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SANA’A, YEMEN – Okay, let’s not be totally surprised that Jesus wields power outside the West. He did, after all, live in the Middle East. But after its big splash in North America, did anyone — I mean anyone — expect The Passion of the Christ to be allowed in the Islamic Middle East, let alone break movie records here?
In Lebanon, a record 58,000 people recently watched its first weekend, 80 per cent of all theatre admissions for the week. Then it opened in Jordan to best-ever crowds. And in Syria, a police state with 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, a Christian viewer noted, “the Muslims sitting around us were being moved — gasping, crying and reacting with disgust to the brutality that Jesus faced.”
You have to live on this side of the world to understand how incredibly bizarre this is. Consider the orthodox Islamic view that Jesus was just another prophet. Yes, a unique prophet. So unique He will someday return to judge the world. So special, He’s the “nur” or “light” of the world. But according to Islam, Mohammed, not Jesus, is God’s final and most noteworthy prophet.
Muslims also deny that Jesus was crucified. Why? Because God would not allow His own to be so brutally dishonoured. Muslims maintain Christians simply have both their theology and history wrong. No cross, no resurrection, no atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of your sins and mine.
Further, for many Muslims, it’s a transgression to leave the faith, severely punishable, even by death, if not by the state then by family wanting to preserve that all-important honour. No surprise, in places such as Yemen, it’s illegal for nationals to have Bibles. The Gideons just don’t leave them in hotel rooms here.
Okay, that’s what we know. So why are so many Muslims scrambling to see a movie that contradicts their core and cherished 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. Closer to the truth may be that now, when it’s more politically unpopular to repress your people, Islamic governments are allowing the movie 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.
Whatever their motives, though, one can’t help but think that, while sitting in front of such a poignant movie, viewers are also being prodded by some basic life questions, namely, “If the story of Easter is true, what does it all mean for me?”
Interestingly, technology also has a role in this affair. Yemen, the poor cousin of the region, is a 99-per-cent Muslim state. But few people will see the Passion here simply because there are no Cineplexes. A Muslim friend of mine notes, “They can’t keep it out. I can download it off the Internet. It might take three days, but I can do it.”
Pirated movies from outside the country are also easily had here. Street shops everywhere rent poor-quality movies dubbed onto CVDs. But Yemen’s censors generally do a good job keeping out what they want to.
I know of one government official who sits in small, dark room all day, opening folks’ personal mail. He has confiscated cartoon videos showing Jesus (Islam prohibits any artistic depiction of prophets), home videos of children’s christenings, bottles of wine, “anti-Islamic” movies such as True Lies, and Nintendo games.
Still, in the end, efforts to suppress truly revolutionary ideas always do seem hopelessly useless. History proves that. Change, like a rushing stream, is inevitable — sometimes in ways we least expect.
If nothing else, this is what the Passion phenomena shows. Interesting, we’re in the midst of its swirling vortex.