East and WestA new wave of openness?The Passion raises important questions [Archives:2004/726/Opinion]

April 5 2004

By Jamil Abdul Karim
[email protected]

Okay, let's not be totally surprised that Jesus is popular outside the West. He did, after all, live in the Middle East. But after its big splash in North America, which put it on track to be the biggest-selling movie ever, did anyone expect Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ to be breaking movie records across much of the Middle East?
In Lebanon, a record 58,000 recently watched its first weekend, 80 per cent of all theatre admissions for the week. Then it opened in Jordon to best-ever crowds. And in Syria, which has a Christian population of just five per cent, The Passion has been seen by more people than any other movie ever.
In Qatar, the first Middle East country to open the show, one viewer noted, “The Muslims sitting around us were being moved – gasping, crying and reacting with disgust to the brutality that Jesus faced.”
More than a prophet?
It's all very interesting because, of course, we know the orthodox Islamic view that Jesus was a simply a prophet. Yes, a unique prophet. So unique He will someday return to judge the world. So special, some Muslims call Jesus the “Nur” or “Light” of the world.
But we know that Islam teaches that Mohammed, not Jesus, is God's final and most noteworthy prophet.
We know that Islam also teaches that Jesus was not crucified, in part because God would not allow His own to be so brutally dishonoured. Yes, Christians simply have both their theology and history wrong. There was no cross, no resurrection, no atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of your sins and mine.
Further, we know that in much of the Muslims world, it's apostasy to leave the Islamic faith, severely punishable at times, especially for the sake of preserving honour of one's state or family.
Scrambling to the movie
So why, this Easter season, are so many Muslims scrambling to a movie that contradicts their core religious tenets? Why, on the streets of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for example, were bootlegged copies of The Passion selling like hotcakes weeks before its North American release?
One theory is that if the movie is anti-Semitic, Muslims want to spread some good Jew-bashing. I don't buy it. It seems to me that most Muslims are angry more over modern Israel's politics rather than the historic Jewish faith as such.
Closer to the truth may be that now, when it's more politically unpopular to repress your people, some Islamic governments are welcoming The Passion into their countries to show how tolerant they are.
Another explanation is that everyday folks across the Islamic world are simply curious about a show of one of their prophets. Bonus that it's not in English, which some equate with Western cultural imperialism.
Changing technology
Whatever their motives, while watching this poignant movie, viewers are also being prodded to ask if what they're seeing, the Easter story, is indeed true or not, and what that may mean for their lives. That's interesting.
Interesting to observe also, is how it's getting harder to restrict the free flow of information due to changing technology. True, while tens of thousands of Middle Easterners will see The Passion across the region, Yemenis won't watch simply because they have no Cineplexes. Not yet. But good theaters will someday come here.
I doubt many pirated copies of The Passion will filter in from outside the country because Yemen's censors do a generally good job keeping what they want out. For now. But what happens when Yemen's internet speeds – which they will someday – get fast enough to download movies right onto computers here?
No, you can't help but wonder if folks trying to put a lid on things like this are not in a losing battle. People who are hungry for information, religious or otherwise, generally find ways of getting it.
A rushing stream
And sooner or later, truth, whatever it may be, has a way of rising to the surface. History proves that. Like a rushing stream, change is inevitable. Sometimes in ways we least expect.
If nothing else, this is what The Passion phenomena shows. Yemen may be outside its swirling vortex. But people are not blind to what's happening around them. Which is why in the end, the most politically-astute policy anyone can have anywhere is to simply be open about things.
Give people the straight goods. Let them make up their own minds, even if they disagree with you. In the end, you'll earn their trust. In the long run, that brings nothing but good things. Not the least of which is real hope.

Jamil Abdul Karim ([email protected]) is a Yemen Times editor.