With the rise in religious conflict and abuse in the past year, the UN reporting that islamophobic violence has risen to “alarming levels”  and a 589% increase in anti-semitic abuse, the intertwined relationship  between imperialism, violence, and religiosity has been the centre of discussion. Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two has had a timely release. Dune’s cast is full of colonisers, from the Harkonens to the Atreides, and even amongst the Fremen themselves, with imperial ecologist Liet-Keynes, an outsider “gone native” seeking to control the environment of Arrakis. Though the emperor himself gets little screen time, Bene Gesserit missionaries ensure the constant presence and encroachment of the empire. Dune’s emphasis on religion as a cornerstone of colonisation, and its unmistakable representation of major religions such as Islam and Christianity, makes its exploration of empire and oppression unlike any other Hollywood block-buster. As Paul’s grip on the Fremen grows greater and more sinister, the feeling of watching the ghosts of Christian missionaries in Africa and South America rising again becomes sickening.

 The author of Dune, Frank Herbert, draws on a number of religions and peoples to create his universe set 20,000 years in the future. The Fremen are descended from the Zensunni (worshippers of an amalgam of Sunni Islam, and Zen Buddhism), who had been persecuted by slavery and imperialism until they were ultimately forced onto Arrakis. In his creation of the Fremen, Herbert was asked by his editors to soften their “muslim flavour”. Their language uses “colloquial” Arabic, and Arabic terms pervade the books, though most of these have thus far been absent from the films. For example, the term “jihad”  is replaced by both “crusade” and “holy war” throughout. The Bene Gesserit are an organisation whose operations rely on mysticism. They further their own agenda first and foremost through political interference, and with their creation and dissemination of the Kwisatz Haderach, a male Bene Gesserit and messiah-like figure, so that they may use ‘belief in others to serve their own ends’. The Bene Gesserit, inspired by Herbert’s catholic aunts, wear headpieces similar to those of European Christians, and their terminology, such as “Kwisatz Haderach” is derived from Hebrew (“kefitzat haderach”). 

Through these apparent representations of Islam and Christianity, it has been generally believed that Dune stands as an allegory for Western imperialism in the Middle East, the ostensibly white Harkonens and Atreides being sent to Iraq– sorry, Arrakis to mine oil or “Spice”. In the films, however, despite the high-tech machinery and sleek stillsuits, their swordsmanship and feudal courts seem to call back to an older world of God, kings, and an imperial advance force of missionaries. These missionaries, the Bene Gesserit, and their artificial Messiah, Paul (a fittingly Christian name), finally allow for a conquest of Arrakis and near-complete control of its people through the dream of Paul bringing biblical “streams in the desert” and turning Arrakis into a supposed paradise.

Christian missionaries were key to imperialistic programmes, making conquest easier and cheaper by priming local populations through oppression, suppression, self-loathing, and fear, ultimately resulting in loss of identity and division. Leopald II of Belgium sent a letter to missionaries in the Congo in 1885 ordering them to ‘singularly insist on their total submission and obedience, avoid developing the spirit in the schools, teach students to read and not to reason’ along with a list of commands including ‘convert always the blacks by using the whip’, deceit and theft. Thus, the doors of the Congo were beaten and battered open for exploitation. The Bene Gesserit were similarly sent to Arrakis before the arrival of the Atreides, planting division among the Fremen through the dissemination of their prophecy, making them more susceptible to colonisation and infiltration by insisting that their messiah would be an off-worlder. Paul’s control of the Fremen and conquest of the desert (allowing for his control of Arrakis’ main natural resource, Spice) relies on the same identity erasure enacted by  Christian missionaries. He refuses to kill Stilgar in order to take his place as leader, disregarding centuries of Fremen ritual. His killing of Jamis not only emerges as a glorification of colonial violence,, but it exonerates the coloniser as he calls for Jamis’ surrender, before being ultimately forced to kill him by the Fremen who are presented as primitive, violent natives.

So while the similarities between Paul and the Bene Gesserit’s arrival on Arrakis, and the missionary colonialism of the 18th Century (and is, in ways, still active today) are unmistakable, why push this today? Hebert’s encouragement of political scepticism in Dune will be eternally relevant, but now more than ever, Dune’s analysis of religiosity is needed. Religion is not necessarily all bad. Aside from providing personal comfort, and hope. It can provide the fervour and urgency to protect one’s culture;  to provide faith in one’s success, as seen in Stilgar’s relationship with Paul. Or, as Chani points out, it breeds apathy, leaving only small groups of Fremen guerillas to disrupt Spice production and imperial activities; it sews division amongst otherwise united peoples, northerners and southerners, the sceptics and the fundamentalists, on Arrakis. Could the Fremen have seized power earlier, or even have resisted the Empire, if the Bene Gesserit missionaries had not infiltrated the Fremen identity? Would all the Fremen have been empowered, instead of the Fedaykin later being reduced to mere Atreides bodyguards, had the Bene Gesserit not sent Paul as a conduit of foreign influence? What cannot be questioned is that without the division caused by Paul and the missionaries, there could be no “holy war” on Arrakis if the colonisers did not insist on any claim to Arrakis.

Though Dune, a success story of missionary colonisation, commits its own crimes (subscribing to orientalist stereotypes), it is crucial in leading audiences to question two things: the legitimacy and influence of their political leaders, and whether religion deserves a role anywhere beyond the individual. Despite the potential beauty of religion and faith, with its creation of community, culture, and comfort, Dune reminds us that it may also be at the heart of violent illegitimate power, and the foundation of an empire.