April 20, 2004 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 171

Reactions in the Arab Media to 'The Passion of the Christ'

April 20, 2004 | By Aluma Dankowitz*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 171

Mel Gibson's film 'The Passion of the Christ,' now being screened in the Arab world, has become a hit among the Arab public, and among some Arab leaders. For example, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat called it "moving and historical," [1] and Lebanese President Emil Lahoud praised it as "an objective production … that relied on the scriptures of the New Testament." [2]

From an Islamic point of view, the film presents two fundamental problems: First, it depicts the crucifixion and death of Jesus. However, according to Islam, Jesus was neither murdered nor crucified but taken up to Heaven by Allah, and his "likeness" was crucified in his place. This "likeness" is identified variously as the Jew whom the Romans forced to help Jesus carry the cross, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus and handed him over to the Romans, or one of the apostles. [3] The Qur'an speaks of the Jews' opposition to Jesus and the apostles, but also states clearly that the Jews did not kill or crucify Him (Qur'an 4: 157-158).

The second problem with the film is that it actually portrays Jesus. Muslim jurisprudents prohibit the personification of the prophets and messengers in any physical medium, maintaining that mere mortals cannot rise to their level and therefore are incapable of properly portraying them.

Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, former president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), explained the Islamic attitude to the film: "I do not recommend Muslims to watch this film or any other film depicting the life of Allah's Prophets and certainly not those that are not based on authentic sources. We are not supposed to support or promote falsehood in the name of Allah and His Prophets and Messengers. The film 'The Passion of the Christ' is an exaggeration and dramatization of certain alleged events in the life of Jesus… The concept of his crucifixion is totally false. It never occurred… However, if someone has sound knowledge of Islam and wants to correct the misconceptions of others and for this reason wants to watch this film, he/she is allowed to do so. In general, we should discourage Muslims from watching this type of film." [4]

The following are reactions from throughout the Arab and Muslim world to 'The Passion of the Christ':

The Gospels were Falsified

Muhammad Mubarak Jum'a, columnist for the Bahraini daily Akhbar Al-Khaleej, tried to reconcile between the New Testament, that says that Jesus was crucified and actually died, and the Qur'an, that says that Jesus neither died nor was crucified but was borne away heavenwards by Allah. According to Jum'a, the four gospels existing today in the Christian world were forged to benefit the Christian clergy: "The story of the crucifixion of Christ and his death for the absolution [of man's sins] … gave the [Christian] clergy a compelling idea to plant in human minds, namely that there is an intermediary between man and his Creator and therefore sacrifices are necessary to obtain absolution. Many of them [the clergy] were able to exploit this idea to amass great fortunes…" [5]

The Film: 'A Courageous Challenge to the Jews' Power'

In the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, 'Adel Hamooda described the film in detail, emphasizing a number of points. "Not only did the film depict the last 12 hours in the life of Christ," he explains, "but it is a courageous challenge to the political, financial, and media power of the Jews, who have been successful in exonerating themselves of all the crimes that they committed everywhere throughout history, including washing their hands of Christ's blood…"

'Adel Hamooda explains that all the Jews supported the priests insofar as the crucifixion of Jesus, some openly and others silently. He then focused on the symbolism of the Devil in the film saying: "In every scene where the Devil is depicted, he appears behind Jews. He is not seen behind Judas Iscariot, or behind the Roman soldiers or their commanders. He appears only behind the priests and the murderous Jews. This is Mel Gibson's clear and courageous message that needs no explanation or interpretation." [6]

'If the Jews had Ultimate Control Over Hollywood [as We Claim], this Film would Not have been Produced'

Hani Naqshabandi, editor in chief of the Saudi family magazine Sayyidaty ,criticized the notion of the Jews' extraordinary powers: "The real irritation in the film is that it revealed a lie that we, the Arabs, tell ourselves everyday. This lie is that we are hated in the world because the Jews control Hollywood, the film industry, and the entertainment industry in America. We say that this control has distorted the Arabs' image everywhere, causing us to be hated by everyone. However, 'The Passion of the Christ' has revealed the exact opposite: It revealed that we are hated in the world because we hate each other and we don't know how to conduct our business… The Jews have nothing to do with it at all. They are innocent of the accusation of harming our image in the world… If the Jews had ultimate control over Hollywood and what happens there, as our fathers, grandfathers, writers, and books say, a film against them would not be produced by the hub of the world's film industry…"

"I am not saying that they [the Jews] have no impact or influence. They do indeed, but not as we think or claim, and not as we imagined when we accused the Jews, Hollywood, and the Zionist lobby here and there for our failure to communicate with others. This is not a defense of the Jews or a promotion for the film, but an attempt to reveal that we must stop accusing others for our mistakes… We shouldn't make Hollywood and the Jews the excuse for our backwardness. It goes deeper than that…" [7]

The Film – 'The Truth as It Is'

Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Butrus Safeer, of Lebanon, reacted emotionally to the film, saying: "It is a very painful and emotional film. It is not antisemitic, but depicts the truth as it is." He expressed his hope that "the sufferings of the Lebanese would join the torment of Christ in an expression of love and forgiveness, even at the most difficult, painful, and anguished of times." [8]

Palestinian Culture Ministry Director-General Ahmad Dahbour wrote in his column in the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida: "The hysterical concerns about antisemitism have finally reached Christ Himself. It has been a year since the Zionists started attacking the American [sic] movie star Mel Gibson because he produced a new film about Christ. And although the pope himself screened the film and endorsed it by saying that it contained nothing contradicting the life of Jesus, the Zionist campaign intensified even further and reached the point of accusing all Europe of antisemitism, or more accurately of escalating antisemitism…

"Why do the Israeli critics fabricate the myth that the agony of Christ is intended to inflame hatred and anti-Semitism…? Isn't this Zionist incitement claim about the existence of antisemitism an abhorrent racist extortion by the same people who claim that they are victims of racism?" [9]

Former Al-Hayat Editor: 'Sharon, not Mel Gibson, Should be Condemned'

Columnist Jihad Al-Khazen, the former editor of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, wrote in the paper: "I might have accepted the position of many rabbis in the world [who criticized the film] if they had expressed any kind of pain over the suffering of the Palestinians in their struggle against the murderer Ariel Sharon. In the Gospel According to Matthew, the high priest Caiaphas tells the Roman governor Pilate: 'Kill him and his blood will be upon us and upon our children'… I think that Sharon is another Caiaphas and that he – not Mel Gibson – should be condemned." [10]

Various writers and public figures compared Jesus's suffering to the suffering of the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians. Arafat's media advisor Nabil Abu Rudeina, who saw the film together with Arafat, stated, "The Palestinians are still being exposed to the kind of pain to which Jesus was exposed during his crucifixion." [11]

Egyptian author and journalist Anis Mansour wrote in his daily column in Al-Ahram : "The path of agony on which Christ carried his cross to the top of the hill of Golgotha was not a path on which only Christ Himself suffered. Millions of Christians and non-Christians are suffering today on this path. They saw and will in the future see this sad behavior of torment, injustice, hatred, and malicious joy…" [12]

In an article titled 'The Torment of Christ and the Torment of the Region,' Dr. Turki Saqr wrote in the Syrian government daily Teshreen: "Those who accuse Mel Gibson of antisemitism think that his shedding light on the role of the high priest in the persecution of Christ and his mission, including his execution, may reignite hatred of the Jews… However, what is more worrisome in this film to the Zionist movements are the scenes that may highlight the similarity between the tortures inflicted on the Palestinian Eastern Christ [i.e., Yasser Arafat] as a result of Jewish incitement, and the tortures the Palestinians are suffering at the hands of the Israeli occupation soldiers – especially since the Zionist media have been trying to mislead American and Western public opinion by depicting Israel as peace-loving and the Muslim or Christian Palestinian as a hateful murdering terrorist…" [13]

'The Palestinian Intifada is Nothing but a Return to the Intifada of Christ By His Sons'

In another article in Teshreen , Nasser Shamali says: "There is discussion in some world capitals whether the film is antisemitic (i.e. anti-Jewish) and whether it contradicts the modern-day exoneration of Jews from the crime of spilling sacred blood. This is a bizarre and impertinent discussion, because it had been better if the film had depicted the ongoing torments and sufferings of the sons of Christ, especially in Palestine where he preached. They are crucified every day at the hands of the American and Jewish-Zionist executioners. Even suckling babes are not safe from crucifixion…

"What kind of exoneration are these criminals, who continue to shed sacred blood, talking about?... Now the Iraqi people are facing the same ordeal and walking the same Via Dolorosa. [This means] that the carnivorous beast does not always come from among the Jews – otherwise, how could we classify people like Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheney, if we did not classify them as Zionists? What is the torment of Christ if not the anguish of his sons?... The lesson that we are learning from reexamining the sufferings of Christ must make us [sympathize] with his tormented sons regardless of their color and creed, against the carnivorous beasts regardless of their color and creed. What is the story of the life of Christ if not the story of the Palestinian Intifada against oppression and corruption, and against the oppressor and the corrupt? The Palestinian Intifada is nothing but a return to the Intifada of Christ by his sons…" [14]

Al-Misseiri: 'Antisemitism Actually Helps the Zionist Project'

Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly reports: "I'm sure some Arab members of the audience identify the suffering of the Christ in the film with that of the Palestinians now," said Abdel-Wahab Al-Misseiri, professor of comparative literature and author of many works on Zionism and Jewish thought. However, "Al-Misseiri finds that those who believe the film incites hatred against the Jews and thus serves the Palestinian issue 'are completely mistaken,' unaware of the fact that 'Israel is a non-Jewish, secular, and colonial state.' According to Al-Misseiri, antisemitism actually helps the Zionist project, because the more the Jews are hated in the world the more they will be driven to establish an exclusively Jewish colonial state in Palestine and other Arab lands." [15]

Qatar is an Oasis of Freedom of Expression – However, the Ministry of Islamic Affair's Silence Might Be Interpreted as Acceptance of the Erroneous [Christian] Version of The Crucifixion

The film has stirred religious controversy in Kuwait, where the authorities have not yet decided whether to approve its screening. While the Sunni majority in the country opposes the film because parts of it contradict the Muslim faith, the Shi'ites are calling for showing it. Kuwait's leading Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir Al-Muhri said there was nothing wrong with showing the film. He argued, "It's a good opportunity to reveal the crimes committed by Jews against the Christ and many other prophets." [16]

In the Gulf region, the film was first released in Qatar. Qatari Film Company director Abd Al-Rahman Muhssin said that showing the film proved that "Qatar has in fact become an oasis of freedom and expression of dissenting opinions, and one of the most important cultural centers in the Arab world…" He said that "the film will create a positive discussion in an atmosphere of tolerance and dealing with others' opinions in a civil manner…"

He added, "Again, here is evidence that the Zionist lobby is racist. It is alienated from all others who – according to the Zionist culture – are called goyim [Gentiles] and are considered inferior to the Jews. This is the reason that [Zionist] groups campaigned against the film and claimed that it was intended to inflame antisemitic tendencies. The film does not depict Judaism or all Jews as responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, but accuses a group of extremists among the Jewish rabbis. Proof of this is that the film depicts more than one Jewish character identifying with Christ. Furthermore, the actress who portrays the Virgin Mary is of Jewish descent."

As to the conflict between Christianity and Islam with regard to Jesus's crucifixion and death, Abd Al-Rahman Muhssin believes that "seeing the film, with its Christian point of view, will not affect the faith of any Muslim. On the contrary; the film may prove the Islamic point of view, since some of the scenes in it raise doubts regarding the death of Jesus on the cross." [17]

The editor of the Qatari daily Al-Watan,Ahmad Ali, praised the "openness policy" of Qatari Prince Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa, saying: "A few years ago, a Qatari intellectual interested in controversial international art forms such as this one hoped at best to be able to travel abroad and see films in Europe, or to get them on videotape months after their screening in movie theatres had ended, in order to watch them at home, away from the scrutiny of others.

"Today we can see the most important artistic creations in the world ahead of the rest of the Arabs, or even the Europeans… The showing of the film in Qatar is a step [forward] in the policy of cultural openness and in religious tolerance in our country. However, we are interested in hearing the other viewpoint, that of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs… because the ministry's silence in regard to showing the film in Qatar might be interpreted as acceptance of the erroneous [Christian] version of the crucifixion of Jesus." [18]

* Aluma Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 21, 2004.

[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 10, 2004.

[3] See entry on 'Isa in The Encyclopedia of Islam (Second Edition), Vol. IV, pp. 83-84.

[4], April 15, 2004.

[5] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), March 3, 2004.

[6] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 20, 2004.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 13, 2004.

[8] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), March 6, 2004.

[9] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), February 29, 2004.

[10] Al-Hayat (London), March 3, 2004.

[11] Palestinian National Authority State Information Service, March 21, 2004.

[12] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 29, 2004.

[13] Teshreen (Syria), March 22, 2004.

[14] Teshreen (Syria), March 23, 2004.

[15] Al-Ahram Weekly, April 15, 2004.

[16] AFP, March 29, 2004.

[17] Al-Watan (Qatar), March 23, 2004.

[18] Al-Watan (Qatar) March 22, 2004.

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