‘Passion’ Stirring Controversy Among Middle East Muslims

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published April 02, 2004, issue of April 02, 2004.
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Just when you thought the issue had faded from view, Mel Gibson’s controversial film about the torture and death of Jesus again is causing conflict, this time in Arab Muslim countries.

Again, the dispute revolves around the film’s depiction of Jews.

As it did in the United States, Gibson’s bloody hit “The Passion of the Christ” has sparked a religious dispute, in this case between clerics from the Sunni and Shi’ite Islamic denominations in Kuwait.

Kuwait’s leading Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Muhri, has asked government censors to approve the film, despite a state law forbidding Muslims from viewing scenes or images depicting Islam’s holiest figures, such as Muhammad, Moses and Jesus.

“It’s a good opportunity to reveal the crimes committed by Jews against the Christ and many other (religious) prophets,’’ Muhri said of the film, according to press reports.

In response, Kuwait’s leading Sunni scholar on Monday issued a fatwa, or religious edict, banning the movie because it portrays Jesus’ image and contradicts Islam’s beliefs about the Jew from Nazareth, who Muslims believe was rescued from crucifixion by God.

The fatwa by Mohammed al-Tabtabai prohibits the film’s screening in any Muslim country and bars Muslims from watching it, according to Al-Jazeera, the Gulf-based television network.

The dispute has turned Gibson’s film into a dangerous religious and political football in a Muslim world seething with antisemitism, said Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University.

“In that atmosphere you are suddenly bringing along a film on Jesus, and what you are doing is giving ammunition to those people who say ‘the Jews are the enemy, the Jews are ruling the world,’” Ahmed, author of the new book “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” told the Forward on Tuesday.

Rabbi David Rosen, director of international interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told the Forward he thought that “anti-Jewish elements in the Muslim world would exploit this movie.”

But Gibson spokesman Alan Nierob said that the Hollywood star never anticipated a religious dispute among Islamic clerics.

“Nothing surprises me relating to this film,” Nierob told the Forward, noting the Gibson-directed epic is also breaking box office records in Latin America.

In Kuwait, the government historically has not permitted the screening of religion-oriented Christian films. Books and films are censored by the government’s information ministry, which at press time had not decided yet about Gibson’s movie.

But elsewhere in the Muslim world, government officials apparently gave special treatment to the film, which has set box office records since being released in the United States on February 25 amid front-page controversy over its graphic portrayal of Jesus’ torture and its negative depiction of Jews.

The movie has attracted big audiences in Damascus and Beirut, which have significant Christian populations.

The head of Lebanon’s Maronite church called the movie “very sad” and “extremely impressive,” adding, “we don’t see any antisemitism there.”

In Damascus, some viewers left the theatre in tears, according to Middle East Online.

One emotional touchstone for Syrians is that the actors speak Aramaic, the lingua franca of Judea 2,000 years ago and a language that can still be heard today in some Syrian towns such as Maalula and Saadnaya near Damascus.

In Qatar, the film is being screened three times a day in Doha after the country’s censorship committee unexpectedly approved it without any cuts.

Film distributor Abdulrahman Mohsen Al Mokadem told a local daily he was surprised the censors approved the film.

Responding to concerns by some Christian and Jewish leaders that the movie would fuel antisemitism around the world, Mokadem said:

“I think it’s a crazy idea and it’s a political thing that the Zionists have used to stop things they don’t like.”

One Syrian moviegoer said, “The fact that this film is being shown in the current Middle East context, which opposes Israel, explains part of its success.”

In Saudi Arabia, which forbids religious expression other than Islam, pirated DVD copies have been “selling like hotcakes” on the black market, according to Arab News.

In the United Arab Emirates, the movie was set to open March 31, having received clearance from the Ministry of Culture and Information, which was praised in an editorial in Gulf News for recognizing “artistic freedom.”

“The film is so close to the human condition in its depiction of betrayal, greed, falsehood, forgiveness and love,” the editorial stated.

Ahmed said Jews are justifiably concerned about Arab Muslims seeing the film and that a link to a political and antisemitic agenda is clear. “One cannot conceal that fact. The implicit message that the Jews did this to Jesus is very powerful and dangerous,” he said.

Yehudit Barsky, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Division on Middle East and International Terrorism, agreed: “This is classical Christian antisemitism being disguised as fuel for Muslim antisemitism in modern times.”

As if to confirm this opinion, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat saw the film during a private screening last week and declared it “historic and impressive,” arguing that it was not antisemitic.

One of Arafat’s closest aides, Nabil Abu Rudeneh, proclaimed: “The Palestinians are still daily exposed to the kind of pain Jesus was exposed to during his crucifixion.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the reaction confirms his months-long concern. “It’s sad that they are bending the rules to permit it,” Foxman said. “In the Arab world, it’s not a theological debate but a political decision to allow the masses to see Jews cast in a bad light. The fact that it was done in the West and comes out of Hollywood adds a certain imprimatur.”

Sarah Eltantawi, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, opposed censoring the film and called the religious controversy “silly” and anachronistic. But she acknowledged that Jews have legitimate concerns after being read the Kuwaiti cleric’s quote.

Ahmed, the Islamic studies professor, said the result of the movie being shown in Muslim countries will be that “the great gulf that exists between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East will continue to remain wide.”






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