Knights of Al-Aqsa Mosque: The Palestinian video game flipping orientalist binaries on its head
A new video game pitting a sole Palestinian fighter against the Israeli military will be released in December, promising an alternative perspective to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Knights of Al-Aqsa Mosque (Fursan Al-Aqsa) is a first-person shooter set in Jerusalem where players guide Ahmad Al-Falastini – a Palestinian student “unjustly tortured and jailed” by Israel – through the streets of the city as he confronts Israeli soldiers.
Palestinian-Brazilian Nidal Nijm spent more than a decade developing the game alone using the FPS Creator in 2009 before switching to the Unreal Engine 3 programme in 2013.
"The objective of my game, especially here in the West, is to show that the armed struggle of the Palestinian people is not terrorism, as shown in video games where the USA soldiers are the heroes and the Arabs are the enemies and terrorists"
He understands that Knights of Al-Aqsa Mosque is likely to cause controversy but maintains the game is designed to be a fun shooter, even if it mirrors his own experiences and understanding of the conflict.
“People at first [may] be upset about my game because of its political content as the Israel-Palestine conflict is a very complex matter and there are a lot of different points of view among Arabs, Israelis and Western society in general,” he told The New Arab.
“However, when they play it, they will see that this is a freaking fun and addictive shooter game, in the best retro style, like the classic old school shooters from the 90s, especially Goldeneye 007. I invite you to play my game’s demo, check for yourself, and give me feedback.”
The demo has already been praised by gamers for its fluidity and retro-feel and has been compared to classic console games such as Metal Gear and Max Payne.
In fitting with its traditions, Knights of Al-Aqsa Mosque will be launched on older consoles, such as X-Box360 and PS3, first before its release on PS4 and PS5 next year.
“It was my father who encouraged me to video game since I was a little boy and he told me to study and learn so that one day I could produce a video game about the Palestinian Resistance,” he said.
“Here in Brazil, as I am Brazilian, born and raised here, I learned that everyone has the right to live freely, profess their faith and culture. I even lived with people of various beliefs and cultures, including Jews, so I am not anti-Semitic.”
As with most shooters, the game is undoubtedly gory seeing the protagonist use knives, rifles, and grenades against enemy soldiers. It has also garnered criticism from Jewish and Israeli groups. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, an anti-Semitism watchdog, claims it “glorifies Palestinian terror against Jews” and has called for a boycott of Steam, the distributor of the game.
Nijm rejects the claims of anti-Semitism, saying that Knights of Al-Aqsa Mosque follows a traditional shooter formula with a single fighter battling a throng of enemy troops, while the multiplayer feature allows gamers to play an Israeli soldier.
“I want to make it very clear that in this game there are no Jewish, Israeli civilians for such a player to attack. In addition, all scenarios and missions take place in military areas, such as army bases, bunkers military fields,” he said.
“The objective of my game, especially here in the West, is to show that the armed struggle of the Palestinian people is not terrorism, as shown in video games where the USA soldiers are the heroes and the Arabs are the enemies and terrorists.”
"The ‘exotic evil' in the East goes back centuries and games have just continued that – just with far higher body counts"
Many gamers have long pointed out the bias in the industry against Muslims and Arabs. Arabs in third-person shooters are more often portrayed as keffiyeh-wearing radicals rather than humans with the same emotions and heart-breaking stories as characters in other games. It is a trend highlighted frequently on social media and one that many gamers are challenging.
Rami Ismail, a video game developer and public speaker, said although he is yet to play the game from what he has seen it appears to be a "pretty straight" forward shooter and would be "largely unremarkable" if the protagonist was an American or British soldier attacking an Iraqi airfield.
Where Knights of Al-Aqsa Mosque could break with the mainstream is by fostering dialogue and debate within the gaming industry and challenging entrenched stereotypes.
“What I do think is that it’s important that topics like war and freedom get discussed from different perspectives, even in a medium in which that conversation is often clunky,” he told The New Arab.
“The game industry has made thousands of shooters ‘about freedom’ where all you [do is] kill stereotyped brown people that represented some sort of evil from the Western perspective. I do believe the rest of the world should be allowed to experiment the same way.”
Ismail said that shooter games reflects the broader bias in the arts about representations of “the other”. It is a subject addressed by, among others, Edward Said and Jack Shaheen in the past, yet creative industries still appear to be failing to address these concerns.
“We’re underrepresented as protagonists, overrepresented as antagonists and under consulted in the depictions of our cultures. This is a long-standing issue in Western media: Hollywood did it before games, and books did it before Hollywood. The ‘exotic evil' in the East goes back centuries and games have just continued that – just with far higher body counts,” he said.
"We’re only now discussing whether the violence [in Palestine] is justified – how come we never discussed that in the military shooters where nukes go off in civilian Middle Eastern areas? Is it uncomfortable? Yes"
“And of course, that has real-world repercussions. If all exposure to us in the media you consume – from being a child onwards – says we’re dangerous, terrorists, barbaric and murderous, you’re going to have a subconscious reflex about us.”
He said the solution is simple: “Hire more Arabs”.
Knights of Al-Aqsa Mosque will likely bring a new understanding to gamers of the Palestine-Israel conflict beginning with the story of the main character. The background note about Ahmad Al-Falastini on the game’s landing page states he is a young Palestinian student whose family was killed in an Israeli airstrike and he was unjustly detained and tortured for five years.
“After getting out from the prison, [he] seeks revenge against those who wronged him, killed his family and stole his homeland,” it adds.
These are all issues undoubtedly faced by thousands of Palestinians in one way or another, while the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank is deemed illegal by most countries in the world.
Discussions around the morality of Knights of Al-Aqsa Mosque should be first addressed with these elements in mind, along with the hundreds of other shooters in the market that appear to glorify the killing of Arabs and Muslims, Ismail said.
“We’re only now discussing whether the violence [in Palestine] is justified – how come we never discussed that in the military shooters where nukes go off in civilian Middle Eastern areas? Is it uncomfortable? Yes, the same way Call of Duty [and] shooting Arabs or Russians to achieve political views held in the Western World is,” Ismail explained.
“But I’ve honestly yet to see a game where you shoot at anyone Western or coded as a Western ally as the primary antagonist. Would I rather that nobody knows this discomfort? Absolutely. But given that that’s clearly not the case and there’s plenty of shoot-brown-people-shooters ahead [then] why would there be limits on who can know this discomfort?"
Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin