AS AN ALLEGORY, Pleasantville beautifully depicts both the appeal and the downside of Islam's prime directive. For eight years, I have been immersed in studying about Islam and Islamic states like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan (when the Taliban were running things).
One of the most surprising things I discovered is that according to mainstream Islamic teachings, it is a Muslim's religious duty to strive to create an Islamic state (applying Sharia law), wherever they live. Naturally, many Muslims have no intention of following this particular teaching. Some have come to free countries to get away from Sharia.
Sharia law is Allah's holy law, and the Quran urges Muslims to live according to Allah's law, and if that's not the law where she or he lives, s/he should work to change it; to bring it closer to Sharia. Read more about the basic principles of Islam here.
I recently watched the movie, Pleasantville. I'd seen the movie before I learned about Islam, and this time I saw it in a new light.
Let's look at the parallels between Pleasantville and Sharia law. First, someone had a vision of a perfect world. In the movie, it was the creator of the Pleasantville TV show, and in Islam, it was Muhammad (or Allah speaking through Muhammad). They each had a vision of an ideal world.
Now, if everybody does what they're supposed to do, this vision can become a reality and people can enjoy a peaceful, orderly society. The key is getting everyone to do what they're supposed to do. The problem is, people love freedom. And of course freedom brings with it unwanted side-effects, as you see in the movie (and as you can see by looking around you).
But the lack of freedom also has side-effects. Which is better, living in a Pleasantville world but having to do what you're supposed to do all the time — or living a life where you choose your own destiny but also have to live in a society with others who are choosing their destiny too? I don't know who can answer that question for all of us, but I know which one I prefer. I want freedom.
Pleasantville is a movie about the danger and the splendor of freedom.
When the movie begins, the teenager, David, is in a modern American high school, living in a free society complete with its dangers and side-effects. David is a fan of an old television show from the fifties. Everything was perfect in the show. It was an ideal world where people treated each other courteously, parents had loving, conflict-free marriages, and kids were wholesome and innocent. David yearns for a life like that instead of the messy, chaotic world he lives in. And he gets his wish.
But he discovers that there is a cost to living in paradise — a drastic lack of freedom. In the movie, when the teenagers started having sex and the world was going Technicolor, the leaders of the town were horrified. Things were getting out of control. And you can see they had good intentions when they tried to make it go back to the way it was.
That's what the Taliban did. And Iran. And Syria. And what Saudi Arabia is doing. They're trying to make it go back to the way it was. They're trying to fulfill the vision of Muhammad's perfect world. They are struggling against human beings' natural desire for freedom. They have to use force to get people to do what they're supposed to do all the time. They often use extreme force and they still can't get everyone to conform.
And who hasn't had the same conflict in their own life? Haven't you? Haven't you gone through cycles of cracking down on yourself and then loosening up? Haven't you ever gotten a regimen all worked out so you can get in shape or get your debts paid off and then after awhile you start feeling closed in by your regimen and you want to break out of the restricting and regimented monotony?
When I was younger, I spent many fruitless hours trying to come up with the perfect system. A perfect week would have a defined number of hours of exercise, a specified amount of communication with loved ones, writing time, goofing off time, etc. A perfect life plan is not very difficult to come up with. But actually doing it turns into a nightmare of routine. Most people would never do something like that voluntarily for very long. I loved creating the perfect system, but I hated living in it. And it was my system. What if some else created the system? It would be nearly impossible to make me conform to it.
Our longing for freedom and change and adventure always makes us want to break out. The only way a regime like that can realistically be done is to enforce the system from the outside. If you could make everyone in a society follow the perfect system, you could have a perfect society.
In the movie Pleasantville, the men join together and try to restore order, under the banner of the Pleasantville Chamber of Commerce. They try to enforce pleasant behavior. They create a code of conduct for everyone to live by and they punish the ones who rebel. And what you see is what happens in real life. People feel a conflict. Yes, they want a pleasant society, but not at the cost of their personal freedoms.
Many wonderful and terrible things didn't exist in the perfect world of Pleasantville: Art, sex, women's rights, creativity, exciting music, novelty, love, passion, anger, bigotry, awakening, self-discovery, self-expression, disagreement, conflict, change, violence, book-burning, discovery, exploration, experimentation, new experience, rebellion, defiance, personal growth, and the list goes on and on. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
What does it take to keep the ugly and bad stuff away? You have to get rid of a lot of the good stuff. That's what it takes. And you have to make it a crime to step out of line. You have to have punishments. So the perfect world has its own ugly side. Sharia law says if you steal something, you must have your hand cut off. If you have premarital sex or drink alcohol, you get flogged. For adultery, you get stoned to death.
The punishments are intentionally extreme so they are a strong deterrent. They don't cut very many hands off because that law really discourages theft, and after getting caught twice, you don't have any hands left to steal anything with. I'm not advocating this by any means. You already know how I feel. I believe in freedom.
But the point of all this is I think the movie, Pleasantville, could help freedom-lovers sympathize with the perfect-world-lovers because after all, we in the audience are also attracted to the perfect world of Pleasantville at first. We sympathize with David, who wants to get away from his ugly, sometimes painful life, and doesn't realize or appreciate how much freedom he enjoys until it is taken away from him.
And the movie could also help the perfect-world-lovers see the beauty and magnificence of freedom — and the joy of not knowing what's going to happen next. And the satisfaction of choosing your own destiny.
In one of the scenes in the movie, David and his girlfriend are sitting on the shore of a pond. She'd just found out David has seen the world outside of Pleasantville. She never has, and until recently, didn't even know it existed. She asks him, "So what's it like out there?"
He thinks about it and tries to describe it to someone who has never seen it. He says, "Well...it's louder. And scarier, I guess. And it's a lot more dangerous."
"It sounds fantastic!" she says enthusiastically. Sure. For someone whose life has been ordered and perfect, freedom, danger, and the unexpected would be like cool water to someone dying of thirst. That's the glory and the downside of human nature living in a free society.
With freedom, you have to learn to live with the fact that things aren't the same any more and never will be. That's both tragic and wonderful.
Once you sympathize with the perfect-worlders, you understand them better, and maybe it will make it easier to find the solutions to the many problems they create as they go about trying to push things toward their vision. This pushing can take many forms. Obviously, with some really dedicated people, it may involve violence. But the smarter ones find other ways. Read more about that here: Gentle Jihad.
Learning about the history and teachings of Islam is fascinating. If you'd like to know more, I suggest you read the Quran. Here is an easy version to read.
You can learn more right now if you'd like. Check out What Makes Islam So Successful?