I recently saw the play The Call (presented by the Griffin Theatre Company), which is loosely based on the life and times of Al Qaeda recruit David Hicks. Set in a small country town, The Call depicts the journey of the protagonist, Gary, from his drug addled, hoonish youth, to his limp attempts at marriage and fatherhood, and finally to his surprising conversion to Islam. Gary aches for purpose in his life and, after failing to find meaning in his day to day country town life, responds to an inner sense of being called to Islam, immersing himself in ritual and prayer. The effect of Gary’s conversion is largely negative – he isolates himself socially, abandons his family in his search for enlightenment and discards old friendships with a self-righteous ruthlessness – and the play closes with a symbolic suggestion that Gary is no closer to finding true purpose than he was at the opening of the play.
Playwright Patricia Cornelius does not appear to be commenting on the religion of Islam so much as posing the question of whether our secular, ‘self’ orientated Western society is failing to meet our deepest human need of a greater sense of purpose. Gary muses that “to believe so completely in something that it’s worth dying for, that’s all a man could want for”, and it has to be said that religion, on the most part, offers this. It could be argued that the principle driver in Western society is the pursuit of happiness (in the form of physical wellbeing, financial security, and hedonistic excess to name a few) and that even many a philanthropist is motivated just as much by his desire to feel good about himself as he is by genuine concern for others. What then, for those who find that the pursuit of happiness does not, in itself, fulfill them?
The question we all asked when David Hicks was first taken into custody was “how on earth did a regular Aussie guy from the burbs wind up training with a fundamental religious regime in the foothills of Afghanistan?” Cornelius has sketched a feasible explanation, offering the notion that, when a society neglects the common human need for a cause outside of oneself (or for a sense of being called to greatness, if you will) then in the absence of something to believe in, people may put their faith in the next best thing they can find, whether it be right, sane and productive – or not. It’s not a new concept; historians would no doubt identify this proposition as a key reason for countless fascist regimes getting off the ground; Charles Dickens illustrated it with searing insight in A Tale of Two Cities, his novel set during the French Revolution in which the hopeless and downtrodden lower classes, stirred and united by the common cause of fighting injustice, excuse their atrociously violent uprising as a justified reaction to the persecution they suffered at the hands of the nobles.
Cornelius leaves her audience with the impression that, although Gary may believe he has found his calling in life, he is no more enlightened than he was when we first met him, confused and aimless, in the opening scene. It’s interesting that, rather than offering a glib solution to the questions she has raised, Cornelius instead chooses to give a caution that we would do well not to let our disillusionment with our secular, self-focused society lead us to adopt a cause or beliefs out of rebellion, resentment, or naïve hopefulness. Ultimately the audience is left with the message that, in seeking, we should be mindful that the first answer to present itself may not be THE answer - after all, any cause or faith that does not stand up to careful scrutiny is hardly “worth dying for”.