disgusting misrepresentations and false stereotypes

Along with a misrepresentation of Islam and its patrons, the movie has also done damage to Pakistan’s illustration.

Komal Ali February 06, 2013
The hype surrounding the movie Zero Dark Thirty has found space into every conversation; be it in classes or at dinners.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about one or the other aspect of it; while some people argue it is a very well made movie, there are many others who view the legitimacy of the plot and implications of the movie very sceptically.

Zero Dark Thirty is a historical drama about the CIA’s hunt for the top al Qaeda leaders, primarily Osama bin Laden. The movie has been nominated for five Oscars and is a Hollywood blockbuster.

A majority of the Pakistani audience is still unaware of its release – unless of course they accessed it via illegal means or read about it online. Movie distributors and television stations in Pakistan have mutually planned not to air the movie to avoid severe repercussions.

While I understand why a Pakistani audience would be frustrated with the movie, not screening it and avoiding raising concern about the prejudices of the movie is not the wisest choice either, since there needs to be serious discourse among Pakistanis regarding the repercussions of such film.

My take

Aspects of the movie that especially alarmed me – and I assume would offend a large majority – were the biased representation of Muslims, misrepresentation of Pakistan and the propagation of acceptability to torture. These endorsements of the movie are especially problematic in a society that is still largely struggling to overcome racial and religious differences.

In my personal experience living in the United States, I have come across numerous people who are only aware of the extremist militant brand of Islam. While attending a public high school in Minneapolis, it was not unusual for me to be asked questions about my relations with bin Laden and possession of bombs in my lunch box!

I am in no means saying that is how every American high school student thinks, but there are definitely thousands of them who need to be more educated about issues beyond varsity teams.

The movie Zero Dark Thirty, I believe, has given all these high school students and of course others a reason to further foster hatred towards Muslims.

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In such dynamics of a society, it becomes difficult to ignore the biases of Zero Dark Thirty. While the movie is largely focused on two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, with large Muslim populations, it does not have even a single typical Pakistani or Afghan Muslim. Rather the movie perpetually shows mosques and plays the Azaan around the more violent and intense scenes such as an attack on a CIA officer or a suicide bomb. This relation that the movie draws, between a crucial and revered aspect of Islam (the Azaan) and violence is not only very noticeable, but also evokes an uninformed audience to make judgments that are unnecessary and harmful.

Tapas Kulkarni, second-year student at Mount Holyoke College, adds to my concern,
“You can’t deny that Islamophobia is real – especially in the west – and that Muslims have to deal with it in their daily lives. Zero Dark Thirty is made by an American for an American audience, and because of the way the movie is made, it fuels anti-Islamic sentiment in the society.”

Misrepresentation of Islam and Pakistan

Along with a misrepresentation of Islam and its patrons, the movie has also done damage to Pakistan’s illustration. The colloquial use of Arabic in Pakistan came as a surprise; it almost felt like the conversations occurred in a place like Jeddah or Muscat.

Pakistani Twitterati have made a mockery out of this because while numerous languages are fluently spoken in Pakistan, Arabic is not one of them. Furthermore, the movie has barely shown any public space devoid of Islamic architecture, which is radically different from the Pakistan of the 21st century.

American foreign policy- flawless?

Besides the damage to Pakistan’s representation, the movie also waters down the consequences of America’s foreign policy in a post 9/11 world. In a scene in which an official meeting is being carried out in US Embassy Islamabad, a higher official tries to evoke emotions in the attendees by bringing to light the killing of 3,000 American civilians at the hands of terrorists.

He adds in his speech that Americans have not done anything in return hence it is time to get “them”. That statement by him took me majorly by shock because of course the death of 3,461 people (reported by the BBC, according to research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) in the drone strikes in Pakistan, conducted by the CIA to protect US national interests stands for nothing, let alone casualties in the failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that are now mere statistics.

Giving torture validity

Torture remains another very controversial part of the movie. From the very beginning, torture has been shown as a very commonplace tactic to obtain information from the detainees that the CIA suspects could be helpful in the search of Al-Qaeda affiliates. The way Zero Dark Thirty has created a very visible line between the Americans and the “enemies”, torture seems like an acceptable way to protect national security. The evolution of Maya’s character from someone wary of the use of torture to someone who favours it for investigative purposes is also largely convincing most audiences that torture, which is used against the “bad guys”, is absolutely necessary and in favour of American national interests.

Maya succumbs to torture towards detainees when her colleague dies in a suicide bomb blast; however, this is not enough to justify torture. If loss of a dear colleague is the way to justify and encourage torture, as depicted in the movie, then by that logic, victims of drone strikes and failed American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who resort to terrorism to seek revenge on the United States – a notion much ridiculed - also becomes fair.

Even though recently the CIA has denied using torture in the search for bin Laden, in 2004 a report released by it reveals the different techniques used in overseas prisons for interrogation purposes. Zero Dark Thirty’s humanisation of torture definitely raises a lot of questions about the variation in the value of human life in today’s world.

The concerns related to the movie extend to whether we really need such media in societies already struggling with combating religious and racial discrimination, and that if censorship is not the solution then who is responsible for creating awareness and tolerance in a world largely falling prey to disgusting stereotypes and generalisations; and being awarded for them!

Read more by Komal here or follow her on Twitter @komalali92
Komal Ali Born and raised in Pakistan, Komal Ali is an International Relations major and Law and Public Policy nexus minor at Mount Holyoke College. She is currently doing a Pre-Law certificate at University of Amsterdam. She tweets at @komalali92 (
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