I recently started rewatching Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and as the series is nearing its end again, I got to thinking about how it handles religion. The show does have some motifs in it that I would consider to be similar to Abrahamic religions—such as the monotheistic faith of Ishvala and Scar wearing a giant cross on his leg during his crusade—but for the most part, I would argue that any of the religions in the story are not representative of certain faiths. It’s hard for me to say whether or not Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has good religious representation, because while the story has numerous religious elements, it’s not all that concerned with exploring or developing its different faiths. Instead, the narrative is much more focused on exploring the realities of and condemning religious discrimination.
Spoilers for the anime below the cut!
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood takes place in an entirely fictional world, but many of its conflicts and settings are based on real-world people. The country Amestris, our main country, is a 1920s-esque version of Germany that has more or less been war-torn for centuries. Over the years, Amestris has attacked smaller outlying countries and peoples in order to annex them, and one such place was Ishval. The Ishvalans are a nomadic group of desert people who worship Ishvala, the earth god, as their one true god and creator of all. Out of all the different people we meet, the Ishvalans are the most religious, and their religiosity sets them apart from the rest of Amestris.
People in Amestris practice alchemy, the art of turning one thing into another through a process known as equivalent exchange. While alchemy is based on science—you cannot create something from nothing, and you have to know all the materials you are working with and what they can be broken down into—it is more or less just a limited version of magic. The Ishvalans, however, reject alchemy as being a sin against their god, since they believe that Ishvala is the creator of all things and that alchemy perverts his creations. As such, Amestris and Ishval ended up with a rather tense and bloody relationship due to both religious and cultural differences. This eventually culminated in the Ishval Civil War, when the Führer King of Amestris ordered the Ishvalans eradicated. When the war ended, Ishval was completely uninhabitable and all the surviving Ishvalans, the few that there were, ended up living in slums and became less than even second-class citizens. While in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood the eradication of Ishvalans has very little to do with their religion and has more to do with using them for the purpose of human transmutation, the Ishvalan religiosity is hard not to notice. And it’s their religious and cultural differences that allow the Führer King to justify their genocide, since those differences helped escalate the conflict between the two peoples. The massacre allows a nationwide human transmutation circle to be completed, and many Ishvalans themselves are experimented on and used as ingredients in order to make philosopher’s stones—an alchemical rock that forgoes the rules of equivalent exchange by using human souls.
There is a lot of debate over which group of real-life people the Ishvalans are based on, since the world of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is not a one-to-one allegorical depiction of our own. Race and racial discrimination is a huge part of the story, and the Ishvalans themselves don’t exactly look like a real group of people. Most of them have dark skin and white hair, but they also all have red eyes. Since the anime is part of Japanese media and based on a manga by Hiromu Arakawa, it’s entirely possible that the Ishvalans are based in part on the Burakumin people. Or that they were based on the Ainu people. The Ainu are an indigenous people who live in northern Japan (Hokkaido) and Russia. Like the Ishvalans compared to the rest of Amestris, the Ainu people had a vastly different culture compared to the rest of Japan. This also led to several wars since the Muramachi period, and today, it’s possible that less than one hundred Ainu speakers remain. Some experts believe that there might be as few as fifteen.
However, from a Western perspective, it’s very easy to compare the people of Ishval and their conflicts with Muslims and the wars in the Middle East. Aesthetically, the people of Ishval have a lot in common with Muslims, from the religious belief of one god who created all things to the way they dress.
While rewatching the series, the impression I was left with was that the Ishval Civil War was a combination of America’s conflict with the Middle East and the Holocaust. The Führer King and his allies call Christianity to mind. The king has six siblings, and not only are all of them artificial human beings created through alchemy and the harvesting of human souls, the seven siblings are also named after the seven deadly sins from Catholicism—Wrath, Greed, Gluttony, Pride, Envy, Lust, and Sloth—and their creator is literally called Father, who made them in his own image. Their treatment of the Ishvalans is dehumanizing, and due to the genocide, the Ishvalan Scar turns to terrorism to get justice for his people. Using alchemy in order to break matter down, but not to rebuild, Scar goes on a crusade supposedly justified by his god to murder every state alchemist he can find, regardless of whether or not those alchemists participated in his people’s massacre. Scar, however, is not representative of the remaining Ishvalans as a whole, and the few other Ishvalans we do meet condemn his actions.
In terms of the Holocaust, the comparison is a hard one to miss, especially considering that Amestris is based on an early 1900s Germany and that the genocide takes place against a nomadic and religious group of people. This becomes even more noticeable in the visuals during the genocide. The color palette emphasizes the Amestrians’ blond hair and blue eyes and presents them as very Nazi-esque. Another direct parallel to this conflict was the allowing of human experimentation on the Ishvalans, just as the Nazis experimented on Jewish people.
While we in the audience know the real reasons why the Ishval Civil War was started, the way the Führer King justifies it to the rest of Amestris is never fully explained. We know that there were rising tensions between both Amestrians and Ishvalans due to cultural and religious differences—the Ishvalan taboo of alchemy is a pretty big issue—but we never get to see those differences pre-war or understand how exactly the Ishvalans were dehumanized in public perceptions in order to allow such a blatant disregard for human life to take place.
Hitler believed in white supremacy and that Aryan features like blond hair and blue eyes were superior. He was obsessed with blood purity and thought the mixing of cultures was abhorrent. He also disliked religion and religious groups. He shared all these views with the German public and used these beliefs to justify murdering multiple groups of people for cultural, physical, mental, sexual, and religious differences. One of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood’s major themes is exploring discrimination, and what happened to the Ishvalans is a direct parallel to religious discrimination. But while the story does a really good job exploring what happened to the remaining Ishvalans after the genocide and the fallout of the Führer King’s actions, it doesn’t do a very good job talking about what led up to that moment. I full-heartedly believe that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a really great story that has a lot to say about religious discrimination, but better explaining the conflict between Amestris and Ishval is something that the narrative could have improved upon. Yet even though Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood isn’t 100% perfect when it comes to this issue, it still brings up a lot of really good points and doesn’t hesitate to show just how devastating discrimination can be, and that is a really great message for an audience.