On Friday, Rosewater, the directorial debut from Daily Show executive producer and host Jon Stewart, was released in movie theaters. The film tells the true story of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari (whom you can find on Twitter @maziarbahari), who was imprisoned and tortured for “being a spy” in his native country after returning to cover the 2009 elections for Newsweek. Through the efforts of friends, family, and fellow journalists, mostly in the West, Bahari was released. He wrote a memoir about the experience called Then They Came For Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, on which the film is based.

Stewart decided to adapt the memoir (and took time off from the show during the summer of 2013 to do so) partly because the “official” reason for Bahari's imprisonment was that he had consorted with foreign spies—in this case, by doing one of the Daily Show's parody segments in which a “correspondent” (Jason Jones) talks to a “source.”

Maziar Bahari and Jason Jones talk on 'The Daily Show'

Maziar Bahari and Jason Jones talk on 'The Daily Show'

The film reenacts this encounter, showing exactly how parodic and staged it was and that Bahari and everyone else knew it was a joke. But later it returns as ostensible proof of Bahari's spy status, his complicity with the Western media engine.

Brett McCracken reviewed the movie for us here. I've seen it too, and while it's not the greatest movie I've ever seen, and certainly not the greatest one I've seen set in Iran, I largely agree with Brett's review. Rosewater was a solid debut for Stewart, refreshingly lacking in the sorts of American political affiliations that either endear him to Daily Show viewers or infuriate some ideological opponents.

Aside from the reenactment of the Jason Jones interview, Stewart's own (vocal) role in Bahari's release effort is absent from the film (a wise move) and it instead shows how instrumental Bahari's wife and mother were to his release. And it’s a good example of the rather postmodern insight that sometimes the best way to take down self-serious totalitarianism is to make fun of it to its face.

There was one other thing I kept thinking about while watching Rosewater. That's this: because the film is set in Iran under what is essentially (or at least, looks to an American to be) a totalitarian regime, aspects of the characters’ daily lives are jarring. A government firing on its own people, sure—but also the outlaw and destruction of satellite dishes that might bring in news from nonsanctioned sources, the insistence of a government official who has barged into a woman's private home unannounced that she put on her scarf, the continual sense of the squashing of opinions and the danger of questioning the powers that be.

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It's interesting, and to everyone's credit, that the film doesn't discount faith or belief as such (in this case, Islam); one shot in the midst of a montage shows Bahari perched on the back of a motorcycle, waiting while his young, intelligent, otherwise revolutionary driver stops by the side of the road for midday prayer.

It is not religion itself that is the problem here, the film seems to say. It is the form it takes among some of its practitioners. Religion becomes a problem when it is used by the powerful as a tool for suppression.

Kim Bodnia and Gael Garcia Bernal in 'Rosewater'

Kim Bodnia and Gael Garcia Bernal in 'Rosewater'

That form is most clearly shown in the way that religious practice and belief is used to oppress citizens and suppress dissent. The violence stems from a regime so drunk on its own power that it refuses to relinquish it, even in an ostensibly democratic election—and yet, it becomes clear that the various forms related to the religion are being used by the powerful to keep the powerless quiet and submissive, rather than to promote a sort of morality or peace. And when the powerless threaten to take charge, violence erupts.

It was a useful reminder to me of the importance of principled pluralism for anyone with both power and a set of beliefs about the world, particularly religious beliefs. The problem with a regime that has little space for dissenters is that without pushback, conviction can easily harden into ideology, and ideology can harden into oppression.

This is part of why I'm grateful, as unruly as it can be, that certain freedoms are encoded in the founding documents of my own country—freedom of the press, of assembly, of speech, and particularly of religion. That last bit doesn't just mean freedom to believe whatever you want, or nothing at all, though that's part of it.

Like all freedoms, freedom of religion includes a responsibility: to protect others' freedom of religion. I've found the concept of principled pluralism useful. On that point, I commend to you this QIdeas talk by Dr. Gideon Strauss, who was the first person to introduce me to the idea personally and from a Christian perspective, and whom I can tell you knows of what he speaks, having grown up in South Africa under apartheid.

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I was also heartened to discover that the Aspen Institute sponsored a project on principled pluralism under the direction of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Harvard Kennedy School professor David Gergen; the panel for the project was made up of university and seminary presidents, media thought-leaders, professors, and social service providers from a variety of faith communities, including Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, humanist, and Christian. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA president Alec Hill was part of the panel and wrote about it for the Huffington Post this year after InterVarsity was “de-recognized” at 23 California State University campuses.

In brief, principled pluralism is not diversity. It is something more robust. Eboo Patel wrote about it in the Huffington Post, quoting Harvard religion scholar Diana Eck, who says, “Diversity is just plurality, plain and simple—splendid, colorful, perhaps threatening. Pluralism is the engagement that creates a common society from all that plurality.”

Gael Garcia Bernal and Kim Bodnia in 'Rosewater'

Gael Garcia Bernal and Kim Bodnia in 'Rosewater'

Patel continues: “Principled pluralism encourages that engagement, but respects the desire of some groups to respectfully limit it, in harmony with deeply held views on matters of faith.”

In other words, someone who holds to a principled pluralism, which was the recommendation of the Aspen Institute for fostering long-lasting religious freedom and interfaith dialogue in the United States, would affirm the right of citizens to believe as their conscience dictates and to speak freely, while also respecting that some groups will, because of their beliefs, desire to restrict their engagement in the public square.

(An easy and relatively noncontroversial of this in practice would be the exemptions allowed the Amish from compulsory school attendance laws, as well as conscientious objection during times of compulsory military service.)

As Alec Hill puts it, principled pluralism also affirms “a deep commitment to pursue the common good together in higher education, youth services, media, and government.” So there are two parts: recognizing and affirming difference in religious belief and practice, and while not seeking to erase or minimize those differences as if they are not important, also working together for the common good.

Hill says, “I was particularly impressed by Harvard professor Robert Putnam's conclusion that religious diversity can actually be a source of social cohesion (as counterintuitive as that may seem). Rather than trying to homogenize our culture, we can actually thrive by celebrating our diversity.”

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My column here isn't about politics, so I'm not going to specifically address a bunch of recent issues that instantly seem to stand out (though I'm sure they'll make their way into the comments below).

But I wanted to point out that Rosewater made me think about this, and also, it reminded me that I've been a little nervous lately about the kind of thought- and language-policing that seems to be seeping into public dialogue, that squashes dissent and inscribes a circle around how we must act based on a set of beliefs that sometimes conflicts with people's deeply held religious convictions. In a lot of cases, I think, the intention is not strictly antireligious—but it can come off that way.

Gael Garcia Bernal and Kim Bodnia in 'Rosewater'

Gael Garcia Bernal and Kim Bodnia in 'Rosewater'

Certainly there is, and must be, space within a principled pluralism for robust, even vehement debate. Recognizing the variety of beliefs doesn't translate to a mushy sort of tolerance in which everything is just fine, including oppression. And history shows us that religious believers have actively oppressed others for reasons attributed to faith, but actually much more closely related to fear or power (slavery being a good example), and others are morally bound to confront this with truth and forceful rhetoric.

Of course, the problem with pluralism is that it by nature doesn't easily set up the sort of “moral horizons” that Charles Taylor talks about—the larger-than-us principles by which we can judge better and worse language. It is highly imperfect. It is messy. It is very nearly a paradox, and the places where the lines get drawn can be hard to agree upon.

But part of ensuring freedom from oppression is ensuring that wherever we have power, we are very careful about our motives for quieting those with whom we disagree. As I've learned from some of the Christian political thinkers I respect most, for Christians this likely means erring on the side of protecting the freedoms of those who might look suspiciously or even angrily at Christian belief, over and against our own; after all, turning the other cheek must have social implications as well as personal ones.

For Christians, pursuing that sort of principled pluralism—one that is in keeping with our own set of beliefs, which involve a radical mercy and sacrifice that follows Christ’s example—would also help us keep our faith from (accidentally) hardening into an ideology used mainly to win arguments and shut down discussions and get our own rights.

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Well. I can say with confidence this wasn't what I was expecting to get from Rosewater. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t really what the filmmakers had in mind, either. But I'm grateful to Jon Stewart and Maziar Bahari for provoking it.

For further reading at CT:

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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